City, Gulch de­vel­oper in talks to re­vise deal

Changes may be needed to gain coun­cil sup­port; Mon­day vote un­cer­tain.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By J. Scott Trubey strubey@ajc.com

De­vel­oper CIM Group and the city of At­lanta are locked in 11th-hour ne­go­ti­a­tions on a pub­lic fi­nanc­ing pack­age to sup­port the $5 bil­lion project aimed at trans­form­ing down­town’s Gulch.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bot­toms has pushed for a City Coun­cil vote Mon­day on the cur­rent pro­posal, which calls for up to $1.75 bil­lion in pub­lic fi­nanc­ing. But that plan might have hit a wall. It ap­pears the mea­sure does not have the eight coun­cil votes needed to pass, and a Mon­day vote is doubt­ful, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter told The At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion.

Bot­toms has staked sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal on the Gulch project, which she says will trans­form a ne­glected area in the heart of down­town. But she was forced to shelve an ear­lier vote.

CIM and the city met for hours Thurs­day and Fri­day to hash out new terms. They dis­cussed ways to re­duce the over­all tax­payer con­tri­bu­tion and in­crease the pub­lic ben­e­fits, said three peo­ple who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause they aren’t au­tho­rized to com­ment.

The gulf be­tween the de­vel­oper and a ma­jor­ity of coun­cil isn’t wide, and it’s pos­si­ble a new agree­ment could come be­fore the coun­cil Mon­day, one per­son said.

But that would al­low lit­tle time for pub­lic vet­ting.

Bot­toms’ of­fice did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment, and CIM de­clined com­ment. Sev­eral coun­cil mem­bers said they haven’t been briefed on the talks.

“I’m cer­tainly un­der the im­pres­sion that talks have heated up in re­gards to po­ten­tial com­pro­mises, which would be nor­mal in the ap­proach to the 11th hour,” said Coun­cil­man Howard Shook, who rep­re­sents Buck­head and has sig­naled op­po­si­tion to the cur­rent pro­posal. “Where things stand, I don’t know. There’s a long time be­tween now and Mon­day af­ter­noon.”

CIM has pro­posed a mix of of­fice tow­ers, apart­ments, ho­tels and re­tail stretch­ing across 40 acres of weedy park­ing lots and rail beds be­tween the Five Points MARTA sta­tion and Mer­cedes-Benz Sta­dium.

The deal, as cur­rently struc­tured, re­lies on two sources of pub­lic funds. One source would be 5 cents of the 8.9-cent lo­cal sales tax col­lected within the con­fines of the de­vel­op­ment.

Four of those five pen­nies come from state dol­lars.

The other fund­ing stream would come from the West­side Tax Al­lo­ca­tion Dis­trict (TAD). A TAD is a zone where govern­ments freeze prop­erty tax col­lec­tions at cur­rent lev­els for a pe­riod of time and use fu­ture ex­pected in­creases in prop­erty val­ues over many years to fund in­fra­struc­ture and other im­prove­ments in that zone.

Un­der the pro­posal, the cur­rent TAD would be ex­tended un­til 2048.

At­lanta Pub­lic Schools and the Ful­ton County Com­mis­sion also must ap­prove as­pects of the deal as drafted. APS Su­per­in­ten­dent Me­ria Carstarphen has driven a hard bar­gain, say­ing the schools’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in five cur­rent TADs would need to be rene­go­ti­ated or elim­i­nated if the school dis­trict is to sup­port the Gulch.

CIM has agreed to a pub­lic ben­e­fits pack­age that in­cludes a $28 mil­lion in­vest­ment in a city­wide af­ford­able hous­ing trust fund, as well as set­ting aside the greater of 200 res­i­den­tial units or 20 per­cent of the to­tal built and putting $12 mil­lion in an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment fund.

The City Coun­cil ex­pressed reser­va­tions about for­go­ing three decades of sales and prop­erty tax rev­enues to be cre­ated on the site. Oth­ers worry about the po­ten­tial strain the new de­vel­op­ment would put on city re­sources.

