Bill Torpy at large: Street giveaway is as transparent as asphalt

In 1842, Samuel Mitchell donated five acres of land to the state to build a depot for the future railroad. The bet on the railroad worked — especially for Sam, who had 200 more acres. The act spurred development and, ultimately, a thriving city.

Now, almost 175 years later, the city is turning around and donating several streets in that same plot to a real estate investor. Atlanta is hoping again to spur development.

This week's giveaway of some of Atlanta's oldest streets — they call it "abandonment" — creates a historic synchronicity as the city scrambles to complete a massive deal to remake Underground Atlanta. It would build apartment towers and retail in the long-moribund attraction.

And the manner in which the deal went down was a fond tribute to the good old days of Atlanta, when a handful of politicians and business big shots huddled to cook up plans for the greater good. It was kind of a profitable noblesse oblige.

On Monday, we saw a little of that again during a marathon, mind-numbing City Council meeting. The council voted overwhelmingly to gift Lower and Upper Alabama streets, as well as Lower and Upper Pryor streets, to WRS Inc., a Charleston-based firm that specializes in assembling mini-Walmart developments across the Southeast.

One could technically say that council members approved the plan, although a more correct description would be a majority nodded in agreement after Mayor Kasim Reed told them what to do.

Naturally, there are critics of this effort. To sum up their (and my) argument: Public streets were given to a private developer without public comment after a closed-door meeting and very little open discussion by elected officials.

The effort was rushed along by the mayor, who said the street giveaways were needed to ink the deal that has hung around too long. The City Council had "to make a decision of whether they want to move forward with a $350 million investment for Underground or leave it as it is," Reed told the AJC before the vote.

It was, as is often the case with such things, hurry, hurry, hurry! There was no time for public comment. Those pesky citizens get long-winded, their questions get pointed, and they sometimes even look sideways at public officials.

WRS Inc. is a gift horse and Kasim Reed doesn’t want anyone looking in its mouth.

No one on the council, not even those who voted against it, pushed hard to get on the public record a reason why the developer wanted to take ownership of the oldest, most historical streets in the city that are right in the middle of downtown.

One common speculation was the new owner of that asphalt and cobblestone would want to control activity on the streets around his development.

Hizzoner said so himself, telling one of my colleagues: “If you were investing $350 million, I think most folks at home would want to control who has the right of entry to their campus.”

That's what worries some people. "We don't know why they are requesting it," said Matthew Garbett, who used to be president of the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood association, but moved out after development there hit 11 on the Gentrification Meter.

"This is incredibly bizarre to abandon streets downtown," Garbett told me before addressing the council. "There are quote-unquote 'undesirables' downtown, so you keep them out and give a safe space to the public visiting Underground. These streets will be in the hands of mall cops."

I’d venture that the “safe space” argument is at the root of it, although City Council members wouldn’t touch that one even if administered a truth serum. On-quarter of them are running for mayor next year and they don’t want to seem insensitive.

I get it, though. You’re at a patio table enjoying your schiacciata bread and locally sourced salad when a wretch reeking of month-old underwear approaches and asks you for a monetary loan.

T. Scott Smith, CEO of WRS Inc., emailed the Saporta Report: "We are not going to close the streets to pedestrian or bike traffic. We would like to stop vehicle traffic so that we can join the four corners and make a community feel to the development. At no time would the streets be closed to thru walking traffic or bicycles."

So, defendants and bailiffs heading from MARTA’s Five Points Station can still walk down Alabama and Pryor streets on their way to the Fulton County courthouse.

But it sounds like CEO Smith is saying Pryor Street will become a pedestrian mall. There are five north-south streets cutting through the heart of downtown, which means Pryor is 20 percent of that capacity. Central, the street to the east, carries 8,500 cars a day. And Peachtree, to the west, carries 11,400. So Pryor approaches those numbers and those cars will crowd other streets.

The city may have lined up a fine alternative transportation plan. Or maybe not. Like I was saying, there’s been no discussion.

About 6 p.m. Monday, after five hours of meeting, City Council members dutifully filed off to a closed-door meeting in the mayor's office. Once inside, they were met — and I'm assuming here, because it was closed door —by the mayor's inimitable force of persuasion.

When they came out, several gave little speeches, saying downtown sure is sad looking and, boy, ain’t development grand. They voted 10-4, with Felicia Moore, Alex Wan, Mary Norwood and Natalyn Archibong on the losing side.

But no one discussed why they were giving away Atlanta’s streets.

Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, who has Underground in her district, hinted at the private policing of the streets theory, saying drugs and vagrants had to be swept from the area.

“These developers could have run away in June 2015 when they had shootings down there,” she said. Another developer in her district turned tail and skedaddled, she said, “after some shoot-em-ups.”

The giveaway may end up being the best thing since Sam Mitchell’s generosity. We don’t know. But a clue would be a good thing to have.