By Michael H. McLendon
This is a rush to judgment story where the devil is in the details, but the headline
says it all. The bottom line-up-front is that you need to immediately call and email
your commissioner, the mayor, and other members of the Mall Area Redevelopment Committee to tell them the public needs a better deal. Tell them to vote no or defer the decision giving the developer $189 million until we get a more affordable deal with value for the public.
The MARC and the Athens Clarke County Board of Commissioners are racing to vote on this deal as soon as possible during a 4 p.m. meeting this Friday. Why such a rush, you might ask. Because the developer has an option that is expiring to buy the mall property; The mayor
seems more concerned about protecting the developer’s interest than your interests! Meaning, the less you know about the details of the deal the better!
This decision by the MARC and Commission is the most momentous tax revenue
policy decision in the county's history, with 30- year plus consequences, yet ACC has not
been proactive to engage the public. The MARC did decide late Tuesday to hold a
public hearing Friday afternoon on the proposal just when people are focusing on spring holidays! Scheduled for 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Planning Department's conference room at 1290 W. Dougherty St., this gathering is nothing more than a fig leaf. Clearly ACC does not want public participation by setting this meeting when they did.
So, what are the key details you need to know? The developer wants ACC to reimburse $189.5 million of the developer's $474 million cost to redevelop the Georgia Square Mall site. As of Feb. 28, it appears the cost is actually $630 million, a significant and consequential difference not explained and with an unknown impact. What is important to know is that the $189.5 million from ACC includes $48.3 million for reimbursement of developer financing costs and $62.2 million, or 40 percent, toward the total cost for construction of apartment housing.
For this $110.5 million ACC gets 99 affordable housing apartments (140 bedrooms). The deal calls for school system employees to have priority for the apartments, units, leaving one to wonder how county employees feel about the fairness of that arrangement. If my arithmetic is right, taxpayers will effectively pay $1.1 million/unit for affordable housing. But is this housing really affordable?
The agreement with ACC limits affordable housing to those earning 80 percent of the
Average Monthly Income (AMI), which in Athens is $65,840. What this means is that
housing is affordable if a household’s income is at or below 80 percent of AMI and can live
there without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Since
the medium household income in Athens is $43,229, it is obvious that not many people
who need this housing would qualify for these affordable apartments.
Commissioner Hamby and Dr. Anderson of the MARC Board have been challenging this
deal and making recommendations to decrease the $189 million cost to ACC while
increasing the number of affordable housing units and lowering the AMI to meet
the needs of those who truly need affordable housing. So far, their well-reasoned
arguments have fallen on deaf ears. This is odd given ACC’s affordable housing
What about the other $79 million of the $189 million? Citizens get 1.3 miles of paved bike
and walking paths with bike storage, greenspace, 1,024 trees, storm waster improvements, paving/curbs/gutters, a new bus station behind the Burger King, and a new venue for the Boys and Girls Club. The Clarke County School District demanded a childcare facility that would be rented out for $100 per month and other things.
So, how did we get here. Most of us agree that the mall has seen better days and
it is time to move forward. The previous 2022 redevelopment proposal was not
approved in part due to affordable housing concerns. This new proposal is
appealing, a mixed-use development of new/renovated commercial retail, office
space, and 1,188 units of new housing (202 townhomes built wall-to-wall, 816
apartments, and 170 apartment like units for older adults) with a lot of
green spaces. The glossy pictures look great! But is there market demand for this project? The retail component is questionable since neither ACC nor the developer has a marketing or business plan for this retail space, and there are no letters of interest or intent from any business to suggest high confidence occupancy. The occupancy rate at Summerville off
Jennings Mill might be an indicator of market demand for housing in that area and some are concerned about over capacity. Perhaps the strategy is “if we build it, they will come! Is that a bet we want to make? A cynic might observe that this project appears to be about building and selling townhouses for investment
return and more student housing for rental income while offering ACC 99
affordable housing units as a teaser. You decide.
ACC’s own 3rd party analyses, ACC staff reports, and citizen comments have raised
many red flags about this proposal including its asserted benefits. But ACC has not
been forthcoming in answering questions about this proposal and publicly
addressing these red flags. Perhaps this lack of transparency is because to publicly
expose the details might undermine the positive spin about the proposal.
It is encouraging a few commissioners and perhaps one or two school board
members are now asking questions about the details and what ACC is getting
relative to other uses for $189M. That is their job, and they should be digging into
the details with a critical eye even at this hour. My sense is that many
commissioners are just going along contrary to their beliefs about this project and
just need courage to stand up for a better deal. Perhaps a word of
encouragement from you can make a difference.
Officials appear enamored with the dream and promises of this project to the
point of ignoring the red flags as they rush to seal a bad deal. The mayor and his
administration should be engaged in tough negotiations to arrive at a more
modest proposal instead of bowing to the demands of the developer and
spinning about it being a great deal.
The current big-bang development approach and price tag is not affordable for
taxpayers. If the development was a good investment, then the private sector
would not need public dollars to execute it. So why should taxpayers fill the gap?
ACC should significantly lower the $189M level of public financing to include
eliminating the $48.3M in financing costs and the $46.6M for dense apartment
construction as a start. The scope of the project should fit within the existing TAD
policy of 15% cost reimbursement threshold and 15–20-year life span for a TAD
rather than 29% and 30 years as the developer wants. If ACC’s goal is more
affordable housing, then settling for 99 units at this price is failure. Achieving significant gains in the number of affordable housing units for those with lower incomes is a ACC strategic goal,. So why is ACC accepting this deal? The public deserves better payback and ACC can build a lot of affordable housing and fill a lot of potholes for $110 million!
I believe the developer is responding in good faith to a sincere ACC and public to realize a solution to what has been a growing problem for years. The developer should be commended, but that is not the issue at hand. The issues at hand deal with how to achieve best value for taxpayer dollars and ensuring the red flags about this project are mitigated to improve the odds for a successful outcome of a more affordable project scope. Achieving a successful outcome nest within the broader context of revitalizing the Atlanta Highway corridor where the critical path is mitigating the ever-increasing volume of traffic. Athens is choking on traffic and there are no plans for an integrated approach to first mitigate the existing traffic that will be exacerbated by this project. The assertions about the halo benefits of this project, to the degree these benefits exist in reality, would be enhanced would by revitalization of the entire corridor. For the Caterpillar project, the halo effect never materialized.
The public and those making decisions should not be distracted by the shiny objects of this proposal when making such momentous and long-term tax policy decisions. This is one of those times where the public needs to focus intently and critically on the issues and get engaged directly now with urgency.
Call and email your commissioner now to tell them to vote no on this deal as it is now structured and seek a better one or defer a decision until presented with an affordable and better deal.