Trending in Atlanta: Private Sales of Public Lands

On August 12, CCI hosted a spirited panel discussion regarding the sale of public land to private entities. In the wake of the controversial recent sales of Fort McPherson and Underground, together with the impending sales of Turner Field and the Civic Center, we wanted to bring the community together to talk about the process behind deals like these and why they happen.

Our panel was composed of:

  • Kit Sutherland of the Old Fourth Ward Business Association
  • Matt Garbett of  the Turner Field Coalition and Land Use & Zoning Chair for NPU-V
  • CCI’s own Kyle Kessler, the head of our South Downtown Initiative.

The panel was moderated by CCI’s Melonie Tharpe. Each member of the panel brought their own unique story and perspective to the panel as all three members either had been involved in public land redevelopment or are currently participating a current public-to-private deal.

Kit started the evening by sharing her experience with Ponce City Market and how she had been involved her local NPU lobbying to make sure the “right” type of development took place when the city sold off the property.

The building that is now Ponce City Market started life as a Sears distribution and office complex that was later donated to the city. What became City Hall East was unable to occupy more than a miniscule portion of the massive building. When the city sought to sell, Kit and a coalition of committed residents made the case to sell to a developer committed to creating a vibrant mixed-use project that improves the entire neighborhood.

Matt spoke next on behalf of the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition. The coalition’s goal is to make sure that whatever replaces The Ted is built the right way and strengthens the neighboring communities. Matt’s perspective was that the city needs to think long term about what impact the built environment has on communities and not be satisfied with “good enough” development. Matt explained the importance of people power and said that “[a]ll the social media in the world is no substitute for having a group of people show up at city hall”. A Livable Centers Initiative grant is currently being used to study the Turner Field area, a move that Matt hopes will help the city make the right choice for what happens there.

Kyle’s presentation was focused on Underground Atlanta’s quick sale. He mentioned that a key problem for neighborhoods and community organizations is that they are often completely left out of the loop when the city enters into negotiations regarding properties.

Kyle, who also serves as the president of the Downtown neighborhood association, said he found out about Underground’s sale to WRS when he read about it in the news and neither the city nor developers reached out to the community before passing a rushed resolution through City Council authorizing the sale. Kyle is optimistic for future developments with the recent appointment of Tim Keane as Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Community Development.

Towards the end of the evening, audience members entered into a discussion with our panelists. There were too many bits of conversation to share them all here, but one of the more interesting exchanges was when an audience member asked if the attitude neighborhood activists put off is overly dour and turns off politicians from engaging with the community. The panelists gave their own responses and notably Matt pointed out that while he was involved with NPU-M, the NPU was rarely hostile to development and, by his estimation, 99% of zoning applications were approved.

Kyle meanwhile said “development won’t happen on its own and be a silver bullet,” and insisted that community members and organizations with skin in the game have a right to be involved because they live there, will be living near whatever takes place, and put significant time and effort into the community.