By Jack Honderd
Recently, a few Brookhaven citizens have made the case against Redevelopment Powers for the city of Brookhaven, and I share some of their concerns. I agree, for instance, that we do not need to incent redevelopment in Brookhaven. Brookhaven’s demographics and location make this one of the most desirable places to develop in the Atlanta metro area and, in fact, in the Southeast.
Why then will I vote for Redevelopment Powers? Because popularity, commerce and a growing tax digest don’t make a city a great place to live — it’s a city’s public realm that truly makes the difference.
It’s the streets, plazas, parks, trails, sidewalks, meeting places, public art, playgrounds and neighborhoods that make a city a great place to live. Well, it’s the people, of course. But to realize that, people need myriad ways to interact, and it turns out that “incidental interactions”— i.e., the kind that happen on the sidewalk or playground, at a local restaurant, in the dog park, during a neighborhood fun run or at a concert on the square — are the essential glue that creates a great community.
Think about the towns and cities you like to visit or consider special. What’s special about them? Is it the flagship companies located there? A convenient airport? Low housing costs? The vibrant five-lane road lined with restaurants and auto dealerships leading into town? These are all useful characteristics, but likely it is the public spaces and public life of a place that makes us want to spend
To create this for Brookhaven, we have to provide healthy, attractive ways for people to get out of their cars and experience Brookhaven. This will require some serious public investment.
Private development is good at doing several things. It can build buildings and fill them with businesses which provide jobs and tax revenue for Brookhaven. It can attract additional private development. It can provide a return for its investors, thereby keeping the wheels of commerce turning. Sometimes, it will provide public improvements such as sidewalks, turn lanes and rebuilt utility lines across the public frontage of its site.
But certain things, private development is not good at doing. It has little interest in planning beyond its site boundary or investing more than what can be shown generating a clear-cut business return — it’s not a big picture enterprise. It’s not interested in larger public investment per se. This isn’t a knock on private development — it’s a micro-economic creature not designed to tackle macro-economic goals.
Let’s consider Buford Highway. If our vision is to have new buildings and businesses line Buford Highway much as it is now, but spiffy and taller, private development can do that without city of Brookhaven investment. If, however, our vision is of a transformed Buford Highway, a street vibrant with cars and walkers and bicycles, with storefronts pulled up close to the sidewalks, offices above and parking behind, and with a linear park and a bike/jogging path lining the North Fork of Peachtree Creek, then only city government has the vision and resources to make this public realm a
And therein lies the great value of the Redeveloment Powers Act. Private enterprise isn’t going to do this. Only Brookhaven citizens can accomplish a vision and project of this scale. The city staff and City Council is the action arm of Brookhaven citizens, and Redevelopment Powers are the tool that can allow Brookhaven to do this at no incremental cost to Brookhaven citizens. Good planning can pay for itself.
This scenario is perfectly laid out for a TAD (Tax Allocation District) under The Redevelopment Powers Act. The city issues TAD bonds to finance the building of the linear park and redesign of Buford Highway; private development rejuvenates the corridor with new buildings and businesses built to meet the city’s design guidelines; the increased property value generates increased taxes which pay the interest and principal on the bonds. We Brookhaven citizens get a new restaurant-shop-business district, plus a 2-mile-long park and multiuse path along a creek without paying higher property taxes. How can this be bad for Brookhaven
Why object? Opponents’ objections are rooted in what they fear can go wrong.
TAD bonds are issued and backed solely by the income stream generated in the TAD district (additional property taxes due to additional property values created). By law, Brookhaven citizens and Brookhaven’s general fund have no obligation to make good should the income stream not meet projections. Bondholders are
Opponents point out that in such a scenario, Brookhaven may feel the need to make good in order to protect Brookhaven’s general creditworthiness. That’s possible, but the point made by TAD expert Sharon Gay at her recent presentation is that no TADs in Georgia (that she is aware of) have been supported by a government’s general funds.
The worst case scenario is that TAD bondholders’ payout term is extended a couple years — and that is rare, even after our recent Great Recession. Most TAD bonds have been paid off early due to higher revenues than expected. This is testimony to the strict and conservative underwriting rules governing a TAD bond
The bigger objection seems to be unnecessary use of redevelopment tools and unwarranted payouts to private enterprise. Redevelopment tools such as TAD districts can only be activated by a vote of our elected representatives (City Council) and only after an extensive public
At heart, then, this testifies to distrust of those we’ve chosen to lead us, fear of cronyism between government and developers, and, ultimately, a lack of confidence in our own ability to choose leaders and govern
What can I say? The newspapers are full of stories of political cronyism and corruption. It happens. Cynicism of government is widespread. And yet, if we aspire to anything greater than a just-let-it-happen Brookhaven, government is our best tool to get there. Only government — the voice and arm of Brookhaven voters — can have the vision, authority and fundability to accomplish large-scale projects of public
Brookhaven resident Jack Honderd is an architect and developer who has been involved in zoning and land-use issues.