Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms faces her biggest political test since she took office, with a City Council vote looming Monday on her proposal to provide up to $1.75 billion in public financing to help redevelop downtown’s Gulch.
At stake is a landmark development pitched as a possible home for Amazon’s second headquarters that could alter the city’s skyline. The land deal also factors into the city’s hunt for the home office of Fortune 500 railroad giant Norfolk Southern.
Critics of the plan fear the council is being rushed into a blockbuster Gulch incentive package that could cost taxpayers as much as $2 billion, and they contend its benefits don’t outweigh the costs.
Supporters say the financial risk is only on the developer, and tout the deal as a boon to both affordable housing and economic opportunity in the city.
There is also a new political climate in Atlanta, with a City Council boasting seven new members, that has shown an independent streak not seen under Bottoms’ predecessor, Kasim Reed.
A council vote in favor of the plan could catapult the Bottoms administration’s agenda.
“It would not be a good thing if she doesn’t get it,” said Clark Atlanta University political science professor Williams Boone. “She’s invested so much political capital into this.”
Few City Hall insiders dare handicap the outcome of a council vote. There are 15 district and citywide council members, meaning eight votes are required to pass the deal.
Councilman Howard Shook, who represents Buckhead, suggested Bottoms faces an uphill battle for votes.
“Ultimately, eight people are going to have to vote [to approve], and I don’t think we’re at that point,” Shook told Channel 2 Action News.
Nothing captured the stakes of the deal quite like a dramatic appearance Tuesday by Bottoms in a council committee meeting where she implored members to keep Gulch legislation moving forward.
Council members rebuked her in a largely symbolic vote, holding the bills in committee. A majority of the full council can still call the legislation for a vote on Monday.
Bottoms’ office did not say whether the mayor is confident she has the votes to approve the deal.
“Through our negotiations with the developer, we have a commitment of $28 million in an affordable housing trust fund, $2 million towards vocational training for Atlanta Public School students, and $12 million for citywide economic development,” Bottoms said in a statement, listing commitments made by developer CIM Group.
“Beyond the walls of this building, there are communities that can be dramatically transformed for the better if Council gets this right,” she said.
‘The true economic engine’
California-based CIM has proposed a $5 billion project downtown over the rail lines and parking lots between the Five Points MARTA station and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The development would rise not far from the site of the city’s founding, the Zero Milepost, which marked the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad.
CIM was founded by Richard Ressler, whose brother Tony Ressler is the lead owner of the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are also a partner in the project.
Downtown business boosters and Gov. Nathan Deal also have thrown support behind the project.
The Gulch has laid barren for decades because it’s a complex site. The downtown land is crisscrossed by freight and MARTA rail lines and sits 40 feet below street level.
CIM said a $500 million platform to create a dozen or more new city blocks is needed to facilitate redevelopment.
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To make the project financially feasible, the developers say they need a substantial portion of three decades of expected sales tax and property tax revenue created by the development to build the infrastructure necessary to serve the site and connect neighborhoods across downtown.
The developer has also committed to a minimum of 200 units of “workforce” housing, $12 million for a new fire station to service downtown and the Gulch area, and $5 million for a reconstructed Nelson Street bridge connecting Castleberry Hill to downtown. The project also will spin off revenue to support up to $125 million in bonds for redevelopment elsewhere on the city’s Westside.
Tony Ressler said in a recent interview the project will bring new vitality downtown, attracting tenants that will employ tens of thousands.
“We look at the Gulch as being the true economic engine of downtown,” Ressler said. “I think the world we live in people want to live, work and play downtown. All of this to us is a positive.”
‘Gonna give me your million?”
On Tuesday, Bottoms entered the committee hearing as council members prepared to hold legislation needed to approve the incentive deal.
Several council members said they felt rushed, and others questioned workforce training and affordable housing commitments they suggested fell far short of the public investment.
Bottoms stood at the lectern and called out council members, listing initiatives she shepherded that were important to them.
“So, the fact that this conversation has taken the tone and the turn it has taken today is quite frankly amazing to me,” Bottoms told council members. “Because from my seat as mayor not once have I turned a deaf ear to any of your concerns or any of your projects.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported Norfolk Southern has land in the Gulch it wants to sell to CIM. Separately, the Virginia-based railroad giant has scouted other locations in the Atlanta area.
Bottoms asked her colleagues to move the legislation along without recommendation. Instead, the committee held the matters and called for a work session to gather more information.
“We’re not saying no,” Councilwoman Natalyn Mosby Archibong said. “We’re saying we need a little more time.”
Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd said parts of her district, which includes Fort McPherson, are in dire need of the type of investment pitched for the Gulch.
The army post closed several years ago. Tyler Perry Studios bought most of the land and has hired many of her constituents, she said, but about 140 acres of the remaining former Army land stands underused.
At Thursday’s work session, Sheperd said four constituents asked her how her district would benefit if she supported the Gulch.
Peter Andrews, a lawyer representing the city, pointed to CIM’s $12 million economic development fund — $1 million for each council district — calling it a first.
“So, we should just be happy, right?” Sheperd said. “You could put $12 million and put it into one neighborhood [in my district] and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
She then turned to Shook: “Howard, you gonna give me your million?”
The deal also needs the blessing of Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County commissioners.
Councilman Amir Farokhi, who represents Old Fourth Ward, asked what would happen if one of those jurisdictions balks.
“This deal would be not be possible,” said Ralph Dickerson, a city finance executive.
Scope: Developer CIM Group proposes a project of $3.5 billion to $5 billion. The CIM plan could grow to more than 9 million square feet of office space, 1,000 residences, 1,500 hotel rooms and 1 million square feet of retail space.
Public investment: Documents obtained by the AJC show public financing of $900 million to $1.75 billion, though those figures could increase. The project would be funded by a portion of future sales taxes generated on site and bonds backed by expected future increases in property taxes.
What’s next: Several pieces of legislation pertaining to Gulch redevelopment are pending. Atlanta City Council could vote on a Gulch deal as soon as Monday.
A wrinkle in the deal
Railroad giant Norfolk Southern controls land in the Gulch needed for redevelopment of the 40-acre site. The Fortune 500 company, meanwhile, is also looking at Atlanta for a possible headquarters relocation. People familiar with the matter have said Norfolk Southern wants to consummate a sale of property to move forward with their relocation plans. The company is said to favor other sites in metro Atlanta, and not the Gulch project.