Matt Garbett (left) and Angel Poventud chat on the Atlanta Beltline next to Murphy Crossing, an abandoned 20-acre parcel with old brick industrial buildings. Redevelopment of that land is supposed to be the linchpin of the area’s future, threading together three communities. Garbett is one of the community activists who sounded the alarm over the secrecy surrounding the redevelopment project. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

OPINION: Whoa. Westside Beltline deal is off

UPDATE — My original column centered on the silence shrouding the planned redevelopment of a key parcel on the West Beltline called Murphy Crossing, and how community members were upset about the lack of communication from Beltline officials. But hours after publishing the original column Wednesday morning, I was told by the developer — Cecil Phillips, the head of Place Properties — that he got a letter Wednesday saying the deal is off. No real reason was offered, he said. I am working to find out what’s going on and will update with more.

ORIGINAL COLUMN:

The Westside and Southside of Atlanta along the Beltline are the new horizons of the city’s growth. Neighborhoods long overlooked or forgotten have seen a resurgence, partly because of the miles-long ribbon of concrete snaking its way around the city.

A couple of miles southwest of downtown is an abandoned 20-acre parcel with old brick industrial buildings called Murphy Crossing. Redevelopment of that land is supposed to be the linchpin of the area’s future, threading together three communities — Capitol View, Oakland City and Adair Park.

In February 2019, the Beltline’s leadership took bids to transform this space into what community leader Kyle Lamont called “Atlantic Station on crack.” He meant that in a good way, I think.

And since then? Prolonged silence from the Beltline.

That silence has led to conjecture, then worry, more conjecture and, finally, mounting anger.

Which is where we are right now.

Last week, community frustration went to high simmer when word spread that the Beltline and Invest Atlanta would soon ink a deal with a development group that includes WRS Real Estate Investments, a South Carolina development company that specializes in putting together projects anchored by Walmarts.

WRS is best known around these parts for inaction at Underground Atlanta. More than three years ago, the city gave the company the keys to Underground. The city also threw in some public streets for WRS to own.

Since then? Not much that meets the eye.

The Underground deal caused lots of public consternation at the time — an emotion that, as it turns out, was well-founded.

I spent some time around New Year’s walking around the one-time heart of downtown, describing the tumbleweeds and the occasional lost tourist. Last week, a WRS spokesman told me they’ve actually been hard at work at Underground. “Unfortunately, a lot of that work being done is things that no one can see,” he said.

The WRS exec asked me to reach out to Cecil Phillips to see what’s up. Phillips is the head of Place Properties, and a longtime Atlanta developer who has built a good reputation with involvement in higher education and affordable housing issues.

Calls and emails to Phillips and Beltline were unsuccessful at gleaning any info. A Beltline aide told me the Murphy Crossing project “is still in active procurement,” so mum’s the word.

The lack of communication concerning this project has frustrated nearby residents for nearly a year. They feel they should have a say in what will be.

A view of the 20-acre Murphy Crossing site from Murphy Avenue in Atlanta. Redevelopment of that land is supposed to be the linchpin of the area’s future, threading together three communities — Capitol View, Oakland City and Adair Park. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

“When we reach out, we get a robotic lawyer from the Beltline responding to us,” said Capitol View resident Meggan Kaiser. “It seems they have chosen (a developer) and are trying to get things ready so when they announce them, it’ll be hard to stop.”

Kyle Lamont, the former head of the Oakland City Community Organization who is campaigning for the state House, echoed Kaiser’s theory: “It is my belief that the Beltline has chosen the developer and they are getting everything signed off.”

“The communities are absolutely livid with the Beltline that they don’t feel there should be community engagement,” he said.

While I was talking with Lamont, a call came into him from a member of Beltline Rail Now, the group that advocates for transit along the pathway. The caller was hitting him up to find out what the heck was going on.

I called Lee Morris, a Fulton County commissioner who is a board member of Invest Atlanta, the city entity that must sign off on the Murphy Crossing deal. I asked what was happening.

“That’s a great question,” he answered. “I’ve been calling around too, to see what’s going on.”

Atlanta Beltline CEO Clyde Higgs speaks with residents about the Murphy Crossing development after a meeting last fall. Screengrab of video
Photo: Screengrab of video

Morris said he was told by the developer’s lawyer that “they’re not looking for incentives, abatements or loans.”

That would be a man-bites-dog news story — a developer coming in without his hand out.

Bill Bozarth, also an Invest Atlanta member, said the deal will not be voted on next month, as is widely thought.

He understands some of the concern. “I think with WRS being a partner, I can see how the public would not see that as a good idea,” he said. “But on balance, the project is good.”

Bozarth said Phillips, the longtime Atlanta developer who would head the project, has proposed locating a modular home factory on the site, bringing in perhaps 50 solid jobs. Modular homes can be built more quickly and cheaply than stick construction and could be an answer to creating more affordable housing.

“This was being weighed when the public got wind of it,” he said.

Southwest Atlanta resident Matt Garbett points out an old canning factory in the abandoned 20-acre parcel of old brick industrial buildings called Murphy Crossing. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

What is in the proposal? Who knows. Neither the developer nor the proposal has been officially made public 16 months after proposals were turned in. The Beltline asked prospective developers to include manufacturing, green space, retail, restaurants and affordable housing.

Matt Garbett, a local grocer who co-founded the development news site ThreadAtl, was one of the residents who sounded an alarm at the secrecy surrounding the long negotiations and the prospect of Underground’s developer being involved.

In a Facebook post, he chided the Beltline administration: “Hiding behind what is allowed by sunshine laws demeans the entire purpose of the Beltline to connect communities. Let us into the process. Yeah. It’ll be messy. And there will be fights within the community. But this is your chance to start living up to our expectations.”

Later, in an interview/tour of the area, he told me, “I fear they’ll really highlight the prefab housing component and push it through.”

While we stood on the Beltline and talked, about a half-dozen passing locals stopped to chat with him. I joked that it was like “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name.

“This is a special place and it does not need to be treated this way,” Garbett said. “We don’t want to wait five more years (for something to happen). But we will to get something good in here.”

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