MARTA’s decision to kill its current transit-oriented development project at the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe station does not mean the end for plans to develop the site in the future.
“I don’t think anyone thinks 6 1/2 acres of empty parking lot is the best use of space,” MARTA Board Chair Robbie Ashe said in an interview.
No specific timeline has been set when MARTA will come back to the city, Ashe said.
“We don’t feel an urgent need to get this project out on the marketplace,” he said. “We are still digesting what happened. We are still thinking through the process of what we went through with all stakeholders and the feedback we received.”
The decision to discontinue the project was delivered to city officials by MARTA board members on Feb. 2 after a vote during the board’s regular meeting.
“MARTA appreciates the time and effort invested by the community in planning for Brookhaven TOD Project. We are disappointed that we will not be able to advance this project to implementation. MARTA staff will now shift focus to implementing TOD projects at stations where greater readiness exists,” the statement from the MARTA board of directors stated.
MARTA’s board cited Ernst’s decision on Jan. 24 to suspend authorizing tax incentives for the project as well as ongoing delays in getting a vote on its rezoning request as reasons for quitting the project. Ernst at the time said a “reset” was needed in the relationship between the city and MARTA.
“Mayor Ernst’s statement indicated the city administration’s support for an additional delay in the rezoning of the site. Additionally, Mayor Ernst’s statement indicated that the city administration would suspend all work on the incentive request submitted to the Brookhaven Development Authority. In light of this letter, today, February 2, the MARTA Board of Directors voted to cancel the award of the solicitation and discontinue work on the Brookhaven TOD Project,” according to the statement sent to the city.
Ernst answered in his own statement that more work was needed “to make the development a true City Center.”
“We’re sorry that we had to stop negotiations on the financing of this project. The developer’s ask kept growing and the guarantees on delivery kept shrinking. But we look forward to a public/private partnership that has more private dollars than public,” Ernst said.
City Manager Christian Sigman said he is confident that MARTA and the city will be able to work out a new development at the site that will accommodate the desires for MARTA to increase ridership and better utilize a mostly empty parking lot.
“MARTA is a partner – they always have been and always will be,” Sigman said. “We share a vision for an impactful, high-quality and world-class development. MARTA and the city and the residents want a world-class city center.”
Sigman said after MARTA takes a “pause,” officials will want to begin talking again about what to build on the site.
“We don’t view this as a rift, or a spat,” Sigman said. “It’s just easier to start over.
“To use the mayor’s words, this is more of a ‘reset’ than a switching off,” he said. “We plan to revisit the process and approach MARTA with a vision with what we want as far as infrastructure requirements and how it will be financed.”
Councilmember Joe Gebbia, who was vocal in his opposition to MARTA’s request for tax abatements from the city to help finance the development, said he envisions the city selecting its own development partner for the future project.
“This was a shock for them and they need to let the dust settle,” Gebbia said of the mayor’s decision to cut off authorizing tax incentives for the project.
A major reason for halting talks on tax incentives is because developers for the project, Brookhaven City Center Partners, a joint venture of Integral and Transwestern Development Company, continued to ask for more and more money, Gebbia said.
But tax incentives cannot be completely dismissed in plans for a future project, he said.
“If abatements provide a benefit to our residents over the long term, then that will certainly involve close scrutiny,” he said.
Ashe said MARTA officials are welcome to entertaining ideas from the city about future development at the site, but also expects to have significant say in the proposals because the land belongs to MARTA.
“Given it is our land, we want a role in selecting the development partners,” he said. “We generally prefer to have input and control over what happens to our property.
“All along, we’ve had the goal and desire for this to be a community asset, like with our other developments,” Ashe said, noting that ensuring community buy-in for all of MARTA’s transit-oriented developments has been a priority for the transit agency.