Beltline deal on shaky ground

Mason pulls out of project

Negotiations have broken down between the city of Atlanta and mega-developer Wayne Mason, who with his son Keith owns five miles of the Beltline, a proposed 22-mile loop of transit and greenspace circling Atlanta.
Without the cooperation of the Masons, it is now unclear how the Beltline will take shape.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, whom the Masons retained as an attorney, says the deal dissolved Sept. 21, five days before the city’s Zoning Review Board was supposed to vote on an application to rezone much of the Masons’ 72-acre property. (City Council was expected to vote as early as next month.) The new zoning would have allowed a pair of 38- and 39-story towers overlooking Piedmont Park. In exchange for rezoning the towers and four other pockets of development stretching from Ansley Park to Old Fourth Ward, the Masons were going to give the city 43 acres of land for transit and greenspace for the Beltline.

But when it became apparent that the towers were not going to be green-lighted — despite the Masons’ willingness to shrink them to 26 stories — father and son bailed.

“Wayne Mason could have come in with no greenspace, no transit, nothing,” Barnes says. “If this deal had been offered to a mature city, one that is used to more intense development, they would have jumped at this deal.”

According to Barnes, the city made its own offer to the Masons on Sept. 19. City officials asked that the Masons turn over almost all of their 72 acres for greenspace. In exchange, the city would give the Masons transferable development rights for a string of properties that flank the Beltline. Barnes says the city estimated that the Masons could make $40 million to $100 million either by cashing in on the rights or selling them.

Barnes says the deal was too speculative. Why, he asks, would the Masons give up valuable land for rights to property — some of which the city does not yet own? Although the Masons bought the 72 acres for $25 million in late 2004, their zoning attorney, Hakim Hilliard, estimates that the property is now worth as much as $140 million.

Instead of entertaining the city’s offer, the Masons decided to withdraw their rezoning application — meaning that for now, the deal is dead.

Atlanta Planning Commissioner Steven Cover would not comment on the breakdown in negotiations, according to his spokeswoman, Keisha Davis. A statement released Sept. 21 by Mayor Shirley Franklin said, “The long-term project has been met over the past two years with obstacles along the way. But make no mistake, it will happen.”

Barnes says the Masons might be willing to sell the land but that “no other developer has come up here and bellied up to the bar and said, ‘I believe I’ll lay my money down here and do this.’ So our idea is, let’s see if somebody else comes.”

As for working something out with the city, “our phones are always open,” Barnes says.

“But even if someone calls and says, ‘Listen, let’s work this out,’ it’s got to be done where there’s a consistent desire to work something out and not just to be hostile to the whole project.”

There’s also the possibility that the city will attempt to take the land for the transit portion of the Beltline by eminent domain. “That’ll be a dogfight,” Hilliard, the Mason’s zoning attorney, says.

Barnes adds that eminent domain proceedings would be time-consuming and costly. “But if they want to take it, I’ll acknowledge service and we can go strike a jury. I still remember how to strike a jury.”

For some, news of the dissipating deal was cause for celebration. Neighbors of the proposed towers had expressed concern that the buildings, on the corner of 10 th Street and Monroe Drive, would bring too much traffic to the area and would cast an unpleasant shadow on the park. Neighborhood Planning Unit-F, which includes some of the area near the towers, voted against the zoning applications. And NPU-F Vice Chair Liz Coyle led a well-organized fight to preserve the city’s vision of the Beltline as a loop of linear parks.

“The Beltline is a public project, and the public is very clear and the city is clear on what the Beltline should be,” Coyle says. “Wayne [Mason] wanted to do his own plan. Is that a way to do a public project?

“I hope that he will finally decide to work with the city to resolve this so that we can get on with doing the Beltline as planned.”

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