Legislators To Discuss ‘City of DeKalb’

By Ralph Ellis for Virginia Highland/Druid Hills Patch
Some people want to create a city out of DeKalb County’s unincorporated communities.
State senators from DeKalb County will meet this week to talk about possibly forming a “City of DeKalb.”
The meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Nov. 29 in room 450 at the State Capitol, CrossroadNews.com reported.
A City of DeKalb has been talked about for decades but the idea has gained new urgency because more cities are forming in DeKalb County, like Brookhaven. Those cities reduce the county government’s property tax revenue.
Here’s what some county officials said in the CrossRoads.com article:

  • County Commissioner Jeff Rader: “What  would be the main street and common interest. We won’t lose  the county government. We will gain another layer of government.”
  • Commissioner Lee May: “It  is not just about preserving revenue, but comprehensive planning for  the county as a whole.”
  • Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton: “The  entire county planned and put investments in infrastructure and then  for a small group to take it without compensation for the county is not  fair. … We can’t let a few people destroy one of the best counties.”

Most Residents at Meeting Unsure About Cityhood

By Jonathan Cribbs for North Druid Hills/Briarcliff Patch
About 100 people showed up at Oak Grove United Methodist Church on Monday to listen to several local politicos talk about what it would take to start a city in DeKalb County.
The vast majority of residents at a Monday meeting to learn about cityhood in northern DeKalb County said they were unsure they wanted to be part of a new city.
And everyone was even less sure about where another new city might be.
In what was billed as an information-only session hosted by the Briarcliff Woods East Neighborhood Association at Oak Grove United Methodist Church, the vast majority of 100 or so residents raised their hands to indicate they were unsure about cityhood. Only a small number showed they favored or disliked the idea.
Fran Millar, DeKalb County’s sole Republican state senator; Tom Taylor, a DeKalb state represenatative, and Dan Weber, a former state senator in DeKalb, spent roughly 90 minutes talking with residents about cityhood in the county. They spoke about everything from the necessary $30,000 cost of a study to determine a future city’s feasability to the different services a city can offer. (Peachtree Corners, for instance, is “city-light,” which means it exists almost solely to give its residents control over code enforcement and zoning and doesn’t offer much in the way of tangible services.)
No boundaries for a city were discussed. After the meeting it wasn’t clear who wanted a city, where that movement might start and what communities it might include. It was obvious that Monday’s meeting was the very beginning of a difficult process that might seek to organize swaths of residents and communities into a collective enterprise. But, this area, the North Druid Hills-Briarcliff area (or the Lakeside-Emory-Northlake area or whatever else you choose to call it), has existed for so long officially as unincorporated DeKalb County.
One resident, a marketing executive, said one of the most important questions that needs to be answered is, at its heart, about branding: “Where do we live right now?”
It’s a question that doesn’t appear to have vexed the many residents who have organized into nearby cities recently such as Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, areas that arguably had clearer identities before they became cities.
But Millar, of Dunwoody, said it was important to look at what residents could get out of cityhood.
“When I think of North Druid Hills, this area, I think of preservation. I think of zoning,” he said. “When something goes wrong, you’ve got someone down the street you can complain to.”
Millar, Taylor and Weber also sought to dispel assumptions about cityhood – things that might drive some residents to want it in the wrong way. For instance:

  • The chances of a city getting its own school district are almost nill, Taylor said. No matter what, most of your property taxes will still continue to go to the DeKalb County School System.
  • Starting a city doesn’t mean you’re seceding from the county. You will most likely continue to pay for some county services such as water and sewer and garbage collection. About 80 percent of tax revenues will continue to go to the county, Millar said: “When cities are created, people are still part of Dekalb County.”
  • It’s a difficult battle and a slog of a process. And if you can get cityhood approved by the legislature, the residents still have to vote in favor of it.

All of this is also separate from a movement to create a City of DeKalb, which is the subject of a study committee in the legislature. Millar said he thinks it’s nearly impossible that would happen, and no legislation proposing it would make it off the floor of the House or Senate.
A number of residents expressed frustration that the meeting had no one speaking against cityhood. Although Jeff Rader, DeKalb County’s District 2 commissioner who has spoken against cityhood before, was at the meeting, he left early before making any remarks.
“You have shown us quite simply that you’re all pro-city,” one  resident shouted as a woman explained that any new city needs a  significant amount of commercial or industrial property to finance a  city without over-taxing residents. “Let’s move on to another question.”
Kevin Levitas, a former DeKalb state represenative who represented Briarcliff Woods, said at the next meeting he organizes, speakers opposing cityhood would be invited to speak. He said he was shooting for Nov. 29 as a tentative date.
No packets or heavily detailed information about cityhood was handed out. Millar, Taylor and Weber offered mostly anecdotes and general reflections on what it took to get cities started in Dunwoody and Brookhaven. Millar, for instance, said Dunwoody had 90 days to organize a police force for the city, once voted approved it – a Georgia record, he said.
“Even when these cities are created, they still have warts, believe me,” he said.
Another resident said everyone in the room needed to consider the idea for themselves and not be pushed by state legislators.
“There’s a lot of great reasons to have a city. But if you want to start a city, the leadership needs to come from you, not from state legislators,” he said.
But that sort of leadership hasn’t emerged yet.
“We don’t need to know how to [become a city] until we know why to do it,” another resident said.
What is your take on this movement? Add your comment below.
For more information, check out these links:
http://northdruidhills.patch.com//articles/curious-residents-ponder-cityhood-in-oak-grove
http://northdekalbcity.blogspot.com/
http://theotherbrookhaven.blogspot.com/

