July 11, 2019 Fort Mac: Fort Mac LRA board chairman Cassius Butts (left) greets developer Stephen Macauley (right) as he arrives for the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority Board Meeting at Fort Mac LRA on Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Questions plague Fort McPherson development

The developer of Fort McPherson on Thursday urged the board overseeing the project to stick with him saying he wants to transform the former military installation into “an incredible community.”

Delays and infighting between key players in the deal have raised questions about whether the ambitious 145-acre development in an economically struggling area of Southwest Atlanta is in jeopardy.

The McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority, or Fort Mac LRA, board met for the first time in nearly five months on Thursday, and developer Stephen Macauley said time is of the essence to move to the next phase of negotiations, hammering out a fuller development agreement so that he can go to market for investor and bank financing.

“If you work with us I think we can create something that’s the best in the country,” Macauley said.

A rendering of Macauley Investments’ planned $700 million-plus master planned development for about 145 acres of the former Fort McPherson. SPECIAL to the AJC from Macauley Investments.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The board sought additional information to continue discussions at its next meeting but it took no action. After a nearly three-hour executive session covering real estate and personnel matters, two board members left the meeting, and the body did not have enough voting members to make decisions.

Also missing from the proceedings was Brian Hooker, the LRA’s executive director, and his status as the group’s leader appears in doubt. Board chairman Cassius Butts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week the agency’s board wanted answers from Hooker and Macauley on Thursday about the status of negotiations and about revelations of a soured relationship that had spilled out into the press.

Butts said Hooker was unable to attend the meeting. Asked if Hooker remained employed by the agency, Butts said: “Yes, he is at this time.”

“We cannot further discuss personnel issues,” Butts said.

July 11, 2019 Fort Mac: The office of executive director Brian Hooker is empty during the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority board meeting and Hooker was not at the meeting when the board went into executive session at Fort Mac LRA on Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Asked whether Hooker would remain in his post going forward, Butts said: “We expect to move forward with Fort Mac and the leadership we put together today. We hope that will be positive for the community.”

Fort McPherson closed in 2011 and the authority took control of the 488-acre site from the Army in 2015. That same year, filmmaker Tyler Perry acquired about 330 acres of the former Army post for $30 million and has since built a sprawling film studio campus.

Fort Mac LRA selected Macauley as master developer for about 145 acres it controls in May 2017, and for the past two years the partners crafted a master plan and got the project site rezoned.

The two sides appeared to be in harmony.

Under the original plan, Macauley’s team would lease LRA land for 99 years and develop the site in phases. The proposal includes retail, offices, hotels, a food hall, public spaces and about 2,400 residential units. Most planned residences would be reserved at rents affordable to people who make less than the Atlanta area median income.

In recent months, Macauley proposed a new structure that would involve a purchase of the LRA land.

In February, Hooker and Macauley were tasked with crafting new terms for a fuller development agreement. But the negotiations hit a snag, and the board failed to meet for nearly five months. The board lost a director and Hooker told the AJC this week the board couldn’t meet or vote because of a lack of enough board members.

On Thursday, the AJC reported on emails and documents that showed the authority and Macauley were at odds over deal terms.

A rendering of Macauley Investments’ planned $700 million-plus master planned development for about 145 acres of the former Fort McPherson. SPECIAL to the AJC from Macauley Investments.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In emails and documents reviewed by the AJC, Macauley said that essentially all key terms were agreed to in principle and that lawyers for his team and the authority were racing to draft a final agreement before an expected board vote on March 7.

Macauley wanted approval in early March to tap into investment funds created by a powerful federal tax incentive known as Opportunity Zones. Once official, the new deal would unlock all necessary investor and bank financing, he told the board.

In records reviewed by the AJC, Macauley’s team accused the authority of needless delays coupled with impossible deadlines to meet planning and other milestones.

Hooker, meanwhile, said Macauley has been slow to provide the agency with financial information it needs to vet the project’s viability. The LRA also has raised questions about Macauley’s financial wherewithal and the collapse during the recession of Macauley’s development business.

Hooker said the authority had misgivings about selling the land and losing control, particularly if the developer were to hit financial trouble, which might stall the project indefinitely.

Added to the mix were alleged comments carrying racial overtones. In an April email, Macauley alleged he was told by Hooker that an aide to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had said Macauley, who is white, was being “coddled” because of his race and that a black developer would have been pushed out.

Hooker has said those comments were misconstrued.

On Thursday, the controversy was not addressed by the board. Macauley urged the authority to work with him to move forward.

“Time is of the essence. We’ve lost four months,” he said. “We need your help. We need a master project area agreement soon.”

After the meeting, Butts said other developers have expressed interest in the site, but the board is committed to working through the Macauley proposals.

The board took no action on a plan to sell a former command building to a real estate group for a future U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab. That deal is expected to return for consideration at the next meeting. 

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