Downtown tug-of-war - March 28, 2017

Mayor Reed, Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association spar over Underground deal

The sale of Underground Atlanta to private developer WRS Real Estate Investments faces new challenges, with Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association (ADNA) threatening to sue each other.The tension between Reed's office and the ADNA has nearly halted the transaction, which has already faced major delays. When the deal was first announced in December 2014, WRS was optimistic the deal would be closed by mid-2015, and construction was expected to begin last year.Earlier this month, Reed spoke directly with concerned Downtown residents during the ADNA monthly meeting, trying to placate concerns surrounding Underground Atlantabs planned redevelopment as a mixed-use complex. bI understand that there may be some tension and some concern,b Reed told the crowd of about 50. bBut I would ask, respectfully, that you not have the city lose a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar opportunity.bOverall, residents expressed concerns about the lack of transparency and community input that has been present throughout the negotiations with WRS.bOur major concerns, I think from the beginning, was the issue with community involvement and notification, and thatbs been a centerpiece of our most recent discussions,b says ADNAbs attorney, Christopher Collier. This concern is echoed in a separate letter, sent from Derek Matory to the city of Atlanta a day before the ADNA meeting. Matory is the chairperson of NPU-M, which covers all of Downtown, and extends from the stadium to Old Fourth Ward.bSo far, the voices of citizens, including those of [NPU-M], have been completely and intentionally excluded from this process,b Matory wrote. He went on to ask the city to hold a public hearing, bso the public can finally have an opportunity to know what the real plans for Underground Atlanta are and have the chance to provide critical feedback on those plans prior to selling this City-owned asset.bDuring the ADNA meeting, residents also questioned Reed about the recently released plans from WRS that include a big-box store, as well as the addition of 2,000 new parking spaces Downtown.WRS, known for developing Walmart stores, has not made a favorable impression on many residents. The inclusion of a 90,000-square-foot grocery store stoked concerns that a large Walmart would be the centerpiece of the development. Reed quickly dismissed those concerns, telling residents, bI certainly would not do that in Underground Atlanta.bAs for the concerns about substantially increasing the amount of parking around the complex, one resident received applause after calling that portion of the plan ba mistake.bbI feel like I would be remiss if we did not discuss why would you put 2,000 parking spaces right in the hub of the most public, accessible, transit available in the city?b the resident asked. bFive Points Station is across the street.bReed revealed that there are ongoing negotiations with an unnamed retailer, one that will make residents bvery happyb b and that retailer is the source of the interest in all the parking spaces. bWithout me violating the rules regarding nondisclosure,b Reed said, bI think everybody in this room would applaud this retailer coming to Downtown.bReed pressed the point that as long as the threat of a lawsuit exists, the city is unable to get title insurance, leaving the deal at an effective standstill.The City offered ADNA a potential compromise, one they are still considering, as it will tie their hands and prevent further litigation. It includes commitments from Atlanta surrounding some of the concerns voiced by ADNA, as well as commitments to better include neighborhood voices going forward; however, as one resident pointed out, the City has broken these promises in the past.bWe were made a lot of promises about Fort McPherson, none of which really came to be true, and none of that was in writing. I just want to make sure that this actually is something that has legal ground,b the resident said.Collier reassured the crowd, ball of the concerns that we addressed b public access to the streets, the affordable housing, the NPU notification of major modification language b all of that is addressed in writing in an enforceable and identifiable way.bOne thing that has changed from earlier comments the City made is that WRS may, indeed, get public funds (to the tune of $12 million) now that WRS may be committing to including affordable housing units as part of the development.

ADNA is now considering whether or not to proceed with a lawsuit against the City b for violations of state law related to the process any sale of public lands must go through b or accepts the Citybs compromise.
UPDATE: The Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association has agreed not to sue the City of Atlanta, in exchange for a commitment from the City to increase community engagement. That commitment will be enshrined in a legally binding covenant that will be part of the sale of the property to WRS.

On advice of counsel, ADNA moved forward with a vote the same night as their March 14 meeting, waiving their own rules requiring public notice. They voted 5-4 to approve the agreement with the City.B

Kipling Dunlap, the President of ADNA, told CL: bPeople are upset. Ibll say, Ibm upset. I didnbt want to vote for the agreement, but I felt that it was the prudent thing. I believe that I can speak for the majority of the board members when I say that, this is a decision that we made with the understanding that we werenbt out of the game, we were just changing tactics.b

Dunlap also attended the March 16 meeting of the Downtown Development Authority of Invest Atlanta to go on record against the overall deal of Underground Atlanta to WRS. But the DDA ultimately approved WRSb conceptual plans for the historic districtbs redevelopment. Bill Bozarth was the lone vote against the resolution.

bThe ADNAbs idea now is to become the foremost authority on what those [covenant] restrictions are and a watchdog to maintain those agreements, make sure theybre enforced,b Dunlap shared. He added, bI would have liked to take more time, more public input, because in a way I am guilty of the thing that I criticize the city for doing, and thatbs entirely on me. But we didnbt arrive at the decision lightly.b