ULI Atlanta #MemberSpotlight: Sharon Gay, Atlanta Managing Partner, Dentons
By: Colleen McNally, The Wilbert Group
We spoke with Sharon about navigating the legal side of complex land deals, her new role as Chair of the Livable Communities Council and the unique ways she serves as a steward of her own neighborhood.
They say home is where the heart is. Growing up in a little town in Northeast Alabama, Sharon Gay’s heart became fascinated with the urban environment.
“My parents always made sure to take us to new places, in addition to going to cities like Chattanooga, Birmingham and Huntsville,” said Gay. “While other people might go to the beach on vacation, we went to New York, San Francisco or D.C.”
Those experiences sparked a curiosity and passion that she’s carried with her throughout her life, albeit in some unexpected ways.
“When I was a kid, I would draw towns,” she said. She even briefly thought about becoming an architect. Instead, she graduated from Vanderbilt University and moved to Atlanta to attend law school at Emory University with the goal of studying public policy.
But make no mistake — as the Office Managing Partner in the Atlanta office of the world’s largest law firm, Gay is indeed an influential leader in shaping the city’s urban environment as we know it today. She has spent the past 20 years helping governments and businesses do business with one another, especially when it involves land use and zoning, tax allocation districts (TADs) and other economic development incentives, transportation, public-private partnerships and more.
This year, she is adding another impressive accolade to her resume: leading ULI Atlanta’s 50-member Livable Communities Council (LCC) as the 2021 – 2022 Chair. In this role, she will continue to advance regional conversations around the future of cities, responsible land use, and building inclusive and healthy communities. In 2021, the LCC will continue to focus on the role housing affordability plays in the Atlanta region and regional and cross-jurisdictional collaboration through the use of public incentives.
In the Zone
Among Gay’s exposure to vibrant cities across the county, she always had a special place in her heart for Atlanta. “My mother grew up in Atlanta,” she said. “My grandparents lived here and my father went to Tech — that’s how my parents met.”
Gay originally thought she would move to Washington D.C., but when she graduated from law school, politics weren’t right for the types of things she wanted to work on. So, she kept staying in Atlanta, and eventually decided she was more interested in local issues here.
“I realized you can see more of an impact when working on issues at the local level than at the federal level,” she said. “So I got more and more involved in local policy and politics, and particularly gravitated towards things around the built environment.”
Prior to joining Dentons (formerly McKenna Long & Aldridge) in 1999, Gay received a hands-on education in urban planning while working for the City of Atlanta as Deputy Chief of Staff and Executive Council to former Mayor Bill Campbell — particularly as the city was preparing to host the 1996 Olympics.
“I learned a lot about community development and urban redevelopment through [the Planning Commissioners’] eyes,” said Gay. “I learned zoning, planning and legal principles from planners, and from being on the ground, doing it.”
After a year serving as the Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Gay decided she was ready to go into private practice and beyond reasonable doubt, she knew where her focus would be.
Since then, she has played an instrumental role in a wide spectrum of projects ranging from major office, residential, retail, and mixed-use projects to the redevelopment of industrial properties and the creation and operation of community improvement districts (CIDs) and park conservancies. She has worked with both public sector and private sector clients to amend state legislation and local laws to facilitate economic development, brownfield redevelopment, CIDs, and water and wastewater privatization projects.
“I don’t develop, of course,” Gay said. “I just help people get approval or the financing needed to develop.”
And she’s really good at it. When a 138-acre, contaminated brownfield site was proposed to be redeveloped into Atlantic Station in 1999, Gay helped pioneer the use of TAD financing in Georgia.
From there, she assisted local governments and developers across the state to fund more than 30 projects through the use of TAD financing, ranging from projects near Centennial Olympic Park to Krog Street Market and Atlanta Housing Authority projects. Another notable project that comes to mind for Gay is Camp Creek MarketPlace in East Point.
“That was one of the most rewarding, because there had been no new retail or restaurant development in that part of town in decades,” said Gay. “North American Properties really leaned into convincing tenants that there was a retail market there, with enough people and customers, to make the project viable. I then assisted them in obtaining TAD funding, which was necessary to provide the infrastructure. As a friend of mine said, ‘I used to have to drive 15 miles to go to a bookstore, and now I just go right there.’ “
Walking the Walk
Several more of her projects dot the Atlanta BeltLine, and are only a short walk from Gay’s home in historic Inman Park. That means to solve intricate issues, her work often requires intense engagement with her intown neighbors.
In fact, she worked on Ponce City Market since the property was still known as City Hall East. “I was the person who went to [former Atlanta Mayor] Shirley Franklin’s team and asked, ‘Why don’t you sell it?’,” Gay said. Then, she not only represented the first team that bid but didn’t close, but also worked with Jamestown to close the deal.
“The property was being rezoned from industrial to a mixed-use project, and no one could quite imagine what it would be like,” Gay said. “When we first worked on the zoning in 2005, the neighborhoods were really concerned it was going to become a big box store and wanted to put restrictions on the sizes of the retail spaces.”
Although the property is located in Old Fourth Ward and designated by the Atlanta’s Department of City Planning as Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) M, it was also immediately adjacent to the boundaries of NPUs N, E and F — which required review and comment by each.
“Working through all the different land use committees, neighborhood associations meetings and NPU meetings would have added up to something like 35 meetings,” she said. “We went to the Planning Department and said, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’”
The Department worked with the city council members to put together a working group of representatives from each of the neighborhoods, who could then report back to their own groups about how the project was evolving. “So, we rejiggered the whole zoning process in a way that was actually more useful and meaningful for both the neighborhood groups and the developer — and didn’t make us all go insane,” said.
