Mayor Kasim Reed still has six months to go in his final term, but his impact on downtown Atlanta is increasingly becoming clear.
The mayor has put his stamp on several major projects that could potentially reshape the heart of the city for decades, industry observers say.
Most visible is the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it also includes the redevelopment of the Turner Field area by Georgia State University and Atlanta-based developer Carter, Underground Atlanta by South Carolina-based WRS Real Estate Investments and a $192.5 million renovation of Philips Arena.
This deals are important because if the developments take off as proposed — Turner Field, for instance, could replace the acres of parking lots for Atlanta Braves games with shops, housing and restaurants — they could bring thousands of new residents downtown, boost the city’s convention and tourism business and possibly create the kind of after work foot traffic other cities enjoy but is missing from downtown Atlanta.
Critics acknowledge his successes, but say they’ve come at a cost. They charge that the mayor has steamrolled adversaries of his agenda, allowed the destruction of historic churches such as Friendship Baptist in his quest to strike the stadium deal with the Atlanta Falcons and cut the community out of discussions about the projects.
“The biggest challenge has been the sale of city-owned assets without community input,” said Cathy Woolard, a Reed critic and candidate to succeed him as Atlanta’s next mayor. “I think City Hall should be open to hearing from people about what they want in their community.”
Others, however, think Reed has set downtown on a much needed course change.
“There are a lot of seeds that have been planted during this administration,” said A.J. Robinson, president of downtown development group Central Atlanta Progress. “He has pushed a lot of big projects out the door that the city was struggling to carry out.”
There could be more to add. Reed Monday teased the announcement of a billion-dollar development for downtown that is a direct result of the Philips renovation. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Thursday that the Atlanta Hawks and partners are negotiating to take control of parcels near Philips Arena for a future mixed-use development that would echo what the Braves built at SunTrust Park.)
The mayor has also boasted that under his watch he has broken ground on a Hard Rock Hotel in Castleberry Hill, spurred the $96 million, 438-unit Post Centennial Park residential project on Centennial Park Drive and re-introduced the streetcar concept back to Atlanta.
But the Atlanta Streetcar has also been controversial, suffering from low ridership, a government audit that found 66 safety and maintenance violations and criticism that its 2.7 mile trek through downtown doesn’t reach many people. The state Department of Transportation has since said the city has fixed the 66 problems cited.
Reed has pushed back hard against critics. He said finding buyers interested in Underground was difficult and that letting Turner Field languish after the Braves left was not acceptable.
Last week’s Atlanta City Council meeting seemed to particularly vex him when several members of the public complained of plans to use some of the proceeds from the $30 million sale of Turner Field for the Philips renovation. Why, they asked, wasn’t the money staying in the Summerhill or Peoplestown communities around Turner, which desperately needs the help?
A visibly frustrated mayor, making an unscheduled appearance after the council vote, ran down a list of his administration’s accomplishments, including bringing German carmaker Porche’s North American headquarters to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport area, implementing standards for affordable housing, breaking ground on the $50 million Cook Park near Vine City and cutting unemployment in half.
“Folks come in here and spit in our faces,” he said, his voice rising. “Doesn’t mean we don’t have warts. It doesn’t mean we are perfect. But you’re not going to sit here and question our heart.”
Kyle Kessler, who has been critical of the deal with Underground, said it’s not about questioning heart, but transparency. He said Reed’s efforts downtown may end up being the right prescription for what ails the area, but too many handshakes have been made in back rooms.
For instance, critical parts of WRS’s plans for Underground didn’t come to light until just days before the board of Invest Atlanta — the city’s economic development arm — was to vote on the $34.6 million agreement. And few people really know if the Falcons or Hawks really planned to leave Atlanta if they didn’t get a new stadium or revamped basketball arena respectively because the negotiations were behind closed doors.
“It’s tough to know because the public has not been part of the deliberations,” he said.
Sharron Bacon, a stylist at downtown hair salon Atlanta Brow, said the city’s heart needs the help. Working downtown since 1988, Bacon said the foot traffic grows more sparse every year, especially as retail has all but disappeared.
“When Mayor Reed came in, I thought he was going to revitalize downtown,” she said. “but I have not seen it. As much money as we have put into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there should have been revenue to bring stores that people want to shop at.”
Harvey Newman, a professor emeritus at GSU’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, said Reed’s strong ties to the business community is part of a long legacy among Atlanta mayors. Business leaders have kept the city’s economy chugging along in part because they know they can count on City Hall to back ambitious construction projects.
“Overall that has been a positive partnership that has been maintained since (William) Hartsfield,” Newman said.
Indeed. Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club CEO Steve Koonin praised Reed, calling him a man of foresight.
“Not only does the mayor have a vision for downtown, we believe he is well on his way to changing the landscape of downtown due to his strategic partnerships,” Koonin, who was out of the country, said in an email. “What he ‘gets’ is that to transform our great city is that it will take the work of many, which is one reason (Hawks owner) Tony Ressler and our organization is proud to work with the city on downtown redevelopment.”
The challenge in this economic growth cycle, however, has been balancing business interests with increasing fears of displacement, Newman said. After decades of flight to the suburbs, the city has become the destination of choice for homeowners, which is driving up home prices and property values.
Reed has leaned on those business ties to help alleviate some of the pressure. For instance, Westside Future Fund—an initiative created in 2014 by Reed and the Atlanta Committee for Progress — will oversee an Anti-Displacement Tax Fund that Reed launched in April to help Vine City and English Avenue residents pay increasing rents as their property becomes more valuable. No tax dollars are expected to be used.
“This program means that working folks will be able to maintain and live in the communities that they love, ” Reed said at a news conference.
The impact of these developments over time will determine if Reed becomes known as a “development mayor,” Newman said. Repeated attempts to revitalize Underground have never proved successful so there is precedent that Reed could have made wrong calls, he said.
But if the new redevelopment plans mirror successful projects such as Atlanta BeltLine and Ponce City Market, Reed may get to own the title, Newman said.
“He may be remembered as a great mayor for Atlanta,” he said.
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