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

Torpy at Large: Fort Mac attack, the Atlanta way

I’m an ink-stained wretch toiling in newspapers, but I’ve always dreamed I had a movie script in me.

Well, here goes:

An Army fort in Atlanta gets closed. The city is left overseeing renovation of the empty base but can’t get traction because it’s on the poorer and blacker side of the city, a place where big projects usually don’t happen. Finally, a self-made millionaire filmmaker who is African American steps in and buys two-thirds of the 488-acre base for a movie studio in his hometown.

That’s almost a happy ending. But there are criticisms that the city’s mayor, known as Hizzoner, has cut a sweet deal for his bud, the movie mogul. Some complain that movie studios don’t benefit the public because they are insular, walled-off compounds. And this place is already that. Because it’s an old Army fort!

The city and the government authority that was set up to oversee the fort’s transition try to get someone to fix up the remaining 145 acres not owned by the mogul. Nothing happens. Remember, this is the part of town that lags behind the rest of the booming city.

Finally, in steps an Englishman, with ties to Prince Charles, who says he can figure out a way to make something happen in the base. Now, the Englishman (who has adopted Atlanta as his home) has some troubles in his past — a massive bankruptcy during the Great Recession — but he seems to be on the upswing. And the Local Redevelopment Authority is happy because no one else is stepping up.

A couple of years later, after the Englishman puts in place his plans for all sorts of retail and housing and social programs and other cool stuff, in steps the new mayor’s confidant — a lawyer with his finger in all sorts of lucrative governmental pies and his own sordid, felonious background. And then the deal starts to unravel.

Suddenly, the old fort no one wanted to redevelop is now an area on the upswing. A glorified walkway called the Beltline is built nearby and folks can’t spend enough money to live near it. Residents in the long-languishing area have hope. Finally.

There are hints the movie mogul wants in on this, and there are efforts to push the Englishman out. The mayor’s confidant is helping to make that happen. There are all sorts of subplots of intrigue and of insider and racial politics. Color is involved — black and white, sure. But mostly green.

So there’s my script. The film might have to be labeled “based on actual events.”

Since 2017, a developer named Stephen Macauley, who hails from London but grew up in Cobb County, has busied himself putting together an ambitious, $700 million plan to create a mixed-use community of 2,400 residences, mostly with below-market rents, as well as offices, stores, eateries and hotels on the site of the former Fort McPherson.

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: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

During a Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) board meeting in late February, Macauley said he and the authority agreed to all key deal terms to move forward with the development, according to emails released by the LRA.

The deal, he said, was supposed to be inked by the LRA board in early March, which would allow Macauley’s funding partners to get things moving.

But that didn’t happen. And by March 11, Macauley was firing off a letter to City Council member Joyce Sheperd to say the LRA was stalling and had suddenly changed the profit-sharing details and had imposed “impossible” deadlines on him.

On March 14, LRA director Brian Hooker shot back, writing that Macauley was trying to pull a “gross overreach.”

And — here’s where it starts to get interesting in an Atlanta politics kinda way — the next morning (March 15), Hooker texted Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms saying this: “Just met with Alvin. Got the message loud and clear. Will get things moving in the right direction and brief you at your convenience.”

“Alvin” is Alvin Kendall, a lawyer who has resurrected himself in a big way. Four years ago, he was an ex-lawyer licking his wounds, having served prison time for conspiring to give his dope-dealing client the heads-up on a police raid.

In 2015, Kendall got his law license back and has made up for lost time.

Alvin Kendall, left, an Atlanta area attorney and consultant, is seemingly involved everywhere — the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, the Gulch redevelopment, the committee to decide what to do with the old city jail, and now the Fort Mac deal. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM

In 2017, Kendall, a mentor and friend of Bottoms’, showed up at the Recreation Authority (which oversees stadiums). At the time, Bottoms was its executive director but was too busy for that job because she was running for mayor.

Kendall spent a couple of years making $11,500 a month from the Rec Authority and then last year surfaced as the city’s point man in the Gulch deal, the scheme in which the city has agreed to fund a developer up to $1.9 billion in public money to build a $5 billion Oz-like mini-city downtown.

Kendall is also on the committee to decide what to do with the old city jail and is now in the thick of the Fort Mac deal. The man is everywhere.

Tyler Perry talks to a large crowd gathered for the Candle In The Dark Gala, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Morehouse College, in Atlanta on  February 18, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Meanwhile, according to reporting by the AJC’s Scott Trubey, the LRA chief introduced another character in this saga — Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based film mogul who already owns the lion’s share of the base. Hooker did this in a March 22nd text to the mayor.

“Madam Mayor, I briefed Carmen today on Fort Mac. We discussed the possibility that Tyler could exercise his (right of first offer) with a developer partner.”

This indicates Perry wants in, and Macauley could be out.

A month later, in April, Hooker messaged the mayor saying he had talked with one of Perry’s peeps. “Scott spoke with Tyler last night. Here’s the text he sent me: ‘Yup .. it’s on .. but I have to package it all up ..’”

Later, Hooker told the mayor that Perry “wants to build a center for trafficking victims” at the site, an issue that is near and dear to Bottoms’ heart.

Fort McPherson redevelopment authority director Brian Hooker, right, with developer Stephen Macauley (looking over his shoulder) during happier times. Also pictured are former Mayor Andrew Young and authority chair Cassius Butts. Photo from LRA website
Photo: LRA website

No one involved with this wants to talk for the record. Kendall said he doesn’t talk about clients, which would clam him up because just about everyone these days is his client.

Macauley, who has spent two years on this project, is wandering around bewildered and mum. The city says it won’t discuss ongoing real estate deals. Hooker seems to have vanished. According to an email, he’s on the wrong side of City Hall.

Perry recently talked up his fort at a BET network gala, saying he took over an old Rebel army base and set up shop in a poor black neighborhood (one community leader took umbrage at that characterization) and is showing black kids they can make it, too.

And if there’s a wheeler-dealer like Alvin Kendall in the script, there’s more movie magic to come.

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