Affordable Lindbergh’s Last Stand

A controversial rezoning proposal in Atlanta’s Lindbergh  community, to be considered for the second time by the City Council of  Atlanta on Monday, October 01, 2012, will in part determine the fate of  some two hundred low-income families living in affordable multi-family  apartments like the San Lucia Apartments near Adina Drive, Lindbergh  Drive, Morosgo Drive, and Piedmont Road; as well as the ability of  working families to have some opportunity to afford to live in the  Buckhead area.
Developer  Jeff Fuqua wants to build high-end apartments at market rate rents; a  big box, 3.7 acre Wal-Mart superstore with a giant, 4.2 acre surface  parking lot; and a park.  This, despite the fact that the existing  shopping center there already has a Target, which already includes a  grocery store inside.
Read more >>>

Atlanta Council Delays Vote on Walmart Development

Jaclyn Hirsch – Buckhead Patch
Atlanta City Council failed yet again on Monday to make a decision on the controversial mixed-use development plan off Lindbergh Drive west of North Druid Hills that includes a Walmart.
Council voted to send the zoning request back to committee to address the land use issues, according to a note sent to residents by the Lindridge Martin Manor neighborhood association.
Developers want to build a mixed-use development that would include a Walmart off Lindbergh Drive near the MARTA station.
But the property is zoned for residential use, and Monday’s city council vote indicates that council will not approve the project unless the property is rezoned.
“The Walmart development cannot go forward with out the land use being changed,” Lindridge Martin Manor Neighborhood Association President Roxanne Sullivan wrote to neighbors. “There was lots of speculation as to what does this mean. Most of them involved the fact that the developer did not have the votes for approval. It most likely will not come back from committee.”
Developers battled with neighbors for roughly two years in an effort to move the project forward.
Many residents in and around Buckhead opposed the project due to the size of the development and the location.
Andrea Bennett, who chairs NPU-B’s Development and Transportation Committee, told Reporter Newspapers “the accusations of prejudice against Walmart are unfounded.”
“We voted against this before Walmart ever entered the picture, before we even heard Walmart was involved,” Bennett said. “Our issue isn’t whether this is a Walmart or whether it’s a Nieman-Marcus or something else. It’s about the form of the development.”

Website to ‘Save Lindbergh’ Launches

A website has been officially launched in opposition to the controversial Lindbergh development.
NPU-B Board member Abbie Shepherd spoke about the site at last week’s meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN), during Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook’s lengthy and informative discussion about the development.
Buckhead Patch originally reported on the BCN meeting here.
The site aims to inform the public on why the development is bad for the community, show ways that those interested can contribute to the anti-development initiative and enable others to get the word out about the movement. It features a listing of contact information for Atlanta City Council members and signed letters of opposition.
The webiste reads:

Savelindbergh.org is made up of the people in opposition to this project. We are local residents, neighborhood organizations, homeowner and civic associations, business owners, concerned citizens and voters. You can join too by commenting on this very site and contacting your local City Council members.

Shook, who said he had seen savelindbergh.org, asked Shepherd to make her name and the names of others directly affiliated with the site more visible — in order to make it easier to engage in “meaningful dialogue.” While Shepherd pointed out the signed letters, she agreed to post those names elsewhere on the site.
by Michael Packer for Buckhead Patch

Buckhead Walmart zoning issues… a tangled web

from Buckhead View
Editor’s Note: The following is a news analysis piece by BuckheadView related to the controversial proposed “big box” mixed-use development near Lindbergh Center and the intersection of Piedmont and Lindbergh roads in south Buckhead. This piece is based on known facts, overheard statements, off-the-record conversations with public officials and civic leaders and rumors from credible sources.
BuckheadView has learned that Sally Silver, the chairman of Neighborhood Planning Unit B who also works in the City Council office of Dist. 7 representative Howard Shook, has been told to stop speaking out against the proposed Sembler Co./Fuqua Development Lindbergh Center area project, which likely would include a big box Walmart store.

NPU-B Chair Sally Silver

The proposed development, which started out as a totally commercial project and has morphed into a mixed-use commercial and residential plan, has been repeatedly denied zoning and land-use changes by the NPU-B board and its Zoning and Development & Transportation committees over the past year and a half.Silver has been very vocal about her objections to the “big box” aspect of the planned development, its huge surface parking lot and its lack of urban design and transit orientation, both during NPU-B meetings and before the city’s Zoning Review Board hearing last month.
As reported this week by the Garden Hills neighborhood’s Town Crier web site, and confirmed to BuckheadView by other sources as well, both Shook and fellow Councilman Alex Wan have told people they will support the land-use and zoning changes to allow the development to move forward.
However, at the August meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods Thursday night, Shook denied he had told anyone that he would cast his vote in favor of the developers and their plans. From what BuckheadView’s sources say, he may have miss-spoke to the BCN.
(For BuckheadView’s coverage of Councilman Shook’s comments on the Lindbergh area development at the BCN meeting, go here.)
Several sources told BuckheadView that Silver was muzzled on this issue by Shook himself, and, if she did not stop speaking out on the issue, she might lose her job in the councilman’s Dist. 7 office, a job she has held for many years.
Councilman Howard Shook and Sally Silver are shown together at an earlier annual meeting of the North Buckhead neighborhood association.