Crit­ics say prom­ises of af­ford­able hous­ing and other pro­posed pub­lic ben­e­fits don’t match the sub­stan­tial tax­payer con­tri­bu­tion. And they say re­tail sales and new de­vel­op­ment that might oc­cur in other neigh­bor­hoods will in­stead hap­pen in the Gulch be­cause of the sales tax in­cen­tive and TAD, di­vert­ing rev­enue that the city needs.

A pro­posal to move for­ward with­out the TAD ex­ten­sion is said to have been dis­cussed, but CIM of­fi­cials have called that a non­starter.

Coun­cil­man An­dre Dick­ens, who holds a city­wide seat, said in a state­ment he wants Gulch de­vel­op­ment, but doesn’t sup­port the cur­rent deal and that ne­go­ti­a­tions should start over with more com­mu­nity in­put.

“One fact re­mains clear af­ter all these dis­cus­sions: There isn’t broad sup­port for the pro­posed deal,” he said.

Mar­shal­ing forces

Bot­toms has ral­lied busi­ness and civic lead­ers to pres­sure the coun­cil. The Metro At­lanta Cham­ber, down­town busi­ness al­liance Cen­tral At­lanta Progress, Gov. Nathan Deal and for­mer U.N. Am­bas­sador An­drew Young have each ex­pressed sup­port.

In a let­ter this week to the coun­cil, Young com­pared the Gulch pro­posal’s city-shap­ing po­ten­tial to At­lanta’s quest for the 1996 Sum­mer Olympic Games.

“There were those, in­clud­ing some cyn­i­cal voices in town, who doubted our bid to host the Olympic Games,” he wrote. “But then, just as now, I trusted in the great­ness of this city and in her peo­ple. At­lanta is a world­class city, but that priv­i­lege re­quires con­stant re-in­vest­ment and re-in­ven­tion.”

Pro­po­nents say the Gulch is a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity to stitch to­gether down­town neigh­bor­hoods and fill a void that sucks life out of down­town.

They say tax dol­lars that will be cre­ated by the project will help the de­vel­op­ment pay for it­self and spread the wealth to other com­mu­ni­ties through com­mit­ments to af­ford­able hous­ing, the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment fund and other perks.

Gulch al­lies have blan­keted At­lanta with ra­dio ads and robo­calls tout­ing the project as a risk-free deal for tax­pay­ers. The de­vel­oper and not the city is on the hook for bond debt if fu­ture tax rev­enues fall short, they say.

A web­site and so­cial me­dia blitz im­plores the City Coun­cil to “Green­light the Gulch.”

A.J. Robin­son, CEO of Cen­tral At­lanta Progress, said he re­mains hope­ful for a Mon­day vote.

“I think that it’s clear, since we’ve been at this as a com­mu­nity now for a month, a lot of folks are in­ter­ested in the project go­ing for­ward,” Robin­son said. “There’s lots of con­ver­sa­tion in these weeks about ben­e­fits of the project and how we get coun­cil folks on board.”

A coali­tion of crit­ics from Bankhead to Buck­head, mean­while, have ral­lied around the motto “Red­light the Gulch,” con­demn­ing the project as a tax­payer give­away. Op­po­nents have flooded coun­cil com­mit­tee meet­ings, can­vassed neigh­bor­hoods with leaflets and vis­ited bar­ber­shops, sa­lons and churches. The group planned meet­ings in south­west At­lanta this week­end.

Ju­lian Bene, a for­mer board mem­ber of In­vest At­lanta, the city’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment agency, urged coun­cil mem­bers to kill the Gulch pro­posal.

“There’s no Tooth Fairy here. This is money that nor­mally would go to the cof­fers to pay for streets and schools,” he said.

Tanya Wash­ing­ton, a Ge­or­gia State Uni­ver­sity law pro­fes­sor and Peo­plestown res­i­dent, said in a re­cent coun­cil com­mit­tee meet­ing that res­i­dents of the south­side have been told for years that in­cen­tives to big de­vel­op­ers would trickle down to them.

“It some­how never seems to trickle all the way down,” she said.

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