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After city council passage, Gulch deal still faces criticism, resistance

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Redlight the Gulch activists are hoping to raise $30,000 to fight the development agreement in court

Downtown Atlanta’s horrible Gulch, in photos.
Activists want this pit developed in a way that doesn’t harm the fabric of downtown Atlanta.
Jonathan Philips, Curbed Atlanta

A week ago, the Atlanta City Council narrowly approved legislation that could funnel nearly $2 billion in public monies to help fund the planned $5 billion development of downtown’s depressing pit of parking lots and train tracks, the Gulch.

But the Gulch fight between naysaying citizens and elected officials might not be over yet.

While many Atlantans are ecstatic to see signs of life for the desolate hole, others view the recently passed development deal as a handout to major development company CIM Group.

The November 5 council meeting, during which the Gulch legislation passed, entailed more than six hours of public comments, much of it consumed by protests of the agreement led by activist group Redlight the Gulch. (Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and CIM Group had been touting the phrase “Green-light the Gulch” to urge support for the deal.)

Some activists took issue with the fact that the consequential vote was held the night before Election Day, when many of them would be volunteering as poll watchers. They also claimed that Bottoms had been trying to rush the deal.

Most, however, were fired up about the particulars of the development agreement, which could ultimately result in a privatized mini-city downtown.

Redlight the Gulch members, such as Georgia State University law professor Tanya Washington, told Next City that privatized streets would be prohibitive for public demonstrations, possibly complicating Atlanta’s long history of civil rights protests.

The overarching Gulch vision, complete with new construction aplenty.
The overarching Gulch vision.
Rendering courtesy of CIM Group; designs, Perkins + Will

“We’re going to subsidize $1.5 billion worth of this project, and we’re not going to own any of it,” Washington told the publication.

Although the approved Gulch deal includes the promise of at lease 200 affordable housing units—priced at 80 percent of the area median income—and a $28 million contribution to an affordable housing trust fund, Redlight the Gulch activists still worry the proposed community benefits fall short.

To the chagrin of those who’d been fighting the proposed development agreement, the final draft lacks a legally binding community benefits agreement—something Bottoms, on the mayoral campaign trail, said she supported.

But the passage of the Gulch deal hasn’t dampened the spirits of Redlight the Gulch advocates; they plan to take the city to court, in an effort they say could ensure equity during the 40-acre site’s development.

“This really has been a fight over what sort of city Atlanta is going to be—one run for all residents or one run for a few powerful, wealthy insiders by their pawns,” reads a Redlight the Gulch GoFundMe page seeking $30,000 for potential legal fees.

“The Gulch Scheme has several legal vulnerabilities,” the page reads, later adding, “Our crack legal expert has already warned council that the sales tax exemption part of the scheme is unconstitutional ... Preventing this scheme from going through would save every family in the city $13,000.”

The first legal hurdle could involve contesting bond validation hearings for the deal, and, if that fails, money raised will go toward an appeal effort.

Almost $8,000 has been collected thus far.

Other complaints go that the Gulch site has long been a missed opportunity to bolster downtown Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure—and that the chance for connectivity there is in jeopardy.

In a recent column for Saporta Report, the publication’s founder and editor Maria Saporta suggested the developers capitalize on that opportunity and build an “architecturally elegant Grand Central Station for Atlanta.”

“In short, including a multimodal station—one that would serve commuter trains, intercity trains, long-distance buses, and other modes of transportation—would give the CIM-Gulch development a soul,” she wrote.