In response to a phone call from BuckheadView asking Sally Silver if she had been told not to continue speaking out in opposition to the proposed Sembler/Fuqua development, Silver provided the following email, which she said would be the full extent of her reply:“As current Chair of NPU-B I have 1 1/2 yrs of involvement with this case. At no time during this process did I receive direction or instructions from Councilman Shook. As NPU-B overwhelmingly voted to oppose this rezoning, I attempted to do my best at explaining that stance to the Zoning Review Board (ZRB). Although NPU-B voted to deny the rezoning, Planning Staff, and the Zoning Review Board support the rezoning.
“This project has now moved forward and will be heard by the Council Zoning Committee and Council Community Development/Human Resources Committee. Both of these committees are aware of NPU-B’s stance regarding this case.
“I can report that the Zoning Committee will be meeting the morning of 8/20 (before the scheduled Council meeting) and the case will be held (deferred).”
That likely will be the last we will hear from Silver on this issue, as a public servant (chair of NPU-B, which is directly involved with this project, and a member of Howard Shook’s council staff) or an Atlanta resident. She may, however, be heard relaying the Dist. 7 office’s public line.
District 7 Councilman Howard Shook

Speaking to the BCN Thursday night, Councilman Shook defended the Lindbergh Center area project by saying, “With well-connected developers and their attorneys, and an administration that would love to see us start crawling out of our depression, I don’t have a monopoly on the outcome of this,” Shook said.He went on to explain that council members are going to be told that the development meets the legal criteria as asserted by the planning department, ZRB and some neighborhood members — even ones that don’t like the project.
The telling point Shook made in that statement, however, was that the mayor wants development to get us moving out of the recession and to add tax monies in the city’s coffers—providing we don’t then give Sembler and Fuqua tax credit incentives to build the project. But he said the mayor definitely is involved in the outcome of this.
BuckheadView also has learned that Mayor Kasim Reed may be personally calling the shots on getting this development approved because of commitments he made to Walmart to help the company obtain other locations in Atlanta as a result of Walmart agreeing to take over the failed Publix market location in Atlanta’s West End Village.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

Several credible sources have told BuckheadView that Mayor Reed has “a very good relationship with the Walmart people.” These sources say Walmart wants to expand its presence in Atlanta and that Mayor Reed supports them in that. Word is he also may be helping facilitate Walmart being able to open a store in the Cascade area. BuckheadView is told that is not yet approved, but will be very shortly.One thing for sure, the processes and procedures for granting land-use and zoning changes for this particular development have been escalated in the past couple of months and at the same time, the scheduling has become totally screwed up.
For instance, the request for changes in zoning for the project went before the Zoning Review Board on July 12 and narrowly was approved by the ZRB. However, it has been determined that it should never have been presented to the ZRB at that time, since a required Development of Regional Impact (DRI) study had not been done.
That DRI study was not even requested by the city’s Planning Department until July 13, the day after the ZRB hearing.
But the confusion does not stop there. City Council also cannot take action on either the zoning or land-use changes for this project until the DRI study is completed and presented to Council. However, the City Council’s Zoning Committee had scheduled a hearing on the zoning issues last week, but was unable to act on it because of a lack of a quorum.
This was the latest site plan presented to NPU-B earlier this summer. The 150,000-square-foot bix-box Walmart is the brown area at the top left.

The Council Zoning Committee deferred action on the zoning issue until its Aug. 20 meeting, the same day the full Council returns from summer recess and was to have voted on the zoning issue related to this project.To even further confuse the issue, the Council’s Zoning Committee apparently cannot take action on the zoning issues on this case until the Council’s Community Development/Human Resources Committee first votes on the requested changes in land-use, which involves the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan. The CD/HR Committee does not meet until Aug. 28.
But in reality, none of these city bodies can vote on any aspect of this project until the DRI study is completed, and that is not likely to happen before Aug. 20.
A photo of a fairly typical modern Walmart big-box store.

Does this not make Atlanta residents wonder if the right hand knows what the left hand is doing down at City Hall? These procedures are nothing new. But it could be that the process is being forced forward to meet someone’s agenda—possibly Mayor Kasim Reed’s.You have to wonder why the city’s Planning Department staff originally denied the developers’ plans and then ended up approving them.
You have to ask why the DRI study was not applied for until July 13, the day after the ZRB voted on the zoning issue involved with the development. And why would the developers say they were told a DRI study was not necessary?
At one of its last NPU-B board meetings where the site plan
was discussed, Silver and others on the board said they
likely would be willing to accept one of Walmart’s new
Neighborhood Market grocery stores, but not a big box.

Why did one of Mayor Reed’s top policy advisors show up at a zoning meeting for the very first time when this development’s zoning issue was being considered?Oh, and should be ask why Walmart is putting up the $25,000 for the winner of the contest to design the park across the street from City Hall? Will there be a Walmart there too?
Should we ask why a member of City Council might ignore the wishes of his constituents and vote for a development the NPUs and neighborhoods have said they do not want?
And, you have to ask why Sally Silver, the chair of NPU-B, had to leave Aug. 7 at the end of the regular NPU-B board meeting and before several members of the NPU board met to discuss the Lindbergh area proposed development in a special executive session.
Those who attended that meeting decided to draw up a formal document outlining how the proposed development conflicts with both the letter and intent of the SPI-15 ordinance by which the development must be judged.
Like Councilman Shook, BuckheadView is awaiting that document and will bring it to our readers as soon as we get it.

Council of Neighborhoods grills Councilman Shook about stand on Lindbergh area ‘big box’ proposal

from Buckhead View
Those attending the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods August meeting Thursday evening wanted to know where Dist. 7 City Councilman Howard Shook stands on the issue of the changing 21 acres off Piedmont Road in the Lindbergh area from high-density residential to commercial zoning for a planned ‘big box’ development.

Many walked away from the meeting not knowing if they got a commitment from Shook on how he would vote or not. But the Buckhead councilman told the audience he is in a listening mode.
City Councilman Howard Shook makes a point at BCN meeting.

