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Atlanta’s development boom cleared to continue during coronavirus pandemic

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A comma error almost signaled a snag in the city’s growth spurt, it seems

A photo of Midtown Atlanta construction in 2016.
A familiar Midtown scene in recent years.
Curbed Atlanta

As elected officials across the globe wrangle with how to regulate day-to-day life in an effort to curb the fast-spreading novel coronavirus, some industries have been nearly forced to a standstill.

In many cities, schools have closed or been shifted entirely online; the entertainment industry—namely movie theaters and concert halls—has been crippled; and bars and restaurants have either shuttered or been relegated to takeout and delivery-only operations.

So when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms enacted a 14-day “stay at home” order on Monday, it placed a huge question mark behind the immediate future of Atlanta’s years-long development boom.

The executive order called on Atlantans to shelter at their homes, except in cases in which they need to carry out “essential activities,” such as grocery shopping, exercising—but not at gyms—and maintaining public infrastructure.

The official language (initially) said, “individuals may leave their residence to provide any services or perform any work necessary to the operations and maintenance of ‘Essential Infrastructure,’ including, but not limited to public works construction, airport operations, utility, water, sewer, gas, electrical, oil refining, roads and highways, railroads, public transportation...” and so forth.

It seemed as if construction sites for private developments had been deemed off-limits. The reality, however, is that a comma error had some observers—including Associated General Contractors of Georgia officials—wondering if the coronavirus had thrown a wrench in Atlanta’s growth spurt.

As the AGC pointed out, city officials revised the mayor’s executive order to include “an important comma” between “public works” and “construction,” thereby giving developers the green light to keep construction projects moving.

A comma between the terms “public works” and construction” has been circled in green.
An image attached to an AGC blog post entitled “The Power of a Comma.”
Associated General Contractors of Georgia

Furthermore, after Curbed Atlanta inquired about how the first draft of the order published appeared to exclude construction under the “essential business” umbrella, Atlanta’s Department of City Planning commissioner Tim Keane clarified in an email blast.

“In the City of Atlanta, construction is one of the essential businesses exempt from the Mayor’s ‘Stay at Home’ Executive Order of March 23, 2020,” he wrote. “Therefore, construction within the corporate city limits may continue.”

Nevertheless, permitting and inspections have been delayed at the planning department, as Atlanta City Hall has been closed to the public and officials strive to practice social distancing.

Keane also noted the city is now accepting private, third-party inspections of projects, as long as they’re reviewed and cleared by city officials.

A huge construction site with cranes under a blue sky.
The Midtown Union site Tuesday at 17th and Spring streets.
Curbed Atlanta

Construction itself isn’t always conducive to social distancing, as Mike Durham, CEO of the AGC of Georgia stressed in an interview last week. He spelled out what crews might be facing:

“If you’re out in the middle of a field pouring a new slab for a warehouse, that kind of work can continue to move forward, as long as your permitting and inspections are done properly... Some tasks lend themselves to keeping that distance, but it’s a trade-dependent job. You can set tile, and the next tile-setter could be six feet away. But if you’re both working to put in a door, and you need someone to help you hold it as you send it in, you’re going to be a lot closer than six feet.”

It’s too soon to say what other curveballs the pandemic could throw at the city’s construction industry. The hammer thwacks of new housing and bustling large-scale construction sites of Atlanta have hardly gone quiet, though.