Mayor’s Team Used Media to Manipulate City Hall East Deal
(APN) ATLANTA — Earlier this year, the City of Atlanta’s media relations office embarked on a scheme to generate publicity around City Hall East in order to raise the perception of interest in the property, and thus raise the selling price that the City could ask for.
David Bennett, a spokesman for the City Hall East project, made comments alluding to the strategy during this week’s Community Development/Human Resources Committee meeting.
“One thing we did do during this entire nine month process, I worked with the press office to keep attention on the building and the transaction as broad as possible,” Bennett said.
“That’s one of the reasons we sort of did the yard sale as we did, to try to keep as much public attention on the fact we’re trying to sell the building as we could,” Bennett said.
Bennett said the City had hoped more developers would come forward as a result of the media attention to make a better offer, but that none did.
In recent months, a number of articles appeared in local media sources regarding City Hall East, including a cover story in Atlanta’s Creative Loafing magazine, The Lost World of City Hall East, promising an in-depth look into the broken down filing cabinets and assorted widgets of City Hall East. Articles also appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.
As interesting as the various articles may have been, the news agencies appear to have been unwitting pawns in a City Hall strategy to manipulate the real estate market, by inflating property values based on constructed media hype.
Reese McCranie, Deputy Director of Communications, made an unusual appearance at Tuesday’s CD/HR meeting in time for Bennett’s presentation.
Bennett also caucused with McCranie after Bennett made his presentation, instead of listening to public comments being addressed to him by senior advocate Ben Howard, in opposition to the proposed changes to the City Hall East deal.
The situation raises at least two questions about transparency. First, is it honest for one arm of the City to be presenting to a developer that a building has a higher property value, while another arm of the City simultaneously works to inflate that value through media publicity? And second, were the media outlets aware that they were being used as part of a City-scheme to manipulate developers?
PROPOSED HOUSING CHANGES FOR CITY HALL EAST
Bennett came to speak with CD/HR to give an update on the proposed sale of City Hall East.
Bennett said Mayor Kasim Reed and Jamestown, a private developer, had signed a letter of intent for the sale of 15.5 million dollars.
Bennett said the Mayor had also tentatively agreed to “slightly relax the affordable housing standards that were in the original declaration to get this project moving.”
“The project from many years ago had an extraordinarily dense residential component to it originally. The market has changed dramatically since then. The number of units they’re talking about [now] is 300 to 400 units,” Bennett said.
“That being said, this is a heads up that we will be coming back in the next cycle with a piece of legislation to exempt this transaction from the affordable housing change we’re gonna make,” Bennett said.
Bennett said the original agreement called on 20 percent of both rental units and single-family homes to be affordable to families at 80 percent of the Area median income (AMI).
While it’s called affordable housing, 80 percent AMI housing is targeting middle-income households, as opposed to low, very low, or extremely low-income households. While the units may be affordable to someone making a teacher’s salary or a police officer’s salary, the units will not be affordable to someone working at Target or Starbucks who may be making 30 percent AMI.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the original affordable housing requirements were so low, Bennett said the Mayor is proposing a change to reduce the number of affordable homes to 10 percent at 100 percent of AMI.
Councilman Alex Wan (District 6) noted that the City was also proposing a cap on the number of affordable homes to 25 units, although Bennett did not state this in his presentation.
Bennett did not bring any copies of the proposal for members of the public, and the specifics of the proposed changes have not yet been made public.
Councilman Ivory Young (District 3) and Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) spent quite a bit of time questioning and criticizing the sale, while Councilman Wan appeared to defend it.
Young, for example, asked Bennett if the Committee could see the developer’s plans for the building, but Bennett replied that Jamestown had showed the City the plans under a strict confidentiality agreement.
Young replied that there was no checks and balances to ensure the City was getting the most efficient use of the building.
The legislation regarding decreasing affordable housing requirements for City Hall East will come before CD/HR and then the Full Council in the near future.