The Gulch transit project attracted connected firms

Cousins Properties and a team of other well-connected firms were chosen to develop a transit hub and “mini-city” downtown on Monday. The project is slated for the "Gulch," the forlorn tangle of railroads tracks and parking lots, mostly used by Falcons tailgaters and people headed to nearby attractions like Philips Arena and CNN Center.

The next day, Gov. Nathan Deal told downtown leaders, “The Gulch project is moving forward. I believe it will be an important part of our transportation system and put Georgians back to work.”

A day later, David Doss told fellow members of the Georgia Department of Transportation board, “I have been saying for months and months: This is a game-changer for the city of Atlanta and could be a new front door.”

Expectations are high for the Cousins team, which beat out two similarly connected firms to become the master planners of a grand central station downtown, which will be surrounded by green space, shops, homes and offices.

But progress might be measured in years -- even decades – and not in days or months. So football fans don’t need to cancel tailgating plans just yet. Before the first shovel hits the Gulch, the Cousins team must complete a master plan and then finds ways to fund it.

“Many in the real estate community, while hopeful and optimistic that this project will proceed, will not be surprised if it takes many years before an actual delivery of anything real in the Gulch,” said Ken Ashley, senior director with real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.

Selection process

Some viewed Cousins as the front-runner for the bid, due to its longtime connections to downtown. The firm also owns rights to develop atop parking decks near the proposed transit hub.

But the choice of the Cousins team was far from a "shoo-in," said DOT spokeswoman Vicki Gavalas.

On Monday, what the team won specifically is the right to negotiate a contract with DOT, including how much of the agency's $60 million seed money can be used for planning. If things don’t go well, the agency could go to the next qualified bidder, Gavalas said. Otherwise, the DOT board expects to vote in May and a contract could be in place by June. The Gulch project will be DOT’s largest public-private partnership to date, as well as one of the largest transit-oriented developments in the country.

Of the three teams that sought the project, the Cousins’ group offered the fewest details in its executive summary, the only part of the bid that so far has been made public.

Larry Gellerstedt, Cousins’ president and CEO, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week he thinks the lack of a specific vision was a strength of the proposal.

“How can you get specific about what that vision is that you’re creating without listening to stakeholders first?” he said. “We responded by giving a written vision statement and we spent a lot of time on it. They didn't ask that you give a picture of an iconic tower or anything like that. We've seen ... when you do that at the start, it can have a negative impact.”

The team led by Jacoby Development and The John Buck Co., took a different approach. They included renderings of a tall tower, a central station and a grassy plaza, all named Capital Center. Jacoby developed Atlantic Station and bought the former Ford plant in Hapeville. Buck, a Chicago firm, is well-connected there and nationally, with projects like the Sears tower makeover.

The team led by The Dawson Co., H.J. Russell Co. and Hines didn't include renderings, but discussed a vision for an “iconic” terminal building and tower. Dawson and Russell, both African-American owned firms, have developed in Atlanta, near MARTA stations and have served on local boards. Houston-based Hines developed 1180 Peachtree, the Midtown home of King & Spalding.

DOT’s Gavalas said the request for a master developer is a different process from bidding on a specific project. Qualifications to complete a project like a transit hub are the most important, she said.

Downtown connections

Cousins has taken a growing leadership role downtown. Its executives have led Central Atlanta Progress and other downtown groups after it moved its headquarters downtown from Cobb County. Experience includes developing the Omni Hotel and CNN Center near the Gulch.

The team includes The Integral Group, known for developing in Atlanta's blighted areas. Egbert Perry, the firm’s chairman and CEO, became CAP’s first African-American chairman, a two-year post, on Tuesday.

Law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge has long been one of the most politically connected in the city, with staff members who previously held positions with local, state or federal government.

Then there’s Forest City Enterprises, a major developer from Cleveland working on a project in Brooklyn near a transit station. The New York Times recently reported that a Brooklyn official accused of taking $1 million in bribes accepted money from a lobbyist once used by Forest City. Forest City no longer is working with that lobbyist, the story said.

The Gulch

To be sure, many questions remain about the proposed hub. Without a master plan, it is currently difficult to determine what the project will cost or what it will need in public or private dollars.

Next up, DOT is taking public comment on its website and will host a public meeting on March 30 for feedback on ideas presented by three bid teams, as well as general ideas for what the hub needs, Gavalas said. More public input will be sought as the master planning process gets underway, she said.

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