The strongest statement Shook made on the issue was “I have never told anyone that I would vote for this development,” which would be in opposition to the positions that Neighborhood Planning Unit B (NPU-B) and many neighborhoods in his district have formally expressed.
That remark by Shook was directly in response to a posting by a report by the Garden Hills neighborhood’s Town Crier report earlier in the day, which said Shook and Dist. 6 Councilman Alex Wan both had committed to vote in favor of the development.
Over almost 18 months of negotiating, NPU-B repeatedly denied plans for the mixed-use development with a 150,000-square-foot big box store near Lindbergh Center that is proposed by The Sembler Co. and Fuqua Development. NPU-B denied both land-use changes in the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan and changes in zoning for the entire 21 acres from high-density residential to commercial.
Since 2001, the area surrounding Lindbergh Center has been designated a Transportation-Oriented Development (TOD) and Special Public Interest District (SPI) by the city of Atlanta, with specific zoning regulations meant to maximize transportation resources and create more pedestrian-friendly, urban development.
Shook told the group his vote has to be governed by whether or not the development plan submitted by The Sembler Co. and Fuqua Development meets the criteria laid out in the SPI-15 (Special Public Interest district 15) legislation or not. “That is what I have to look at,” he said.
He said he sees a plan that has a 3-acre park or greenspace, and less than 50 percent of retail and a little over 50 percent of residential development. And he said the parking spaces meet the SPI-15 criteria.
Early in the meeting, Howard Shook (center) and Bob
Schneider of the Garden Hills neighborhood (right) listen
to presentation from George Dusenbury, commissioner of
the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.
“Tell me point by point how the final plan submitted violates SPI-15,” Shook challenged the group, which included representatives of both NPU-B and neighboring NPU-F as well as representatives of neighborhoods which are BCN members.
Shook said that, although the NPU-B full board almost unanimously denied both the land use and zoning changes for the property, the city’s Zoning Review Board approved the plans by a vote of 4-3 and the city’s Planning Department also approved the final plans. He also indicated that the Development Review Committee for SPI-15 approved the developer’s plans.
NPU-B board member
Abbie Shepherd
NPU-B board member Abbie Shepherd, who also is a member of the SPI-15 Development Review Committee, challenged Shook on that, saying the DRC “tore the plan apart during its discussion” but then decided it could not take a vote on the issue “because there had not been a change in zoning approved for the property.”
Shook said he will seek to have the zoning change from residential to commercial held in the City Council’s Zoning Committee for further study when the committee meets Aug. 20, the same day the full council was originally scheduled to discuss the issue.
That all may be moot, since the Community Development Human Resources Committee of City Council first must approve a change in land use for the plan before any zoning change can be considered by the Zoning Committee.
NPU-F Chair Jane Rawlings

Another wrinkle in the process was brought up by Jane Rawlings, chair of NPU-F which also has gone on record as opposing the proposed 21-acre development bounded by Lindbergh Avenue, Morosgo and Adina drives and is behind the Zesto;s on Piedmont Road.
Rawlings pointed out that the Atlanta Regional Commission is required to conduct a Development of Regional Impact study on the proposal because of its impact on regional transportation arteries and the additional traffic it is likely to create. She said that study was only requested on July 15 and would take some time to complete.
Both Rawlings and Shook agreed that no city action can proceed until that Development of Regional Impact study is completed and submitted to the city for review.
After several in the audience questioned that the developers would stick to their “mixed-use” site plan and turn the site into an all-commercial development, Shook said,  “I am aware that there is a back door issue that needs to be locked up to make sure that somehow this doesn’t end up being totally commercial, which I have committed to do.”
Rawlings asked Shook point blank if he would vote in opposition if he was presented with a list of how the development violates SPI-15.
“If you show me facts, I will follow you around all day long,” Shook replied.
BCN Chairman Jim King

To the approval of many attending the meeting, BCN Chairman Jim King challenged Shook to vote with the neighborhoods in his district and his constituents and vote to deny the rezoning for the development and the plans as proposed.
King urged Shook to work on his colleagues to get them to also vote against the development plans saying, “I would think out of respect for you and your vote they would follow your lead,” Shook said his colleagues certainly respect him and his positions, but he is not “entitled” to having them vote the way he would like.
King then said to Shook, “I have not heard you ask for help in convincing your colleagues” to vote to against these land use and zoning changes and against the development plans.
“The neighborhoods want you to vote no,” King said. “It is your district. I think they [other council members] will respect you if you represent your neighborhoods. I’ve seen you vote many times on principal before on other issues and I think this is an issue to the neighborhoods that is a matter of principal.”
“With well connected developers and their attorneys, and an administration that would love to see us start crawling out of our depression, I don’t have a monopoly on the outcome of this,” Shook said.
He went on to explain that council members are going to be told that the development meets the legal criteria as asserted by the planning department, ZRB and some neighborhood members – even ones that don’t like the project.
“They are going to listen to me, some more than others, although there will be some that, the more they become aware with Buckhead’s displeasure with the project, the more enticing it will become to vote for it,” he explained.
“It is zoned residential and they want to change it to commercial. That doesn’t seem like people are acting in good faith with whatever SPI-15 is, however weak it is,” King said. “If that is what the agreement was, that it be residential, the City is not acting in good faith on that. That is the way it comes across and i think that is what is rubbing everybody wrong.”
NPU-B Development & Transportation
Committee Chair Andrea Bennett
NPU-B Development & Transportation Committee Chair Andrea Bennett, who was attending the meeting and supported the actions of her committee and the NPU-B in denying the zoning change for the property, said she heard no real commitment of support from Shook during the meeting.
“If he votes against the zoning change and the development plans, there is at least a chance some other members of City Council will follow his vote,” Bennett said. “But if he doesn’t take a strong stand against it, there is no chance other council members will vote against it.”
Bennett said those that might follow Shook in denying the development plans could be Dist. 6 Councilman Alex Wan, Dist. 9 Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, At-Large Councilman Aaron Watson and maybe Dist. 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore. That would provide five votes against. With just three more votes the controversial issue would be denied and go away.
Shook urged those at the BCN meeting to send him emails with their thoughts, but cautioned them to sign their emails. He indicated he does not pay much attention to emails from people who refuse to say who they are.

