Atlanta mayor celebrates Gulch development victory

After Invest Atlanta’s board approved $40 million in bonds to help finance the redevelopment of 40 acres of weedy parking lots and railroad tracks in downtown, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Thursday took a moment to savor the most significant victory of her young administration.

“This is now our opportunity and we have seized the moment,” Bottoms said at the board meeting.

On Monday, the City Council voted 8-6 in favor of legislation that would help provide Los Angeles-based CIM Group with nearly $1.9 billion in public subsidies to redevelop the area known as the Gulch. The project is expected to permanently reshape the city's skyline.

The vote capped months of controversy. Bottoms' administration had to postpone a vote on the project three times because of a lack of council support.

Invest Atlanta’s approval of the bonds was the next hurdle the project had to clear.

Two of the six board members — Fred Smith and Nancy Meister — voted against moving the Gulch project forward.

Smith said the amount of public money being used to finance the $5 billion dollar project did not match up with the benefits the public will receive.

Meister, the vice chair of the Atlanta Board of Education, said that the schools’ had been left out of the negotiating process.

“We would love to see this go through but we would also love to have a seat at the table,” Meister said.

Bottoms bristled at the comment.

“APS took a position that made it impossible to partner with them,” the mayor said.

The initial plan called for extending a special taxing district known as a TAD — an area where property tax collections are frozen for a period of time, and future increases in tax collections from rising property value as the area redevelops are used to help pay for the development.

But the extension would have required approval from the Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County.

Last month, Atlanta’s schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen announced publicly that she wanted to renegotiate or eliminate her system’s participation in five other TADS as part of the negotiations for the Gulch.

Bottoms responded by releasing a revised plan, eliminating the proposed TAD extension.

The Gulch development will be the largest since Peachtree Center started in the 1960s. CIM proposes 18 parcels with at least nine skyscrapers of 225 feet or more in height, including one rising 500 feet or about 40 stories.

The plan also calls for 9 million square feet of office space, 1,000 residences, 1,500 hotel rooms and 1 million square feet of retail space.

Bottoms said the entire Gulch ordeal had taught her a lot, but that she was confident the city provided enough opportunity for public input into the project. She also said she would do some things differently.

"I wish that there had not been so many bumps along the way, but I think we are all better for it," she said. "For now, we are going to celebrate this win."