With host of city property deals ahead, council calls for greater role


Some of the real estate deals on tap for the city of Atlanta.

The Boisfeuillet Jones Civic Center: The city is seeking a buyer for the concert hall, which would put it in private hands for the first time.

Turner Field: Now that the Atlanta Braves have struck a deal to move to Cobb County, the city will seek a buyer to develop the 77 acres the Braves will leave.

Underground Atlanta: Atlanta is in the process of seeking a buyer for the troubled mall.

Morris Brown College: The private college, which is going through bankruptcy proceedings, is selling some of its property. The city has bid to acquire some of it for redevelopment.

Fort McPherson: The former Army installation has been a development priority for the city since it ceased operation in 2011.

With half a dozen real estate deals in the works that could drastically change the face of Atlanta, some city council members have a message for Mayor Kasim Reed: Stop leaving us out.

For the most part, it’s not that the council disagrees with Reed’s plans for a number of properties: selling Underground Atlanta and The Boisfeuillet Jones Civic Center, redeveloping Turner Field once the Braves leave, possibly buying Morris Brown College out of bankruptcy and playing a role in the redevelopment of Fort McPherson.

But so far, some complain, the city council and effectively, the public has been largely on the sidelines as these decisions are made.

“I’m tired of waking up in the morning and reading the newspaper and hearing the City of Atlanta is going to sell this, do this, do that,” said District 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore in a May finance committee meeting. “It’s getting to a point that if we’re not involved in the front end, and are just here to rubber stamp in the back end. … We’re not serving the citizens. We’re just a cog in the wheel.”

The growing tension became evident during a Monday vote approving the transfer of Civic Center to Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, which will now oversee bids to sell and redevelop the 20-acre property.

While Reed officials say time is of the essence in real estate deals, and not all members of council can be consulted, several council leaders called for delaying the vote so they could further consider the proposal. Many also said they want a greater role in the redevelopment.

Reed has long said selling and returning Civic Center to the property tax rolls makes sense because of expensive annual maintenance costs. The sale of the property can also help pay the debt service on an anticipated infrastructure bond worth $250 million.

But at-large Councilman Michael Bond opposed the measure for myriad reasons. He wants a larger public debate about whether it makes sense to sell the property without having a similar facility. Also, Bond said he hadn’t been briefed on the details, despite months of discussions about the property’s fate.

The Reed administration reached out to him late last week, he said, but he was unavailable for a meeting.

“We beg for votes, and we beg for money, and we get elected … and then you get down here and people don’t include you in the decisions,” he said. “… The only people who cared enough to call Councilman Bond were some of the developers who want to get their hands on this property and turn it into God knows what.”

The mayor is mostly unapologetic. He says the delicate nature of real estate deals can make sharing plans risky, if not jeopardize them. But he believes his administration is working to meet the council’s demand.

“What we’re trying to do is get better at it, share more information faster,” he said Tuesday. “We hear the concerns and are trying to be more sensitive to it.”

Still, he believes his administration has gone out of its way to keep the council informed, “oftentimes at peril to the transaction.”

“What we have found on a number of occasions is, when we share information that is private, that frequently it is leaked by a small number of members of the council, and so that is what we have to weigh,” he said.

City law doesn’t require the mayor to give council members’ a heads-up on all projects, because if legislation is required, it ultimately goes before the council for approval.

Atlanta features a strong-mayor form of government, in which the mayor, as the city’s chief executive officer, largely calls the shots and the council serves as a check and balance.

District 7 Councilman Howard Shook has conflicting ideas about how great a role the council should have in real estate development discussion.

On the one hand, when it comes to the fast-paced negotiations often employed in real estate deals, trying to involve a 15-member body is cumbersome, he said.

But at the same time, Shook believes the council should develop some type of boiler-plate policy outlining “council dos and don’ts” to help guide redevelopment projects, such as Civic Center.

“If you have a legislative body involved in the details of a negotiation, nothing would ever get done,” Shook said. “…(But) I think there’s a need for us to create a safety net that makes us feel more (involved) and less like we’re just giving somebody a blank check.”

With respect to Civic Center, even some of Reed's closest allies like District 11 Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said they weren't briefed on the design and development guidelines that Invest Atlanta will use to market the property.

While Reed’s administration didn’t meet with all council members ahead of Monday’s vote, the mayor’s staffers spoke at several public council finance committee meetings to discuss the Civic Center deal.

Other Reed allies, like District 10 Councilman C.T. Martin, questioned whether selling the property is the right choice.

“I think we ought to have sessions where we just deal with how valuable is this building and this space to us, as an operating city,” said Martin, who ultimately voted in favor of the Civic Center legislation.

Procurement laws prevent Reed and the city council from having say over who Invest Atlanta selects to buy the property.

Still, the council will see the final request for proposal, or RFP, before it’s released to the public, as well as receive a briefing from Invest Atlanta on the selected proposal.

District 6 Councilman Alex Wan voted against the legislation transferring Civic Center to Invest Atlanta Monday. For him, the council’s vote was about more than this property alone.

“What concerns me is we have been notified there will be a series of properties coming through for disposal and we need to really set the precedent for how we want to (handle that) now,” he said.

If the council’s 10-4 approval of the Civic Center transfer is any indication, Reed’s future plans aren’t likely to meet with insurmountable opposition.