Torpy at Large: How seeking a $22M tax break broke the giveaway chain

Hint: Development project involves the Atlanta Beltline

Every now and again there’s a glimmer that some sanity remains in this town.

A recent (non)action by the city’s development agency gives us such hope.

Until Wednesday evening, it appeared that Invest Atlanta might dole out $22.5 million in property tax breaks to a firm wanting to build a swanky development on the Beltline.

This wasn't going to be just any place on the Beltline. This was to be a collection of offices, retail spaces and apartments on the place along the Beltline — on the Eastside trail just south of the popular Ponce City Market and overlooking Historic Fourth Ward Park.

Jim Irwin, president of New City Properties, whose firm got tax cuts in 2016 to rebuild the nearby Murder Kroger property, once told Atlanta Magazine the proposed spot is “one of the most important pieces of property in the city of Atlanta.”

So, this important, red-hot piece of clay on the most crowded section of the Beltline, in sight of the fancied-up Sears building, needs some extra love from the city?

Um, no, said a majority of the nine-person Invest Atlanta board, a panel than includes Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Actually, the issue never got to a vote, but it was clear from some pre-meeting vote counting that five or more board members were going to scotch this giveaway.

Seeing that, the developer asked the board to pull the plan from the agenda of Thursday's meeting to save it from the ignominy of defeat. Were they shamed by the public reaction to the audacity of what they asked? No, they're simply beating a hasty retreat for time to strategize. Maybe they'll sweeten the offer, or hope the mayor leans on a board member of two.

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris, an Invest Atlanta member who had big questions about the plan, said, “It was pretty clear it wasn’t going to pass. There were a lot of concerns about this.”

Like what?

"A lot of folks were wondering," he said, "does the city and county need to incentivize the hottest properties in the city?"

Morris added that the Fulton County Development Authority has been quite generous about passing out healthy — some might say "obscene" — subsidies for developments in Midtown and Buckhead.

Dan Immergluck, a Georgia State University professor who’s a national expert on affordable housing, said, “This is a textbook ‘doesn’t-need’ project. Developers are almost expecting” tax breaks.

“This city is hot,” he added. “We’re not having a problem creating jobs. The problem is affordable housing. And transportation and traffic.”

New City Properties estimates 2,400 new jobs would be created by this project on land once owned by Georgia Power. But, Morris said, those numbers are real hazy because new offices often just steal tenants from older offices. In essence, the government subsidizes new developments to pirate away existing business, often from the same jurisdiction.

In this phase of the Beltline project, New City would build 490,000 square feet of office space and retail and 350 apartments.

In exchange for getting $22.5 million of property taxes abated over 10 years, the developers would set aside 35 units for low-income tenants, would hire some locals during construction, would create “$20 million of public infrastructure” — including green space, a large plaza, pedestrian and bike lanes — and extend some local streets. Also, local governments and schools, they say, would still get $59.4 million in property taxes over the next 10 years.

A couple of things. First, large developers along the Beltline are already mandated to set aside at least 10 percent of their residential units to be affordable. So no big tax giveaway is needed to make this happen. And all the cool green-space stuff for the “public” is a given if the developers want to market their new property as DeLuxe! and Fabulous!

When asked about the proposal, Bill Bozarth, an Invest Atlanta board member who would have voted no, smiled and said, “It’s not the worst one we would have done.”

Affordable housing is the pressing issue in Atlanta, a city now with soaring rents jacked up by economic development.

"That was an awfully high price to pay for that level of affordability," Bozarth said of the 35 proposed units. "The day I can drive down James P. Brawley Drive (just west of downtown) and not see boarded-up houses (trust me, there are a lot), then I'll be willing to support tax breaks for wealthy companies."

In all, Invest Atlanta and the Fulton County Development Authority are happy to help those who can help themselves, with Fulton's authority being far more generous.

In August, Maggie Lee, a reporter at the Saporta Report, estimated that so far this year to that point, the two agencies had doled out $163 million in property tax breaks for development inside the city limits — taxes that go to the county, the city and the city’s schools.

Probably 80 percent of that was Fulton's board, which rarely sees a tax break it doesn't want to hug. In fact, it got so bad that Invest Atlanta asked Fulton to stop giving away tax breaks inside the city. They want to be the deciders.

Fulton’s authority wasn’t too keen on that idea.

Irwin, the New City president, told my AJC colleague Scott Trubey that he didn’t withdraw his proposal. He just needs time to win the board members over.

Irwin said the complex project requires further explaining. “It’s appropriate to allow for more time to sit and answer these questions and help everyone understand what we’re proposing today,” he said.

And if he can’t flip a few skeptics at Invest Atlanta, he can just take his renderings and walk down to the county building.

They’ll probably hook him up. He’ll just need to fog a mirror first.