Where It All Went Wrong: If only we could undo the MARTA Compromise of 1971

Doug Monroe for Atlanta Magazine
8/1/2012

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta’s past lapses in judgment haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.
At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn’t just a one-time blunder—it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region’s transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there’s no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl is key to the metro area’s potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future–type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we’d settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical “undo” key?
The transit compromise of 1971.
Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.
In 1971, given the lack of support for MARTA by the five core counties, then Mayor Sam Massell came back with a new plan: to provide an ongoing subsidy for MARTA through a sales tax levied in Fulton, DeKalb, and the City of Atlanta. No other jurisdiction in Georgia had a local option sales tax, so the General Assembly had to approve the idea. When the notoriously anti-Atlanta legislators gave the go-ahead, Massell called a press conference that featured a flatbed truck pulling up in front of city hall, facing the Capitol, with a large billboard that said, “Thank You, Georgia Lawmakers!” Massell then dug a hole in the city hall lawn and buried a hatchet to symbolize his appreciation for the state’s rare support of the city.
In a promotional stunt worthy of Mad Men, Massell sent a bevy of young women to the Capitol in pink hot pants with little keys to the city, a proclamation expressing the city’s gratitude, and invitations to city hall for a lunch featuring fried chicken (for Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox), peanuts (for Governor Jimmy Carter), and, of course, Coca-Cola. “We got a four-column picture—the biggest exposure we ever got from the Atlanta newspapers,” recalls Massell, now president of the Buckhead Coalition.
After getting the legislative approval for the sales-tax option, Massell had to persuade voters to pass the sales tax. “We were going to buy the existing bus company, which was then charging sixty cents and a nickel transfer each way—$1.30 a day—and they were about to go out of business. I promised the community we would drop that fare to fifteen cents each way immediately,” Massell says. The daily fare would plunge from $1.30 to thirty cents. Not everyone believed him. City Councilman Henry Dodson cruised the city in a Volkswagen with a PA system that blared, “It’s a trick! If they can’t do it for sixty cents, how are they going to do it for fifteen?”
Massell countered the VW with higher visibility, chartering a helicopter to hover over the Downtown Connector, congested even then, while he called through a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes!”
“This being the Bible Belt, they thought God was telling them what to do,” Massell quips today. Still, to make sure Atlantans voted his way, he rode buses throughout the city, passing out brochures to riders, and he visited community groups with a blackboard and chalk to do the math on the sales tax. Voters approved the plan by just a few hundred votes.
Another of the blunders that crippled MARTA at the outset—and haunts it to this day—was engineered behind closed doors by the segregationist Lester Maddox, according to Massell, who believes Maddox’s intervention was even more devastating than the vote not to extend MARTA into the suburbs.
After the Georgia House of Representatives approved funding MARTA through the sales tax, Massell had to approach the Georgia State Senate, where Maddox held sway. Maddox told the mayor he would block the vote in the senate unless MARTA agreed that no more than 50 percent of the sales tax revenue would go to operating costs, Massell recalls. “He called me into his office and told me that was it. Either I swallowed that or he was going to kill it and it would not pass.”
That has meant that whenever MARTA needed more money for operating expenses, it had to cut elsewhere or raise fares. As a result, MARTA has raised the fare over the years to today’s $2.50, making it one of the priciest transit systems in the country.
Although the 50 percent limit has resulted in higher fares, few people realized the ramifications of the so-called “Maddox amendment” at the time, Massell says. In fact, it actually was viewed favorably by DeKalb legislators because they were afraid MARTA would spend all its money in Atlanta before extending rail service to DeKalb, according to a thirty-six-page history of MARTA written by former State Treasurer Thomas D. Hills.
Hills’s MARTA history also illuminates why the state never contributed funds for MARTA, despite that 1966 vote that would have allowed it to. One early plan was for the MARTA sales tax to be three-quarters of a penny, with the state chipping in up to 10 percent of the cost of the system as approved by Georgia voters. But early in his administration, according to Hills’s history, then Governor Carter called MARTA attorney Stell Huie—who was on a quail-hunting trip—and said the state couldn’t afford its $25 million share for MARTA. Carter offered to raise the sales tax to a full penny if the state didn’t have to pay, and Huie agreed. The lawyer said the 1 percent sales tax plan came out of the House Committee on Ways and Means and “there was a tag end, not even part of the act, that just said the state won’t put any money in.”
Hills wrote that the events help to “explain why some representatives of state government and others in the community understand that the state’s support in allowing the local option sales tax for MARTA was a bargain in exchange for a reprieve for the state from future funding for MARTA.”
The 1965 and 1971 votes against MARTA by residents of Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett weren’t votes about transportation. They were referendums on race. Specifically, they were believed to be about keeping the races apart. Consider the suburbanites voting back then. The formerly rural, outlying counties had exploded with an astonishing exodus of white people fleeing the city as the black population swelled during the civil rights era. This mass migration came at a time when Atlanta was known through its public relations bluster as “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
The 1960 census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city—Atlanta’s white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kevin M. Kruse, the Princeton professor who wrote White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta’s slogan should have been “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.” “Racial concerns trumped everything else,” Kruse says. “The more you think about it, Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together.”
In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham Davis observed, “The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood.”
The votes against MARTA were not the only evidence of the role of race in Atlanta’s transportation plans. The interstate highways were designed to gouge their way through black neighborhoods. Georgia Tech history professor Ronald H. Bayor, author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, says the failure of the 1971 MARTA referendum in Gwinnett and Clayton was the beginning of the region’s transportation problems because of the lack of mass transit in the suburbs. Yet his research goes back to the racial reckoning behind the route of the interstate highway system that began construction in the 1950s.
The highway now called the Downtown Connector, the stretch where I-75 and I-85 run conjoined through the city, gutted black neighborhoods by forcing the removal of many working-class blacks from the central business district. It could have been worse. The highway was first designed to run smack through the headquarters of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the city’s major black-owned business. “The original intention was to destroy that black business,” Bayor says. A protest by the black community saved the structure and moved the highway route a few blocks east, where it still managed to cut through the black community’s main street, Auburn Avenue.
Interstate 20 on the west side of town is a particularly egregious example of race-based road-building. Bayor wrote: “In a 1960 report on the transitional westside neighborhood of Adamsville . . . the Atlanta Bureau of Planning noted that ‘approximately two to three years ago, there was an “understanding” that the proposed route of the West Expressway [I-20 West] would be the boundary between the white and Negro communities.’”
The strategy didn’t work, of course, as whites fled by the tens of thousands. One of the unintended consequences of the race-based road-building is today’s traffic jams. “What happened didn’t change the racial makeup of the metro area but led to congestion within the metro area,” Bayor says.
Aside from political vengeance and racial politics, another enormous factor was at play in transportation policies of the 1960s and 1970s: Atlanta’s love affair with the automobile. The great migration out of the city started in the late 1950s—just as workers at General Motors’ vast Lakewood assembly plant in southeast Atlanta put the finishing touches on one of the most iconic cars in history: the 1957 Chevy.
The allure of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA started running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and fill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn’t afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working-class blacks. Racist suburbanites brayed that the system’s acronym stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”
While MARTA was struggling to crank up the bus and rail system, the State of Georgia and its powerful highway department had other, bigger ideas.
David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says the road-building binge that led to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta—some of the widest in the world—diminished MARTA’s potential. “It’s not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one big mistake—the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways,” says Goldberg, now communications director for Washington-based Transportation for America. “We were too damn successful—it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it.”
As metro Atlanta’s geographic expansion grew white-hot, developers had to move homebuyers—those fleeing the city and others moving South from the Rust Belt—in and out of the new subdivisions they were carving from the pine forests and red clay. Georgia started “building highways expressly to enrich developers,” Goldberg says. “A whole lot of land owners and developers who knew how to do suburban development had the ear of state government and the money to buy influence. They took all that money we had and put it into developing interchanges way out from town. A lot of what was new suburban development back then is now underused, decaying, and part of an eroding tax base in the older suburban areas.”
The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA—until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. “The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use,” Goldberg says. “The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion—the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin.” He refers to the neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, then force them to merge onto the freeways, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

