Doraville, GA, January 29, 2015 – by Tom Doolittle – Contributor, Tom Doolittle attended a Town Hall meeting in Doraville and offers a report and a perspective:
On Tuesday night, Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman hosted what was billed as a Town Hall Meeting for the development team of Atlanta’s Integral Group, LLC and Macauley+Schmit to explain its proposed redevelopment project at the Doraville General Motors plant site.
Pittman’s invitation stated, “The proposed project will be a multi-billion dollar development that will include several towers, plazas, parks, transit and more and should provide a welcomed Renaissance for the Doraville area.”
In a scene reminiscent of “The Music Man” (sans hyperbole), modest, mostly aged residents in the town’s homey civic center were treated to a hypnotic description of a monumental transformation of the 169-acre property along I-285.
The Epcot-like plan is positioned as a collection of character areas, including “The Yards” (an eclectic environ near railroad tracks at the rear of the site) and “Campus”, envisioned as a quad of 10-story buildings at the point closest to I-285.
The denouement of Tuesday nights meeting was a member of the GM site development team asking residents in attendance for a Tax Allocation District (TAD).
Eric Pinckney, Vice President of Real Estate for Integral Group was wrapping up the “business end” of the three-man presentation. Pinckney said, “at some point, [spending] private money gives way to public [funds]”, referring to building common infrastructure such as streets and parks on a project such as was described at the meeting. “The greatest risk we have is time” Pinckney responded during Q&A, adding “the market is peaking now”, we want a piece of it. He asked for zoning approval and infrastructure financing via the TAD as soon as possible.
In his view, a TAD would be authorized by the city and a bond package would be prepared for sale (only authorized), but as he answered one question later, DeKalb County would not approve the sale of the bonds until there was adequate evidence that the project had income potential.
Messages left for Integral Group asking for the scope and amount of the TAD were not returned.
The developers emphasized they are only providing only what was referred to as the “bones” of the project, deflecting questions of market, tenants and build out. The skeleton would include many of the ultimate work’s unique features: a connective street system, overland storm water management doubling as a greenway and a “Park Avenue” connection to the current city’s center under the railroad tracks with access to the Doraville MARTA station. Conventionally, all would be deeded to the city as city property to own, maintain and regulate.
As Dave Schmit of Macauley+Schmit said, think of this as “place, not project—it IS Doraville” and not a traditional property development. He framed the citizens’ role as one of being “partners” that enjoy the area, as they would any other piece of the city’s common assets. Pinckney’s more direct follow-on was … and cities pay for those things (at first, with a TAD or some other form of public financing).
Integral Group deems itself an urban redevelopment pioneer and has experience with housing development agencies and other finance authorities, although likely not in as small and undercapitalized a jurisdiction as Doraville. Vice President Pinckney anticipated meeting attendee’s prime concern. Assuringly, he said “the money doesn’t come from you.” Paying back the borrowed funds for infrastructure depends on increased property values in the project area—identified, taxed and sequestered for that specific purpose.
By way of history, this is the same project (although more integrated with the city) as Orlando’s New Broad Street Company proposed for Doraville a few years ago. The firm wanted $37 million from DeKalb at the time. The idea was voted down 5-2 by DeKalb’s commissioners, after the media hammered it for being a secret scheme of the development authority. This time however, media has been silent on all but the projects’ features and Integral’s bona fides.
There have been hints of a $70 million TAD for this city of around 10,000 people and commensurately tiny budget—and unlike last time, no apparent media interest in financial transparency. DeKalb has a higher tax base by eight-fold.
Understandably, there is excitement about having a well-connected Atlanta developer “prepare” this site for development. As one article in the Atlanta Business Chronical states, “It’s one of the Southeast’s most visible, most intriguing — and most complex — redevelopment opportunities. It boasts a prime location near the convergence of interstates 85 and 285, a MARTA line and Peachtree Road, and it’s adjacent to DeKalb Peachtree Airport. Those characteristics make it a magnet for developers of transit-oriented projects.”
It’s ironic that a project of such magnitude is left to one of the smallest and poorest jurisdictions in the region to sort out.