Less than a couple miles away, Gay was involved in the creation of Historic Fourth Ward Park as well as Edge on the BeltLine, a mixed-use development that straddles both sides of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail.
“The property was in two different neighborhoods, two different NPUs, five different zoning classifications including a historic district, and five different property owners, plus there was a transfer of development rights and the transit going through the middle of the project,” she said. “It was very complex, but the result is a great pinpoint on the BeltLine.”
One of her most recent projects is now delivering: the 17-acre mixed-use Madison Yards by Fuqua Development, located at the corner of Memorial Drive and Bill Kennedy Way in the BeltLine Overlay District.
“That one was very complicated to figure out where to put the trail and where the transit might go — therefore preserving the turn radius and transit alignment — and negotiating with GODT to not have the development look like a suburban shopping mall, but to treat it like an urban project in terms of where the sidewalks are located,” she said.
Turns out, being a good neighbor may be the trick to successfully navigating the negotiation process.
“At the Madison Yards, the Reynoldstown neighborhood leadership represented the neighborhood very well,” Gay said. “We also had a working group that met multiple times to hash out all the details of the development.”
One of those details is the name: “Madison Yards” was chosen by the neighborhood in honor of Madison Reynolds, Reynoldstown’s namesake and a prominent landowner who operated a store on nearby Wylie Street in the mid-1800s.
Filling in the Gaps
With lasting development principles in mind, Gay has also advocated for and assisted in the financing of affordable and mixed-income housing. She’s been a Board Chair of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, and an active member of ULI’s Atlanta chapter.
Gay has been involved with ULI for so many years, she can’t remember how she first connected with the organization. “I gradually became aware of ULI as a thought leader in quality development, and probably started reading some of the materials,” she said. But it was really when the Livable Communities Council (LCC) was formed in 2013 that she really got intertwined.
“At the time, there were several different initiatives focusing on similar things, so the decision was made to combine them all into the LCC,” she said. “Mark Toro helped found the Council and chaired it initially. I had worked with him and was invited to join.”
She has increasingly become a familiar face in ULI Atlanta, from serving on panels and attending Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) events to encouraging other lawyers at her firm to get involved and participate in opportunities such as the Center for Leadership.
“Nationally and globally, ULI is a great organization,” she said. “Here in Atlanta, it’s quite robust with good staff leadership and good leadership at the board level. We do some useful work.”
Thanks to people like Gay, “useful” is an understatement. With the support of fellow LCC members Marc Pollack, David Allman, John Goff and others, Gay chaired the Affordable Housing Task Force onset by the need to demystify why developers couldn’t build more affordably. The simple answer was that the math often doesn’t work. The working group commissioned a study by KB Advisory which has since informed major initiatives across the region, from HouseATL to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Metro Atlanta Housing Strategy.
“I asked the question, ‘What do we actually need?’,” she said. “Instead of just going with the standard percentages that the pre-existing federal programs have, what are the gaps? We looked at a five-county metro area because that is where 77% of the jobs are, and asked ‘what are the gaps among location and income level, and what we are actually solving for?’ The report lays out the housing need and then how we really get there.”
Despite her dedication to the cause, Gay said she was surprised to be selected as the new Chair for the LCC.
“I’m glad I wasn’t the first one,” Gay said with a laugh. “Now we’re established, we have a pattern and great staffing. I’m trying not to say something corny, like ‘I can stand on the shoulders of those who came before me,’ but we’ve had great leadership with a wide range of backgrounds. Each chair and co-chair has been different than the ones who came before them, so I feel like we’ve gotten a wide range of skill sets and professional backgrounds both in the council and the chairs.”
The LCC and its members seek to serve not only as thought leaders, but also as practice leaders of responsible development.
“In this moment, particularly of looking at the patterns of systemic racism that exist in Atlanta and throughout the country that were intentionally done around real estate — whether it’s redlining, VA loans only going to white families, exclusionary zoning, or redeveloping only poor Black neighborhoods but not others — our Council is resolved and intentional about focusing on things we can do in Atlanta to begin to address the effects of those decisions that were made 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago,” Gay said. “Because of the talent on the Council, we are well-suited to contribute something meaningful to that work.”
Being a steward of Atlanta real estate for the next generation isn’t just Gay’s day job, but also how she lives.
“I live in a crazy old house in Inman Park that was built in 1896, subdivided into apartments and condemned in 1970,” she said. “My husband and I bought it in 1985 just before we married, allegedly fully renovated, and have been renovating it ever since. The rewards and challenges of living in a historic home are part of what I spend my free time on.”
The home improvements began as a labor inspired by love — literally. She and her husband held their wedding reception at their new home. “We had just bought the house and had no furniture, but had a string quartet in the living room,” she said.
When the photographer took the bride and groom onto the front porch for photos, her heel went straight through the floor. “The wood had rotted and we had to rebuild the front porch,” she said. “That was our first project, when we got back from our honeymoon in France.“
After all, home is where the heart is.
In addition to the ongoing home repairs, she tends to her garden, is an enthusiastic home cook and enjoys spending time with her dogs. “My basset hounds and I like to take advantage of the outdoor urban amenities that are near us,” she said. “We are two blocks from Freedom Park and four blocks from the BeltLine, and none of those things existed when we bought our house.”
These amenities, along with the ample home office space, are things she’s especially grateful for during the past year. “I’m really glad we have a lot of space in this crazy old house,” she said. “We have multiple places from which to Zoom.”
At that moment, her dogs begin barking in the background of the call — signaling its time for Gay to log off and head out for their daily walk around the neighborhood.