Council Sells City Hall East, Despite Secret Plans, Housing Questions

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(APN) ATLANTA — The City Council of Atlanta voted 11-2 on Monday, October 18, 2010, to sell City Hall East, the historic building which Council Member Kwanza Hall (District 2) described as the largest building in the Southeast US.

Council Members Natalyn Archibong (District 5) and CT Martin (District 10) were the only two Council Members to vote no, with Joyce Sheperd (District 12) and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large) absent.

First, the Council approved the plans despite the secretive character of the building plans by developer, Jamestown. As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, Council Member Ivory Young (District 3) requested the plans at the Community Development/Human Resources Committee on Tuesday, October 12.

David Bennett, Policy Advisor to Mayor Kasim Reed, told Young and the Committee that the City had entered a confidentiality agreement with Jamestown and that Mr. Young could not see the documents without special permission.

With senior advocate Ben Howard as a witnessing party, APN made a public records request, both verbal and written, early Monday before the vote to view the plans. Municipal Clerk responded verbally that she did not have the documents and the request would have to be made to the Mayor’s Office.

APN then repeated the request to Mr. Bennett.

“It was a pleasure to talk with you earlier this morning,” Bennett said in an email reply. “As I mentioned then, no one in the city has a copy of Jamestown’s plans to redevelop City Hall East.”

“The firm briefed myself, Brian Leary [CEO of Atlanta Beltline, Inc], Ernestine Garey and Granvel Tate [of the Atlanta Development Authority] about 90 days ago. However, we did not retain any documents from that exchange. The only physical records exist with Jamestown,” Bennett wrote.

APN’s News Editor–the present writer–brought up the issue of the secret building plans and the confidentiality agreement at Committee on Council and Full Council before the vote.

City Attorney Peter Andrews contended it is not a public document subject to the Georgia Open Records Act because city officials did not maintain the document.

According to the law, “the term ‘public record’ shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, or similar material prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency.” (OCGA 50-18-70(a)).

The legality of the City’s failure to produce the document upon request will center on the definition of the word “received.” APN is consulting with legal experts to determine if a document received but not maintained would still fall under the Act, in terms of previous case law.

Second, the Council approved an amended sale document, rather than the one that had been made available to the public during the days leading up to vote. Council President Mitchell’s staff provided APN with a copy of the amended, “Assignment and Assumption of Purchase and Sale Agreement,” where the City has agreed to transfer the property to the Atlanta Development Authority.

It is unclear whether any other members of the public received the amended version before the vote, or whether Council Members had time to, or actually did, review the changes.

One of the changes of concern is the elimination of almost an entire paragraph of affordable housing requirements.

Previously, APN reported that Mr. Bennett told the CD/HR Committee that the Mayor’s office wanted to relax the already abysmally-low affordable housing requirements placed on the developer for City Hall East. Bennett said they would be bringing proposed changes to the committee; however, an outline of the proposed changes was provided to the Committee but not the public.

Steve Tam, Policy Analyst for CD/HR, told APN as of late yesterday afternoon, October 22, that the committee did not have any affordable housing changes on its agenda for the meeting this Tuesday coming up, October 26. [Although the Atlanta Housing Authority will give an update on the public housing demolitions and displacements to CD/HR on that day.]

According to APN’s review of the amended sale document, however, the Council has already approved the sale with all of the affordable housing requirements–including 20 percent of condos and apartment units to be set aside at 80 percent Area Median Income or lower–taken out.

Instead, the document now reads “PSA… shall require any developer of the Property… to covenant and agree to the affordable housing requirements set forth in Exhibit E, attached hereto and by this reference incorporated herein.” (page three, paragraph C).

However, there is no attached Exhibit E. Mr. Tam confirmed yesterday to APN that he did not see an attached Exhibit E. Presumably, that is because the document does not exist and cannot exist yet until CD/HR approves the changes.

When Chairwoman Yolanda Adrean (District 8) of the Finance/Executive Committee described the need for the Council to vote to consider an amended document, rather than what came out of committee, she said, “We also need to do an amendment on the floor to add the proper exhibits to this ordinance.”

Apparently, Adrean did not consider Exhibit E to have been a proper exhibit, despite the fact that it is referenced in the agreement; she did tell Council President Ceasar Mitchell that she had read the amendments.

Yesterday, APN sent an inquiry by email to several Council Members asking the following questions:

1 – Where is Exhibit E? Is there an Exhibit E, or even a draft of Exhibit E, in existence? If so, can I have a copy of it?

2 – Why does the sale document already approved reference a document that does not exist?

3 – If Exhibit E does not exist yet because CD/HR still has to approve it, why would that not require a new vote on the entire agreement, including the affordable housing requirements?

So far, no one has yet responded.

SECRET BUILDING PLANS AND THE DEBATE AT COUNCIL

Councilman Martin inquired about the secret building plans after APN raised the issue during public comment.

“Too often, a good deal for the City does not end up that way, later on the fine print kind of gets us, when you think about [Atlanta] Underground, the public safety facility, some others, as we go back through our memory lane,” Martin said.

“To my knowledge, we don’t have anyone in the expertise of real estate deals. I’d feel much more comfortable if we got more out of this,” Martin said.

“I’ll kind of finish my response by how I vote. This building in itself is interesting. I would’ve hoped we would’ve negotiated more leveraging kinds of opportunities such as some space for City departments, some space for service delivery departments,” Martin said.

