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Amid skepticism, Atlanta mayor vying to ‘Green-light The Gulch’ project

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Some critics wonder: “Where’s the community benefits agreement?”

The overarching Gulch vision, complete with new construction aplenty.
It’s a prettier picture than a gaping hole, but critics say it’s a project that shouldn’t be rushed.
Rendering courtesy of CIM Group; designs, Perkins + Will

The Los Angeles-based developer CIM Group might just represent Atlanta’s best shot at seeing downtown’s depressing pit—the Gulch—transformed into a vibrant cityscape with hotels, office space, retail, and residences in the short-term.

Clearly, that’s the opinion of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who lately has been on a tear to convince her constituents to “Green-Light The Gulch,” as the campaign slogan goes. In other words, to get the Atlanta City Council to vote to approve the complicated development agreement that could grant CIM Group $1 billion or more in public funding help.

With so much money—and the fate of downtown Atlanta’s most sorely underused section—on the line, it’s no wonder some councilmembers and intown residents are reluctant to give the developer the all-clear to start building.

This banner ad is the first thing people see when visiting the City of Atlanta’s website.
Screenshot from City of Atlanta page

Additionally, some people take issue with the way the deal could impact the community in and around downtown, noting the affordable housing ambitions leave something to be desired, according to Saporta Report.

The current development deal would funnel $28 million into a citywide trust fund for affordable housing, and CIM Group would need to build and rent 200 residential units of “affordable housing”—20 percent of the incoming units, priced to be affordable for people making 80 percent of the area median income.

The developer would also be expected to rent 10 percent of the units it builds to people making 30 percent of the area median income—imagine $520 to rent a two-bedroom flat—per Saporta Report.

(CIM Group could also opt to pay a one-time fee of roughly $29 million to the city to circumvent its affordable housing requirements.)

Critics say, with a deal this big, there should be more affordable housing or, at the very least, a legally binding community benefits agreement, which, Bottoms said on the mayoral campaign trail in November, would be crucial for a project seeking public funding.

“I do support a CBA when there are public dollars being used to help finance a project,” said Bottoms during a debate, according to a video shared by ThreadATL.

“There’s a difference in major developments that have public dollars as part of the deal,” she continued. “If it’s a private major development deal, it’s very difficult for us to enforce a binding agreement. But to the extent that we are inputting public funds to help incentivize or help shore up this project, then I do support a CBA.”

So far, however, there’s no CBA in sight, although the city, CIM Group, and now Central Atlanta Progress are throwing their full weight into getting the Gulch deal green-lit.

The City of Atlanta, as well as CIM Group, has been lobbing around the #GreenlightTheGulch tagline, which has even found its way onto the city’s official website, to the chagrin of some city councilmembers. (Atlantans might have heard the city’s pitch on local radio, too ... even sports talk radio).

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, asked about the legality and ethics of using city resources to advocate for the project, said she has mixed feelings.

“The mayor’s office controls the city’s website,” Moore told Curbed Atlanta. “Council has a page on it. I’m mixed on this one because I’m sure they will say they are educating the public. Promoting the project may not be unethical. I understand those who oppose [the deal] don’t like it.”

Central Atlanta Progress, on the other hand, has launched a robocall campaign to encourage people to voice support for the Gulch project, according to WABE.

On Wednesday, Bottoms hosted a public meeting to discuss the implications of the development agreement and to urge support for it.

Although plenty of people showed up in green t-shirts emblazoned with “Green-light The Gulch,” many others, some donning red, attended to protest.