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Opinion: Take time and work toward Gulch deal

Voting no on the proposed Gulch project is easy.

It’s expensive. A lot of us feel that while it’s a good idea, it’s not urgent. And, there is a collective fatigue around publicly financed mega-projects. We’ve seen this play out before: A big idea, big promises, a big financial commitment, but the sense that we, the public, don’t have all the facts or the time we need to properly think it through.

As a city, we are at a moment where prioritizing people, rather than growth alone, is of increasing importance. The reflexive response is to take one look at the Gulch project and just say no.

Yet, while the Gulch isn’t a cure-all to the problems that face our city, it does address a fundamental problem. There is a literal gaping hole at the center of our city. Filling it in is an important step toward capitalizing on momentum Downtown and building a city center that thrives.

If the right deal comes along to finally address the Gulch we should make it.

Are we there yet? No. Can we get there? I believe so.

The first thing we need to do is slow down. Although the Governor, the state, the City and the developer (CIM Group) have spent years negotiating a framework, City Council, Fulton County, Atlanta Public Schools, and the general public need time to digest the proposed deal.

It’s a creatively designed package to the credit of all the negotiators involved. But that also means it’s complicated. Asking the City Council to vote on the city’s contribution to the overall financing before all questions have been answered is premature. Moreover, as much as City Council needs to fully understand the deal, the broader public needs more clarity, too. Both CIM and the City have been transparent and forthcoming. We have asked hard questions. But more questions remain. Let’s take a little more time and see if we can get it right.

Second, we need to ask if the developer, CIM, can develop the Gulch with less public assistance. CIM certainly deserves support. The costs are steep and massive infrastructure needs to be built. CIM is taking on a great deal of risk fronting hundreds of millions to get the ball rolling, years before any public support would kick in.

All the same, the tax breaks are substantial. The ask is for $1.75 billion towards a project with an estimated total price tag of around $5 billion. Breaking that down, $1.25 billion comes from state/county foregone sales taxes, with the other $500 million coming out of property tax rolls that would otherwise go to the city, county, and schools over a 30-year span.

The state portion is already secured. The question is whether the property tax piece is worth it and CIM really needs it. Again, I believe we can get there. But at $500 million I think there is still work to do.

Third, it’s important that before we make this 30-year commitment, we leave the door open to future rail options. Freight rail will continue to operate at the Gulch under the terms of the agreement. Yet, it’s important to ensure that if, one day, those rails are available for commuter rail, enough space remains to do so.

We cannot commit to this deal if it presents an insurmountable obstacle to our transit future.

Finally, thanks to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ hard work and insistence, CIM has agreed to a guaranteed $55 million benefits package for city residents. This is a welcome contribution, particularly the $28 million for affordable housing across the city. But given the scale of this project and its projected long-term value to CIM, we need to negotiate additional public benefits.

Will we get to a deal that works for everyone? I’m not sure. But walking away now is not the right call. The Gulch is a long overdue development. The Mayor has gotten us right up to the edge of realizing its promise.

It’s easy to say no. With a little more work, with adequate time to reflect, I’m hopeful that we can get to yes.