A proposed park capping Ga. 400 is moving into a planning and design study phase after a close, controversial approval vote July 26 from the Buckhead Community Improvement District board. A BCID press release issued before the vote touted a groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting timeline, but there is still no guarantee the park will be built.
The 4-3 vote only approved funding for the first phase of the planning and design study, which will begin in August and last five months. The study will prepare for engineering and design work and study how to create a nonprofit organization to manage the park, officials said. The meeting also marked the wrap-up of the concept phase and included new illustrations and a virtual 360-degree image; a description of potential economic benefits of the park; and a recommendation for the independent nonprofit to run it.
The vote does not mean the park is guaranteed to happen, and several more steps of planning and studying need to be done, said BCID Executive Director Jim Durrett.
District 7 City Councilmember Howard Shook was one of three board members who voted against the funding, saying he thinks it is premature before funding sources are hammered out. A previous concept study phase identified many possible funding sources and systems, but acknowledged that more study is needed.
“I think we’re making a decision to buy a new car before we know if we can afford it,” Shook said.
The board approved up to $262,500 to be paid to the consultants, led by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers. It also announced an updated timeline of an expected 2020 groundbreaking and 2022 ribbon-cutting, which are sooner than previously projected. The park would be fully operational by 2023.
If the BCID continues funding various stages of the study process, the next three years would be spent engineering, planning and starting construction the park, which would cap Ga. 400 between Peachtree and Lenox roads. The BCID would also work with project partners and use public input to choose a name for the park.
The park, which was proposed by the BCID two years ago, would bring 9 acres of park space to Buckhead and would include remaking the entrance to the Buckhead MARTA Station. Construction is estimated to cost about $250 million, Rob Rogers, a consultant leading the study said.
The July 26 vote was taken after consultants presented the final phase of the concept study, which including the consultants’ estimates that the park would bring millions in tourism dollars, thousands of construction jobs, new housing units and billions of dollars of increased property value.
The BCID used a public relations firm to release embargoed information prior to the meeting, which included an announcement that the board voted to approve funding before the vote actually took place. The press release declared the park “will be created out of thin air,” though the proposal’s actual future remains uncertain.
The three board members who voted against funding the next study phase included Shook; Robin Suggs, the general manager of Lenox Square mall; and Tom Boyer, the general manager at JW Marriott Atlanta and the mayoral appointee to the board, also voted against the proposal.
Suggs suggested the vote be postponed so board members would have more time to review the phase of the study presented at the meeting and to understand what financial effects the park would have on the BCID if it is built.
“I think it would be very beneficial for the board to engage in further conversation,” Suggs said. “I think we all need to have a better understanding as to where we are headed.”
Shook said he has asked questions publicly and privately for a year and some remain unanswered. He also said he is confused about what role the next phase of the study plays. Approving funding for the next phase of the study before they know funding sources for the park is premature, he said.
Two other board members absent from the meeting are in support of the project, BCID board chair David Allman said. Robin Loudermilk of the Loudermilk Companies and Matt Rendle of Selig Enterprises voiced support in an email to the chair, but were absent from the meeting and their votes are not counted.
Addressing the controversy, the public relations firm sent out two letters that were not to be released until the morning of the meeting, including one from Suggs in opposition, and one from Allman responding to her concerns.
Suggs said in the letter that she feels board members have a conflict of interest, the park is beyond the scope of the CID’s mission and the board has not been provided enough information to be prepared for a vote.
“It appears this project is being fast-tracked in a manner that does not allow the necessary due diligence on the part of the full board,” Suggs wrote in the letter.
Allman wrote he agrees the BCID is not equipped to take on such a large project, and the July 26 vote reflects that. The vote provides five months of funding, and will include the creation of a new entity to manage the park and its construction.
“To put it in simpler terms, the time has come for BCID to push the Park Project from our nest and see if it will fly on its own,” Allman said in the letter.
“As a final point, I am deeply troubled by your accusation that members of the BCID Board have engaged in conflicts of interest,” Allman said in the letter.
Consultants from Rogers Partners have been updating the board periodically since last year, and in this meeting the presented the results from the third and final phase of the concept study. The BCID has been approving funding bit by bit as the consultants present phases of their study. The park was also once folded into a forthcoming master plan for the neighborhood’s commercial core, called “BUCKHEAD REdeFINED,” but the BCID has continued spearheading the project.
The consultants and firm will stay on during the new planning and design phase, according to a press release.
The BCID must also coordinate with several stakeholders, including the Georgia Department of Transportation, MARTA and the city of Atlanta. The city has met with the BCID about project and supports the park, a city spokesperson, Jewanna Gaither, said in an email.
The BCID is an organization of property owners that administers a self-taxing program to pay for various improvements, including parks and recreation.