How can the city get the Beltline back on track?

Deal with influential developer dissolved

Now that negotiations have disintegrated between the city of Atlanta and the mega-developer who owns nearly a quarter of the Beltline, a proposed 22-mile loop of transit and greenspace circling intown Atlanta, the question is: What next?

Developer Wayne Mason and his son Keith have taken their parting shots at the city — an indication to some that the differences between the Masons, who advocated dense development flanking the Beltline, and Atlanta's Planning Department, which indicated it wants nearly all of the Masons' land for greenspace, are now irreconcilable.

The Masons had hoped to build a pair of 38- and 39-story towers overlooking Piedmont Park. In exchange for rezoning the property for 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 for transit and greenspace for the Beltline.

In a statement released last week, the Masons called the city's handling of the Beltline project, considered one of the most innovative transit and development plans in city history, "parochial." They described the city's offer to trade the Masons' land for transferable development rights on other parts of the Beltline as "highly speculative and untested." And they promised that as long as they own their five-mile stretch of the Beltline, a transit line there would be "unlikely."

Aside from a four-sentence statement from the mayor, city officials have been mostly mum.

"As far as I can tell, it's a pretty hostile relationship right now," says Mike Dobbins, former Atlanta Planning Commissioner and a professor at Georgia Tech's school of architecture. "I think Mr. Mason is somebody who is pretty much accustomed to doing things the way he had in mind to do them. He's not like developers who've functioned in Atlanta by finding creative paths interacting with neighborhoods. And it's been very effective for him. He takes the sort of straight-ahead path."

A source familiar with the failed negotiations, who requested anonymity in case the talks resume, says Mason could incur a more personal cost if he continues to play hardball: "Do you really want to be known as the guy who stopped the Beltline?"

Even if the city were to patch things up with the Masons to the point where it could make an offer on their quadrant of the Beltline, it's unclear whether the two parties could agree on a price. Though the Masons paid $25 million for their 72-acre, five-mile-long plot in 2004, the Masons' zoning attorney, Hakim Hilliard, now says the land is worth $2 million per acre — or $144 million. However, the city's July 2006 plan for the Beltline project allocates only $78 million for acquiring eight miles of the Beltline over the next five years — meaning the city's budget likely will fall far short of the Masons' asking price.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, whom the Masons have retained as an attorney, says that if the city attempts to take the Masons' land by eminent domain, "I'll acknowledge service and we can go strike a jury. I still remember how to strike a jury."

Dobbins says eminent domain proceedings are "absolutely the last thing to do." And he says the city hasn't exactly exhausted its alternatives.

According to Dobbins, even if the city and the Masons can't negotiate a price right now, the city could put the Mason deal on hold and do what could have prevented this mess in the first place: adopt clear zoning standards for the entire Beltline. That way, developers would know exactly what can be built on a particular parcel before they buy it. And perhaps by then, the Masons will have cooled off.

"I think there are options, and it's a time for creativity," Dobbins says. "It would be really nice to get public policy leading the charge instead of private speculation."

The Masons' deal with the city dissolved Sept. 21, five days before the Zoning Review Board was supposed to vote on an application to rezone much of the Masons' property. When it became apparent last week that the towers were not going to be green-lighted — despite the Masons' willingness to shrink them to 26 stories — father and son bailed. The Masons balked at the city's offer to instead give them the right to build units elsewhere on the Beltline, on land that neither the city nor the Masons own.

"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."

For some, news of the dissipating deal was cause for celebration. "The Beltline is a public project, and the public is very clear and the city is clear on what the Beltline should be," says Liz Coyle, who as vice chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit-F led a well-organized fight to preserve the city's vision of the Beltline as a loop of linear parks. "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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