Mayoral Candidates Debate Beltline

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(APN) ATLANTA — The top four candidates for Mayor of Atlanta discussed the BeltLine and related issues on Tuesday, September 29, 2009, during a forum sponsored by a coalition of groups supporting public transportation and greenspace.

Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders, Councilmember Mary Norwood, former State Sen. Kasim Reed, and Atlanta attorney Jesse Spikes all expressed enthusiastic support for the BeltLine, a $2.8 billion project that looks to connect over 50 intown neighborhoods with greenspace, trails, transit, and new development along a 22 mile loop of rail segments around the city.

While the moderator asked many questions about the Beltline during the debate, no specific questions were asked about affordable housing or mitigating displacement due to gentrification.

As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the Beltline is expected to cause gentrification and to displace many renters and homeowners throughout neighbhorhoods along its path.

APN noted that although a Beltline Affordable Housing Trust Fund was established to supposedly ensure meaningful inclusion of affordable housing in development around the Beltline, the Atlanta Development Authority and Beltline, Inc., opposed an original requirement which would have targeted 10% of tax-payer subsidized units towards individuals making 30% of Area Median Income or less.

APN also noted that proposals to address gentrification–such as inclusionary zoning, community land trusts, renter protections, or property tax forgiveness for long-time residents–have not seen action by the current City Council.

These critical issues were absent from the debate questions; candidates did not address them voluntarily either.

“The BeltLine is a shining star,” Borders said. “It is an area where we all agree will make us competitive.”

Norwood said the project is “near and dear to my heart.”

“The BeltLine is the best in thoughtful redevelopment,” she said. “It is the way of the future.”

Reed cosponsored SR 996 during the 2008 Session of the Georgia General Assembly, he noted. That measure amended the State Constitution to allow counties, municipalities, and local boards of education to use tax funds for redevelopment purposes, which will allow money to flow to the BeltLine project.

This legislation had become necessary because the original Tax Allocation District–or bond funding mechanism for the Beltline–had been found unconstitutional in court.

Reed noted it is important that “the community is involved in every aspect of the development of the project.”

Spikes called the BeltLine “a grand design of the present.”

“Our vision is always ahead of our reality and the BeltLine is a perfect example of that,” he said. “My job as mayor will be sure we can afford it.”

PROGRESS IN NEXT FOUR YEARS?

Cathy Woolard, former City Council President, asked each candidate what BeltLine progress they want to see in the next four years.

Norwood wants to build the BeltLine out “with the right density.”

“I am clearly, clearly going to push to build out the BeltLine as quickly as possible, [but] I’m not in favor of shifting to the northeast [segment] because I feel that it is a way to kill the BeltLine.”

Reed wants BeltLine funding included in any regional transit bill that comes before the Georgia General Assembly in 2010 and wants to settle all right of way issues so the project “can get the 22 miles.”

“I want to make sure we have an agreement on what kind of rail it will be and who will be the operator,” he said.

Spikes wants to pursue funding “from every available source.”

“If you don’t get the transit part, you don’t get the other parts either,” he said.

Borders would also like to settle all right of way issues as well as keep citizens involved in the process, continue leveraging tax allocation district (TAD) funds, and construct affordable housing along the project for police officers, firefighters, and teachers.

The type of affordable housing–for teachers, police, and workers in that income bracket–is often referred to as workforce housing. Some advocates have argued that this is not where the greatest need for affordable housing is in the city right now, that is, it does not serve Atlanta’s growing working families employed in the low-paying service sector.

“I think we are going to get transit done but it’s not going to get done right away,” she said. “I would be disingenuous to say we are going to get it done in these four years.”

Clearly frustrated, moderator Woolard pitched her own idea about how to get the BeltLine going in the next four years: quickly develop the northeast segment, leverage TAD funds across the east side of town, tie that segment to the BeltLine with the Peachtree Street Car project, and ask state lawmakers to levy a tax on downtown parking spaces to pay for all of it.

PARKS

The BeltLine is expected to create 1,200 acres of new greenspace through trails, new parks, and the expansion of existing parks.

Among the nation’s largest 25 cities, Atlanta has the smallest percentage of its land dedicated to parks – less than 5 percent in all – and the Council cut the parks budget by $1.4 million (11 percent) this year.

To make sure parks continue to have the funding they need, Reed said he would try to collect money the city is owed — currently $26 million — and use some of the funds generated by the recent 3 mill property tax increase after shoring up public safety.

“I would use my magic wand to open each and every rec center in the City of Atlanta and every park in the City of Atlanta,” he said. “I worry we’re going to lose a generation to violence.”

Borders would add additional revenue streams and try to collect sales taxes at a local level. She would also seize abandoned property, turn the land into “pocket parks,” and donate them to the community.

Norwood said a dedicated, 1 mill tax towards parks would help but she noted it is more important for the city to go after lost revenue, like certain fees and fines.

“We need to clean up the city physically at the same time we clean up the city fiscally,” she said.

HISTORIC PRESERVATION

The BeltLine project says that it seeks to preserve many historic homes, neighborhoods, and structures that are sure to add character to the landscape.

Woolard asked what role the Urban Design Commission, a group that handles historic preservation for Atlanta, would play in the next administration.

Norwood supports the commission once again becoming an independent agency. Reed and Borders support the commission but want to make sure the City can fund it.

“If you hold people accountable, I don’t think it matters where you put it,” Spikes said. “I would insist on accountability.”

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

BeltLine planners say they have emphasized the importance of keeping the community engaged at all levels of the development process.

Reed believes this process has “gone well” but said there is “a real fear” that the next Mayor will take the project in his or her own direction.

“What I am concerned about is elected officials… continuing to honor commitments made between elected officials and members of the community,” he said.

Borders said people should not feel “disengaged and left out.”

“There needs to be more transparency about what we’re talking about and when we’re talking about it,” she said.

Norwood said people will lose confidence in the project and the city if the next mayor goes in a different direction.

“I believe it is critically important the plans don’t change just because the numbers don’t add up,” she said. “We have to make sure you don’t get a ‘gotcha’ after you have put in so much hard work.”

BUILDING REGIONAL AND STATE SUPPORT

Woolard asked the candidates how they would work to build better relationships between Atlanta and regional and state governments that would help not only the BeltLine but also other city projects.

Borders said the key is to show other leaders how ideas and projects benefit everyone, not just Atlanta.

“We cannot be singularly focused, we cannot work in silos,” she said. “It must be a win, win, win.”

Reed touted his accomplishments as a State lawmaker that benefited Atlanta: securing $500 million in low interest loans on state credit to fix the sewer system; merging the municipal and city courts for an annual savings of $700 million; and co-authoring SR 996 and other transit bills.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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