Opinion - City Hall East a necessary compromise

When City Council bent the rules Nov. 1 and allowed the massive City Hall East redevelopment to follow more relaxed affordable housing requirements, two things became immediately clear.

First, local government and neighbors of the 2-million-square-foot building are more willing than ever to combat the crappy economy and kick-start crucial development along the Beltline, the proposed 22-mile parks and transit loop that skirts the property.

Second, the city's negotiation table has gotten considerably friendlier since the days of mega-developer Wayne Mason and his failed proposal for a pair of Beltline-flanking condo towers at 10th Street and Monroe Drive.

The Mason deal was the most ambitious development planned for the Beltline and, at least in retrospect, it was a pretty sweet deal for Atlanta. In exchange for the right to build 38- and 40-story towers, Mason was going to give the city a 4.5-mile stretch of Beltline right-of-way. In the end, though, the city balked at the notion of the towers. The deal fell apart in 2006, and the public later had to dish out a whopping $66 million for the right-of-way.

Of course, that was then — back when the economy seemed pretty OK, the housing market was growing (!) and a different mayoral administration was calling the shots.

Compromises are easier to come by now. And they should be.

Back in 2006, the city would've had a lot to gain if the powers-that-be had been willing to capitulate to Mason. While there's perhaps less to gain in the deal with Jamestown Properties for City Hall East — nothing along the lines of a guaranteed $66 million — there would be a helluva lot to lose if negotiations had fallen apart. Um, in case you haven't noticed, there's not exactly a line of developers forming at the door of City Hall East, the largest redevelopment deal in recent history and an ambitious investment even by 2006 standards.

And so ... the compromise.

The reasoning behind the affordable housing exception granted to City Hall East seems sound. By all accounts — even according to skeptics of the deal — the layout of the former Sears-Roebuck distribution center, built in the 1920s, makes it difficult to carve out apartments small enough to qualify as "affordable."

It's also worth noting that this doesn't appear to be a case of developer greed; the Beltline's affordable housing trust fund subsidizes units priced below market rate, meaning that developers aren't taking a sizable hit for selling or renting affordable units.

Still, the end result is that the condos and rental lofts that will fill City Hall East won't exactly be accessible to many of us.

Judging from current median-income levels, you'd have to make at least $40,100 to qualify for an "affordable" rental unit. (Before Council's compromise, you only had to earn $30,100.)

And while City Hall East will have a greater number of affordable rental units than mandated (20 percent as opposed to 15 percent), it will have fewer affordable units for sale (just 10 percent).

Everyone from Council members to Beltline policy wonks to concerned citizens have stated that the affordable housing exception offered to City Hall East should be just that — a one-time exception not to be offered to any other development. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the biggest mixed-use project to spring up along the Beltline so far. It's impossible not to set a precedent.

But that's a risk worth taking.

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