“I just heard something that I assume will get debated here, that at a Committee meeting, that Councilperson Young asked for the drawings, to be able to look at the drawings, I know I would certainly like to be able to see em, I don’t know what was said, whether they were sealed or whatever. But that’s kind of disturbing. I think the young man from the newspaper [APN] made that comment,” Martin said.

“So I would ask Mr. Young, will you share with me… when you made the request… for drawings or whatever information you asked for… that you were told you couldn’t get, will you give me a little clarity about that?” Martin asked.

“My point of view dealt with specifically, one, how the space was being used, and quite often in the midst of negotiation and developing the predevelopment documents that speak to conceptually how you use a space, your evaluation of the existence of the space can go a long way to help govern the parameters from which you can justify a sales price, the efficiency or inefficiency of the use of it,” Young said.

“My comments spoke to specifically, had we done that kind of analysis?” Young said, adding that he had taken a walk-through of City Hall East since the CD/HR meeting, and since then the Administration promised to provide an analysis of some empty space at City Hall East and other available city properties and whether it could be used to accommodate the City’s ongoing need for office space.

“I wanted to speak to the issue about the plans that have been talked quite a bit today,” Councilman Alex Wan (District 6) said.

“It was my understanding… the plans that folks are talking about, were essentially the proprietary plans of Jamestown when they were trying to put together their evaluation for this project. The City, the members of the negotiating team… had to sign a confidentiality agreement because if that information were to be made public, or get out into the public realm, it would impact, um… it’s essentially trade secrets or proprietary information for Jamestown. So I just didn’t want there to be a sense there were some secret plans floating around that no one could see,” Wan said.

“I believe Mr. Bennet said if anyone of us wanted to, if we were willing to get into that confidentiality agreement, we also would have access to that. I don’t know if anyone felt the need to go to that extreme,” Wan said.

“But I just didn’t want to think there was a secret huddle somewhere of some plans that were meant to deceive the public, or keep any information from the public aside from just normal proprietary trade information,” Wan said.

“There may be a trust thing some people are operating on. All I would do is challenge anybody in this room to tell me, and give me the deal that the City has entered into of this magnitude… where the City came out ahead, where we could have a celebration party,” Martin said.

“Later on we found out about the nightmare… the details, something in the details that somebody didn’t cover. I would say again to the younger people around here, you have to deal with some of these. I hope you’re prepared to, you gotta understand there will be some, somebody may pull up your record and raise the question,” Martin said.

“It’s going to be passed today… that’s okay too. But the record will show that I expressed my concern on behalf of all the citizens who expect me to come, read all the papers, read all the details, and to represent them,” Martin said.

“It’s not a matter of not trusting anyone, but this is money. This is the City… I don’t think we did the check and balance, it’s been on a fast track for some time now,” Martin said.

Then Adrean called for the vote, which was 11-2.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about this,” Adrean said. “We have a known developer who’s interested in a property that’s been on the market for a long time. They’re willing to invest upwards of 180 million dollars in private capital in this neighborhood,” Adrean said.

“If this project is as successful as they believe it to be, it will literally be the tipping point of this neighborhood,” Adrean said.

“It puts private money on the Beltline, and that is what the federal government is looking for… they’re looking for the Beltline to inspire private investment,” Adrean said. “I personally am very excited about… what it will do for this particular neighborhood.”

Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) said she would be introducing a paper to make recommendations for how the ADA should spend a portion of the proceeds, 11.5 million dollars, from the sale that will go to them if the developer meets its profit goals.

“My final comment is a concern, and it was raised earlier by one of the members of the public and one that I share… We have strayed quite a bit away from [affordable housing requirements],” Moore said, referencing a comparison chart, yet another document that was not made available to the public.

“We have raised the… income levels for people to get in here,” Moore said.

“I’m holding my nose on it, only in the extent that this real estate market is very tenuous and I can see where these adjustments may be more helpful, but I do think we need to find another way, at some later date or in some way, maybe to mitigate some of the affordability issue that we have laxed on,” Moore said.

Young, in his final remarks, seemed to misunderstand that with his yes vote, he had already signed away any oversight he and Council Members would have over City Hall East’s redevelopment.

“We’ve not yet negotiated everything… this is the beginning of the process… We’re authorizing these agents to move forward with the conversation… At some point that transaction’s gonna come back before this Council in final form for us to codify,” Young said.

“No,” City Attorney Peter Andrews seems to have said considering context clues, although the statement is off-screen.

“It’s not?” Young asked. “So we’ve relinquished complete, at this point it’s no longer in our hands?” Young asked.

Andrews said yes, “However, we can definitely pass along any concerns you’ve raised here today.”

“Well, pass this along, the ADA and the Administration is gonna need us for a lot of things,” Young said.

“I did not support this… I had the benefit of listening to a number of colleagues who were talking to concerns that were yet unresolved,” Archibong said.

“When you go ahead and pass the baton with issues unresolved you have to trust and hope that the best outcome will happen for the city. So it is my desire and hope we would’ve had more time to continue that negotiation,” Archibong said.

“A number of the points that Mr. Young had raised had been quite valid and I wish there had been more time. I thought there was a level of unreadiness that made me uncomfortable,” Archibong said.

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