More than forty years later, what does the failure to create MARTA as a regional system mean for Atlanta? Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and professor at George Washington University, has been watching Atlanta’s growth—and decline—for decades. In January he declared, “Atlanta is no longer Hotlanta.” He cited the free fall from the number eighty-ninespot on the list of the world’s 200 fastest-growing metro areas to ranking at 189 in just five years. Not to mention the plunge of 29 percent in average housing price per square foot between 2000 and 2010. Not to mention that Atlanta has the eleventh-most-congested traffic of 101 metro areas in the country.
“The big mistake was not taking advantage of MARTA,” Leinberger says. “Atlanta was given by the federal taxpayers a tremendous gift that they squandered as far as MARTA. It’s not just that Atlanta did not take advantage of it. They didn’t expand it and they didn’t recognize that it could allow them to build a balanced way of developing.”
Leinberger agrees that part of the region’s blindness toward MARTA’s potential was the belief “that the car was the be-all and end-all forever. The other part was the basic racism that still molds how Atlanta is built.”
The most maddening realization is that the once virtually all-white suburbs that voted against MARTA years ago are today quite diverse and reflect Atlanta’s evolution from a biracial city to a multiracial, multiethnic one. Today’s suburbs are not only home to African Americans, but also Latino, Asian, and Eastern European immigrants. The city’s diversity is projected to increase over the coming decades (see page 68). Many of the people who voted against MARTA decades ago are dead or retired. The suburban lifestyle they were so eager to defend has lost much of its cachet as gas prices soar and houses don’t sell. Smart young people up to their necks in college debt don’t want to spend their money and time driving cars back and forth; they want to live in town. Atlanta’s only neighborhoods to gain inflation-adjusted housing value in the past decade, Leinberger notes, were Virginia-Highland, Grant Park, and East Lake.
The Georgia Sierra Club’s opposition to the July 31 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax—on the grounds that the plan, despite including a majority for transit, was a sprawl-inducing road expansion—troubled Leinberger. “That’s a dangerous strategy. From what everybody tells me, this is a one-off.” He says the state legislature has traditionally treated Atlanta like a child, and is saying, “Finally, one time only, children, are we going to let you decide for yourself. This is it.”
The July 31 vote is “an Olympic moment,” he says. “If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area.” Forty years from now, will we look back at failure to pass the referendum as a mistake as devastating as the 1971 MARTA compromise?
Atlanta faces a classic problem. It boomed in the go-go decades at the end of the twentieth century when everyone zoomed alone in their cars from home to office to store. Now it must move beyond what worked in the past to a new era that demands a new way of building, with up to 70 percent of new development oriented around transit, Leinberger says. “Atlanta has a lot of catching up to do, but it’s hard for old dogs to learn new tricks.”
The never-ending ramifications of a race-based transportation infrastructure, built to accommodate a suburban driving lifestyle that has started to die off in a state that has traditionally refused to embrace mass transit, could doom Atlanta to a future as a newer, sunnier Detroit.
“It only takes a generation-plus of yinning when you should have yanged to wake up and say, ‘Oh my God! How did it happen?’” says outgoing MARTA General Manager Beverly A. Scott, who watched from afar the decline of her hometown, Cleveland.
Atlanta’s failure to build out MARTA looks even more shameful when compared with what happened with similar transit systems in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which started at the same time as MARTA, she says. “The reality is, this region got stuck. We have about half the build-out of what it was planned to be.” But San Francisco and Washington “kept building and moving . . . they had plans regardless of whether folks were red or blue. They had a vision and the fortitude to make purple and keep moving. We just got stuck.”
MARTA was born out of Atlanta’s giant ego in the days when the city was entering the major leagues across the board—baseball, football, international airport—bolstered by a racially harmonious reputation unmatched in the South, deserved or not. “You said to yourself, ‘We’re top-notch. Everybody’s got to have a rail system,’” Scott says. “But it was built as a manifestation of ‘we have arrived’ without a bigger vision of ‘what do we want to do for our region?’ You built it like a trophy.” Indeed, some of the Downtown MARTA stations were built on a scale that would please a pharaoh.
Yet Scott says she is no doomsayer. During her tenure at MARTA, she has seen marked progress in forging the civic- political infrastructure necessary to build an integrated transportation network. Her concern is that the region is at a critically urgent juncture in the process and can’t afford to lose focus or momentum.“There’s still much work to be done,” she says.
Word about Atlanta’s transportation muddle has gotten around. Scott says she’s been privy to meetings during which corporate relocation experts tell Chamber of Commerce members: “Hey, Atlanta is not only not at the top tier anymore, we’ve got companies saying, ‘Don’t put the Atlanta region on the list.’” It’s not just the congestion and pollution—“they’re not seeing leadership or plans to get yourself out of the fix.”
Atlanta’s leaderless transportation fix is the ultimate example of the admonition, “Be careful what you pray for.”
“This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation,” says historian Kevin Kruse. “As a result, they have been in their cars on 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. They’re just not moving anywhere.”

