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Council committee rebuffs Atlanta mayor on Gulch deal

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made a rare and dramatic appearance before a City Council committee Tuesday, pleading to keep the most important real estate deal of her young administration — and one of the biggest in the city’s history — moving forward.

For nearly an hour, Bottoms pleaded with council members to approve dense legislation tied to a potential $2 billion incentive package for downtown’s Gulch, but failed.

As a practical matter, the committee’s inaction on the mayor’s request doesn’t derail the project. It could slow it down.

But it highlighted a new council’s independent streak — a seldom sight during the eight years of the Kasim Reed administration. Reed often bent council to his will and rarely was rebuked with a no. The council sworn in this year includes seven new members.

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As the Community Development/Human Services committee wrapped its three-hour meeting without passing legislation related to the $5 billion redevelopment of downtown’s Gulch, the mayor’s staffers implored them to wait because Bottoms was on her way.

Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, who isn’t on the committee, approached the lectern and gave a rambling speech to buy Bottoms time.

When Bottoms arrived, her eyes were glazed, and her voice strained. She told council members she was under the weather and had a fever the day before.

She warned the committee that a possible Fortune 500 headquarters relocation was at stake.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The committee decided to hold legislation involving expansion of a Westside taxing district and bonds that are critical to the Gulch deal and planned to call a special work session Thursday or Friday to consider the Gulch deal.

A simple majority vote of the council at its Monday meeting could bring the matters before the full board.

Bottoms’ worries seemed more related to the optics of any delay. The unnamed Fortune 500 company wanted a land deal completed last quarter, she said.

Last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Virginia-based railroad giant Norfolk Southern is considering Atlanta for a new headquarters, and land the railroad holds in the Gulch is part of the delicate negotiations for the headquarters and to redevelop downtown.

After media publicity, Bottoms said the corporation’s home state, which was not disclosed, started aggressively negotiating to keep the company. She asked the committee to pass the legislation to the Finance/Executive committee, even if it was without a favorable recommendation, to keep the process moving along.

Bottoms said she was contacted by Gov. Nathan Deal, who expressed concerns a delay could scuttle the negotiation for the company’s headquarters. As she spoke, the room crowded with lawyers, representatives of the developer and other members of council.

“I would not be here feeling the way I do today asking for you all to pass this … if it would not put this corporate relocation in jeopardy,” Bottoms said.

Natalyn Mosby Archibong

Council members Natalyn Mosby Archibong, Joyce Sheperd, Dustin Hillis, Amir Farokhi and Matt Westmoreland each raised concerns about being rushed to consider a potential $2 billion financing package for the massive real estate project.

RELATED CONTENT: GULCH PROJECT

The Gulch vote is the first major test of Bottoms’ political muscle, and will show whether she can persuade a skeptical City Council to get behind her. It’s also a historic vote that could permanently reshape the city’s skyline.

California developer CIM Group has proposed a mini-city downtown near the original site of the city’s founding, between the Five Points MARTA station and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, over what is now lonely parking lots and rail beds.

Council members said they’d just received some 600 pages of documents and didn’t fully understand the deal. They questioned whether the city was receiving benefits commensurate with such a massive public investment.

Westmoreland dropped the huge stack of documents on his desk for the audience to see.

“I read the whole thing Sunday night and sat down again last night and I read the whole thing again because I want there to be something in the Gulch,” Westmoreland said. “I want this to happen. … But I also want to be thoughtful and deliberative and I have seven pages of questions …”

Chairwoman Natalyn Archibong said she felt like she was being made to feel bad for doing her job.

“It feels a little bit like a squeeze,” she said. “We want to do our own due diligence.”

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