John Ernst loves being mayor.
“I’m loving this,” he said with a broad smile during a recent interview at City Hall. “If I hit the lottery tomorrow, I’d still be mayor. My wife knows this and she laughs. It’s fun to shape the conversation in the city and the region … and, in small ways, at the state.”
Elected to office in November 2015 and sworn in in January 2016, Ernst has wrapped up his first year as the city’s mayor – the city’s third mayor in its four-year history.
Campaigning on promises to bring transparency and confidence back to city government after several scandals at the city level as well as the county level, Ernst said he believes the council has been effective in listening to residents and making decisions to benefit the city as a whole.
“Most of our [votes] have been a 4-0 vote … and that makes my job a lot easier,” said Ernst, who doesn’t vote except in cases of a tie or when needed to make a quorum. “Because we have a strong council that has stayed away from poisoning the well or throwing each other under the bus, we are able to keep government moving.”
To date, perhaps the most surprising thing Ernst has learned is what people will say in public versus private.
Residents have packed numerous City Council meetings to speak out, sometimes angrily, against proposed developments in the city, specifically against mixed-use developments including hundreds of apartments along thriving Dresden Drive.
The council rejected one proposed development while another, dubbed Dresden Village and slated to go where the DeKalb tag office is located, was approved unanimously.
Ernst said he had to quickly understand that the people who show up at a City Council meeting to oppose projects are not necessarily speaking for the majority of residents.
“It’s amazing how much difference between vocal opposition and private support there can be,” he said.
“While we [elected officials] may hear in the greater civic arena that people are saying I’m against it, people privately are saying they don’t oppose it — that’s what shocking. Well, not shocking — that’s what’s surprising,” he said.
He said he had an “aha” moment about the public versus private citizenry early on in his first term, but doesn’t recall the particular issue. He does remember asking people to speak out in favor of projects or issues and people declining because their friends are on the other side of the issue.
“They’ll say they don’t want to do that because they don’t want to rile up their friends,” he said.
He also likes to point out that since the city was incorporated four years ago, 470 apartment units have been lost to redevelopment and 310 apartment units have been built thanks to city rezoning.
Ernst started his tenure with a bang when, at his first meeting, members voted to fire former City Manager Marie Garrett at his behest. The city later entered into an amicable separation agreement.
And if Ernst were to characterize his first year in office, it may include the word “planning” somewhere. The city has adopted some $122 million in projects, including the $28 million Parks Master Plan last February, the $9.2 million short-term Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan in April, and then the $35 million Peachtree Creek Greenway Plan and $19.4 million Nancy Creek Watershed Plan in August.
“We got a lot of plans completed … which will all lead to greater things in the future,” he said. “The money is budgeted. But I’m not interested in just budgeting money … I’m looking forward to a lot more dirt flying this year … to transitioning from plans to actual action.”
Ernst praised the recent completion of Clack’s Corner, a 0.2-acre site in the Brookhaven Fields neighborhood. Park monument signs have been installed in front of numerous parks in recent months as well. Plans are good, but their costs continue to rise as time goes by.
“We’re also learning, too, that as the plans get older, the inflation increases … and it costs us more if we wait and do it year after year,” he said. At its leadership retreat in January, the council discussed with city staff the possibility of going into debt, including bond referendums, to help pay for projects.
Ernst boasts the council’s recent decision to take out a $5.7 million Georgia Environmental Finance Authority loan to purchase 33 acres of wooded property adjacent to PDK Airport with the promise to keep the land as an undeveloped green space. The 20-year loan with a 0.89 interest rate means the city, over two decades, will actually be paying $5.6 million – a savings of $100,000 – Ernst said.
“Taking 33 acres of forested land inside the perimeter and saving it is no small feat,” he said. “There have been developers … and plans all along for people to do something with that land.”
Ernst is proud of building bridges, too – literally. The city replaced pedestrian bridges at Murphey Candler Park and Briarwood Park last year. “I wanted to build bridges as mayor, but didn’t think I would be building as many actual bridges,” he said.
This year, the city is finishing up repairs to a foot bridge in Ashford Park. Ernst promised that bridge would be ready for the hundreds of runners to cross in this year’s Brookhaven Bolt, which is scheduled for May 20.
The city is about to undergo its zoning rewrite, a plan approved by the previous council, but the mayor postponed the rewrite until after residents could participate in studies of smaller areas, called Character Areas, to say what they want to see in their neighborhoods.
And, of course, there’s the controversial transit-oriented development proposed around MARTA’s station located on Peachtree Road. The project died in February after a year of contentious public meetings and months of rezoning delays. The city and developers could never agree on what kind of development would go into essentially a mostly empty parking lot, but Ernst has confidence something will eventually happen at the site.
“It’s not dead,” he said. “That property is never going away … Everyone expects at some point that something is going to happen there. We’ll always be talking … we’re open to talking to MARTA.”
Ernst was quick to say the issues he and the city had with the proposed redevelopment was not with MARTA. “There were lots of issues that were not MARTA- or Brookhaven-related, and I’ll just leave it at that,” he said.
Only one other entity was involved, however — the developers, Brookhaven City Center Partners, a joint effort of Transwestern Development Company and Integral.
“This property is probably the most important for the image and future of the city because it is our front door on Peachtree, but also because it’s on a transit line,” he said. “We will have to live with that decision for the next 50 to 100 years and I’m not going to short-term gain.”
Other accomplishments Ernst touts range from luring the Atlanta Hawks to Executive Park to open their state-of-the-art practice facility to revising the city’s stormwater management ordinance to lower the impervious surface threshold to 3,000 square feet from 5,000 square feet. Ernst said the stormwater ordinance will greatly improve runoff coming from infill single-family residential development.
The Hawks deal last year went hand-in-hand with Emory University’s purchase of about 60 acres of Executive Park, across the street from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s 45-acre office park at North Druid Hills Road and I-85. CHOA is now building an eight-story Center for Advanced Pediatrics medical building on the property and announced in February it will be building an approximately $1.5-billion hospital on the site.
“Emory University coming into Brookhaven is a big deal that I think people are missing,” Ernst said. “Couple that with CHOA … how big that is for the city and the region. Them coming to Executive Park and then CHOA across the street — that is extremely big and important.”
Ernst said he foresees federal and state dollars coming to the area for infrastructure needs as CHOA and Emory continue to develop their property.
“They are huge economic engines that get a lot of love from the state and federal [government] — I can see money going to streets and sidewalks, the things we have to take care of,” he said.
Plans for Emory’s 60-some acre property in Executive Park are not known exactly, Ernst said. Original plans were for an Atlantic Station-type development, he said, but Emory has indicated to the city it may not be as intensive.
We don’t know what they are planning … but all indications are they are going down in size … and it will be a less intensive development,” he said.
The city’s own internal infrastructure is finally complete, something Ernst said is essential to the city completing its numerous projects and plans for growth into the future. City Manager Christian Sigman has been on the job for nearly a year and the city recently hired a new communications director and economic development director.
“The city is finally complete,” he said.