Planning for a park over Ga. 400 will move forward after a 4-2 vote of the Buckhead Community Improvement District board on Oct. 5, an approval that came amid concerns from major hotels and malls about possible higher business taxes and “conflict of interest.”
In addition, planning for the park will merge into the public process for a recently begun update of Buckhead’s master plan, now renamed “Buckhead Redefined.” The first public meeting for that plan, which is technically an Atlanta Regional Commission Livable Centers Initiative process, is slated for Oct. 17 at a time and location to be announced.
The Buckhead CID, a self-taxing business district, proposed the park over 400 more than a year ago. Last month, it unveiled a design for a 9-acre, half-mile-long park built atop a bridge-like structure over Ga. 400 between Lenox and Peachtree roads, with a roughly estimated cost of $195 million to $245 million.
The CID’s Oct. 5 vote authorized spending up to $340,000 for 16 weeks of further study of such issues as funding sources, traffic impacts and economic benefits. The vote does not authorize the park to be built at this point. But, like every previous board vote on the park concept, there was significant opposition from some members on costs and whether it is an appropriate project for the CID.
Board member Robin Suggs of Simon Property Group voiced some of the strongest opposition on behalf of her company’s Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls. She read a statement calling the park planning a “slippery slope” to higher taxes and a “distraction [from] more pressing needs.”
She also called for a vote of the entire CID membership, not just the board. Some board members own property abutting the proposed park, which is project to boost property values. That is a situation, Suggs said, “which we believe constitutes a conflict of interest…”
“Right now, everyone’s enamored with the idea of the park. Who isn’t?” Suggs said after the meeting. “But when it comes down to it, there’s going to be a tax.”
Similar concerns were raised by members of the Buckhead Hotel Council and Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association. They said they have no stance on the park idea at the moment, but they are concerned about raising hotel taxes in Atlanta, which they said already are among the nation’s highest.
The CID board’s vice chair, John Lundeen of Coro Realty, was another “no” vote, though he said he might support a smaller project.
“I just don’t see the [funding] sources without taxing—without dramatically taxing—the commercial [property owners],” Lundeen said. “I want to see something happen in the area…I just think spending $200 million on a project of this nature—I just can’t justify this…I think this is way beyond the scope of what the CID is for.”
“Most people love the idea, love the design,” said board chair David Allman of Regent Partners, explaining that the board is sensitive to the taxation issue. The Buckhead CID has the lowest tax rate among metro Atlanta CIDs, he said.
Board member Robin Loudermilk of the Loudermilk Companies supported the park plan, but called for input from outside Buckhead as well. He said an initial public unveiling of the design last month at the Buckhead Theatre drew a “pretty broad sampling” of the local community and appeared to get a largely positive response. But he requested a more “formal metric” for gauging response and for input to come from a five-mile radius so it’s “not just a local, self-serving type park.” As the crow flies, that radius would include parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, among other areas.
Buckhead CID Executive Director Jim Durrett said the next phase of park planning will study an array of issues, including: parking and traffic; legal and regulatory issues; a communication and outreach plan; park programming and projected annual costs; technical engineering issues; economic impact projections; and possible funding sources.