Atlanta’s quality of life to improve if we transform our ‘red fields’ into ‘green fields’

By VAL PETERSON, first lady of Georgia Tech for SaportaReport.com
Since coming to the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2009, one thing I have learned is that the City of Atlanta has truly benefitted from projects created by our students, faculty and alumni.  From our skyline to Atlantic Station to the Beltline, Atlanta would be a very different place without Georgia Tech.
A new project is being proposed by Mike Messner, a 1976 Civil Engineering graduate who grew up in Atlanta and still cares deeply about our city. In Mike’s mind there is far too much non-productive real estate and not enough green space in Atlanta.
Thus, in 2009, Mike and his wife, Jenny — through their family foundation: the Speedwell Foundation — created and funded a program to bring more green space to urban areas. They call it “Red Fields to Green Fields.”
A “red field” is a property that is deeply in the “red” financially. These properties can ruin neighborhoods. Today there are an estimated 27,000 “red” properties in metro Atlanta. They can become hangouts for criminals. They can become a blight to surrounding neighborhoods.
Regardless of how hard homeowners work to keep their houses looking decent, an abandoned house or vacant strip mall in the neighborhood drags down everyone’s property values.
Messner’s solution is to turn “Red Fields” into “Green Fields,” knocking down financially distressed real estate and replacing it with “green fields”—creating parks and green space.
Kevin Caravati, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, and his team are employing this approach and working to make this vision a reality.
Trees, plants and flowers are filters. They clean the air and cool cities in the summer; and they help with storm runoff and flooding.
Parks help to build community. They make people feel calm, boosting spirits and adding beauty to our neighborhoods. Being in nature can ease the symptoms of depression.
Parks and greenways also make surrounding property values climb. Knock down an unused building and the surrounding property values go up, sometimes up to 200 to 400 percent, researchers have discovered.
The Atlanta Beltline, another former Georgia Tech student’s class project, is one example of Red Fields to Green Fields.
Atlanta was originally a railroad town. Today, there are 22 miles of historic rails that are being pulled up, creating linear parks, playgrounds and bike trails.
Community gardens could also be built on these spaces. A partnership between the Atlanta Beltline, the PATH Foundation (which builds bicycle and walking trails) and Georgia Tech’s “Red Fields to Green Fields” research program to create a citywide initiative should be explored.
When you compare park land in Atlanta with park land in other similar cities, Atlanta ranks near the bottom of metropolitan cities nationally. Only 4.6 percent of Atlanta is parks. We can do a lot better than that, and “Red Fields to Green Fields” can help.
The initiative can help in other ways as well.
Georgia has had more bank failures (70) than any other state due to this economic recession. Many banks that lent aggressively during the housing boom suffered when the bubble burst. The commercial real estate business was growing, but was stopped in its tracks by the downturn—and the economic engine stopped as well. Let’s knock down the Red Fields and get them off the ailing banks’ books.“Red Fields to Green Fields” can help create jobs in Atlanta—jobs to help locate and process purchasing of the land, conducting environmental impact studies where needed, employment for park construction, jobs recycling old building materials and positions for the maintenance and operation of the resulting parks.
These are all real jobs that can be created here and stay here. Messner has proposed that cities form land banks. They would create parks and greenways until the economy improves and we can start building again and add properties to the tax rolls.
US financial institutions have lost over $70 billion in assets since 2007.  If the federal government can loan money at near zero interest rates to banks, why not form a land bank, a public/private partnership to invest in these properties?
The federal dollars could go straight to the land bank to buy properties at the current, discounted rates. This would remove these properties from the banks’ rolls and help to clear bad debt, so they can have resources to lend again. This would lead to the creation of parks and green spaces and elevate property values of adjacent neighborhoods.
Setting aside a small amount of the purchased land to build on and sell would generate funds to help sustain the “Red Fields to Green Fields” initiative in Atlanta.
Caravati and Messner have met with individuals from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta; U.S. Sen. Johnny Isaacson; the Metro Atlanta Chamber; the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Interior; and the White House. Additional meetings are being planned.
And it is my hope that they meet with First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been a proponent of eliminating childhood obesity through her “Let’s Move” campaign. Parks can help kids to be healthy—particularly the one in three who are overweight—by helping them to become more active.
Building the necessary partnerships and consensus for a citywide “Red Fields to Green Fields” initiative is similar to problems faced in solving Atlanta’s transportation issues.
We will vote next year on whether to have a penny tax allocated to T-SPLOST, dedicating resources to improve transportation in metro Atlanta. There are so many small entities involved that it was impossible to discuss this and come up with a solution until the state legislature got involved. A list of potential projects was drafted by a roundtable of local leaders.
Let’s take the same approach with a “Red Fields to Green Fields” initiative for Atlanta. Such an initiative can make all of Atlanta a better place to live and raise families.

