Protecting the Beltline

Did the city let the deal for the Beltline fall apart in order to save it?

It's been three weeks since the mega-developers who proposed two condo towers overlooking Piedmont Park decided to walk away from the deal, throwing a serious wrench in Atlanta's ambition to build a loop of transit and trails circling the city.

The indignant huff with which the developers, Wayne Mason and his son Keith, dropped the deal on Sept. 21 cast an unflattering light on the city. After all, the Masons had offered to give Atlanta a 43-acre, five-mile stretch of the Beltline, the proposed 22-mile project that city leaders believe has the power to redefine urban life in Atlanta. And the city, the Masons claimed, blew the deal.

"Wayne Mason could have come in and shown no greenspace, no transit, nothing," former Gov. Roy Barnes, the Masons' attorney, told CL shortly after the deal dissolved. "There was a whole package of concessions. We tried everything. But it was like talking to a wall."

The ensuing days of silence on the city's part only added to the overall impression that Atlanta had somehow taken a misstep. Even now, city officials have not made public any tangible strategy for obtaining the Masons' land — and that land must fall into the city's hands if it ever wants the vision of the Beltline to become reality.

But did the Beltline negotiations actually fall apart because the city screwed up? Or did the city have no choice but to turn the Masons down?

City officials and community groups now claim that months of intense effort to get the Masons to address what might have been fatal flaws in their plans went largely unacknowledged by the developers. Neither Barnes nor others in Masons team could be reached for this story.

Last fall, City Council passed a redevelopment plan that was a prerequisite for approving funding for the Beltline — and the plan, though flexible, calls for a Beltline flanked by trails and greenspace. (Development should be concentrated just beyond the greenspace, the plan says.) That's at odds with the Masons' proposal to build 3,000 units on 23 acres — an average of 130 units per acre — including 38- and 39-story towers literally over the Beltline.

What's more, the city's 15-year community development plan — which is the product of intense community feedback and is meant to guide the zoning department on applications such as the Masons' — calls for open space at the corner of Monroe Drive and 10th Street, where the towers were proposed.

"By rejecting something that didn't fit, especially when it was so heavily backed, the city sets a huge precedent for the way the entire Beltline planning could go," says Michelle Marcus, of the neighborhood coalition the Southside Beltline Alliance.

Although the Masons did reduce the density at several of their proposed sites, they remained far apart from what the city and community wanted in order to ensure that development wouldn't crowd the Beltline and further congest an already high-traffic intersection.

The Masons also have said they offered the city nine alternative plans for the Piedmont Park site, including one with 26-story towers. But the number of units at that site, 749, remained constant.

Yet the development company that was under contract with the Masons to build the towers, Trammel Crow, indicated to the city that it would be willing to build five-story structures at the site, containing just 300 units, according to Councilwoman Mary Norwood. "It was my understanding that Trammel Crow was ready to compromise," Norwood says. "When I met one-on-one with Trammel Crow, I understood from our conversations that they really understood the concerns of the community."

Liz Coyle, vice chairwoman of the Neighborhood Planning Unit that includes the neighborhoods next to the towers, says she is aware that attempts were made to decrease density. But no compromises as substantive as the one Norwood describes were ever presented to the neighborhood during several public meetings with the Masons' team.

Coyle, who organized the opposition to the towers and another dense development a few blocks north at Amsterdam Walk, says the city's counter-offer to the Masons — which precluded the towers and most of the Masons' other development proposals — signals an intent to build the Beltline with integrity.

"The city is committed to doing the Beltline," Coyle says. "And they're going to do it right. They're not going to kick off the Beltline with a bad deal that would have caused the neighborhoods to forever distrust the Beltline project."

Still, some argue the city's counter-offer to give the Masons the right to develop 2,000 units elsewhere along the Beltline in exchange for the Masons handing over almost all of their land was just too radical to make good business sense.

"The man has a right to the highest and best use of his land," says Councilman C.T. Martin. "My opinion is that he hasn't been treated respectfully. Who would take that deal?"

Others say the deal was fair — and that the Masons should have known the developments, as proposed, were never going to fly.

"I had no sense that the Council was ready to essentially enact spot zoning — zoning that was not in conformance with the redevelopment plan and this great vision that we had," Councilwoman Norwood says.

But even now, after Mayor Shirley Franklin has vowed, "the Beltline is bigger than any one individual, property owner, or development," city officials are hesitant to go on the attack — or even raise a defense — against the Masons.

"Everything that relates to the northeast [portion of the Beltline that Mason owns] is testy right now," says Tina Arbes, COO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., the agency responsible for planning and executing the Beltline. "At some point, there will be a more full discussion."

Mike Dobbins, former Atlanta Planning Commissioner and a professor of architecture and city planning at Georgia Tech, describes the Masons' negotiation style as a departure from how developers typically work with neighborhoods. Dobbins recalls the time that tension built among residents of Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park over two big developments on Highland Avenue. Then-Councilwoman Debi Starnes called for a "time-out" so that neighbors could air their grievances and developers could reconsider their plans.

"And what's interesting about that, and I think what's relevant to Mason, is that by taking that time-out, the outcome was that nobody was pissed off," Dobbins says. "The proposals that the developers then came forward with had been fully vetted, and the community played a significant role in shaping what ought to happen."

That's not to say that all neighbors opposed the Masons' plans, though.

"All of the developments [the Masons] came to us with were of a reasonable size," says Derek Matory, chairman of the NPU that covers Poncey-Highland and Old Fourth Ward. "The blanket statements that the Beltline should only be used for greenspace and for the right-of-way for the train tracks themselves, I just think that's not really smart use of the property. Along different sectors, there are different needs."

At this point, it appears that if the city wants the Masons' land for Beltline greenspace, it's going to have to make nice with them — or try to take the property by eminent domain.

The Masons have alleged the city doesn't have the funds to buy their property. But while Atlanta might not have the reserves on hand at the moment, it does have options.

The Trust for Public Land already has been buying land along the Beltline for the city, which then pays the nonprofit group back and turns the property into parkland or transit. TPL has helped the city buy some of the 190 acres that Atlanta already has purchased along the Beltline, according to Arbes.

What's more, the group Beltline Partnership Inc. is about to launch a private fund-raising campaign during which it hopes to raise at least $64 million in two years.

"The momentum hasn't diminished at all," says Valerie Wilson, president of the Beltline Partnership. "If anything, it's increased, because people want to make sure that the Beltline happens."

The city also could soon draw on money available through the Beltline's funding mechanism — a tax-allocation district that was approved last year by City Council, the Atlanta School Board and the Fulton County Commission. Over the next 25 years, the TAD is estimated to raise $1.6 billion to cover Beltline expenses. The city could have access to about $200 million of that within months, though some of that money would go toward outstanding obligations, such as the massive Bellwood quarry that the city bought from Fulton County earlier this year. The quarry flanks the Beltline and will be rebuilt as a massive new park.

It's worth noting that negotiations for the quarry very nearly fell apart — and that the mayor and Fulton County reached a temporary impasse before finally sealing the deal.

"Like with the quarry deal," Coyle says of the city's vow to acquire the Masons' land, "this will happen."