Metro Atlanta turning winning transit season into losing one

By Guest Columnist COLLEEN KIERNAN, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club for SaportaReport
The way the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) is playing out in the Metro Atlanta Region feels a lot like the 2011 Braves season. It started out with a lot of hope and promise, primed with new leaders at the helm who would be able to undo years of disappointment.
In the early stages, it stumbled a bit, but by mid-season, it was in good shape.  After the All-Star Break, aka the August 15 deadline for a draft project list, boosters claimed the list was about 55 percent transit, 45 percent roads.
Although I’m not aware of anyone who thought the draft list was perfect, it did represent the first time that the 10-county region, as a whole, was going to make a significant and (somewhat) ongoing commitment to funding transit. That commitment, like the ballclub, is starting to crumble in the home stretch.
The team that blew a long lead was the same team that had been looking good enough to run up that long lead.  The TIA showed a similar appearance vs. reality profile: the 55 percent transit number was always a bit misleading.
That figure considered only the 85 percent of the pot that the Roundtable is allocating, omitting the other 15 percent that local jurisdictions get to spend on their own local projects – almost certainly roads.

The 55 percent also counts federal money that is tagged for projects, which makes the transit percentage appear higher than it is. The true final breakdown is likely to be around 40 percent transit / 60 percent roads – a discouraging result in light of the fact that road projects have a dedicated revenue stream, the gas tax; transit has limited regional and no state funding.

Even if the TIA were dedicated entirely to transit, overall regional spending on transit expansion would still fall short of projected roadway spending over the life of the tax. That long lead was not so long after all, not so long it couldn’t be blown when confronted by determined opponents.  The difference between the Braves and TIA is that the opponents are supposed to be members of the TIA team.
But the most troubling element of the TIA draft list is that a segment of the Northern Arc expressway, an intensely controversial road that was repeatedly contested finally defeated by a diverse coalition of organizations (including Sierra Club) nearly a decade ago, was quietly slipped onto the list as project TIA-GW-060 with little public discussion regarding the true impact and ramifications of this decision.
The connection between TIA-GW-060 and the historical Outer Perimeter / Northern Arc concept is undeniable when properly articulated (click here  for a visual explanation), and we are concerned that once voters fully appreciate the magnitude of the decision to resurrect a divisive proposal that was resoundingly rejected by the public years ago, this project will become a poison pill that could endanger passage of the tax next year.
While no amendments were offered that would strip the Northern Arc, Roundtable members have started hacking away at the transit component. Cobb County, which got the biggest allocation of transit money, proposed moving $271.5 million from their transformative rail project from Atlanta to Cumberland to making a portion of Windy Hill Road an expressway and adding bus service from Acworth to Atlanta.
While Cobb insists that the feds will step in and keep the rail project viable, the project will “live” on a wing and a prayer instead of a reliable stream of revenue.
More encouraging was a proposal from DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis to  redirect road money from a massive widening and reconstruction  of GA-400  to the proposal for rail along I-20, but the amendment received little support from fellow Roundtable members. It was then revised to take from the Clifton Corridor rail project instead, and was ultimately tabled until next week.
If this “robbing Peter to pay Paul” exercise is approved, it may be enough to satisfy South DeKalb constituents who have promised a “Vote No” campaign if I-20 East rail is not on the list, but will seriously jeopardize the viability of the Clifton project and likely lose another constituency that otherwise  could have enthusiastically supported the tax.
The more offensive example of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” however, is the proposal to fully fund Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s (GRTA) Xpress buses at the expense of MARTA maintenance and the Beltline and Clifton Corridor rail projects.
As Senator Doug Stoner pointed out, it’s time for the State to step up to the plate on GRTA funding. And finally, despite  overwhelming  support from all corners for adding the Griffin commuter rail line, all it got was $20 million for additional studies, which while taken from another bad road project (the Tara Boulevard “super arterial”) is good, but not enough.
Sierra Club can’t see any major public constituency that will be truly excited about supporting the T-SPLOST as the project list currently stands — not just on election day but also during the critical campaign season leading up to the vote.
Anti-tax activists and Tea Party types will oppose this new tax simply because it’s a tax.
Should the T-SPLOST fail to inspire significant support from environmental and pro-transit voters, this could be the death knell for passage of the 2012 referendum. The Roundtable would be much better served by focusing on gaining the support of the ever-growing and varied group of pro-transit voters.
If they do, Atlanta can take its place among other forward-looking metropolitan areas that have positioned themselves for enduring success in the 21st century. And then the Roundtable’s last regular season game, despite dragging on for 13 innings, will end up in the “W” column, and we won’t have to once again “wait ‘til next year.”