A decision of this magnitude deserves better

In an earlier post I wrote about my experience at the state capital last week. For more background you should also read this article about the hearing at GeorgiaPol.com.

As I testified at the senate hearing Senator Beach commented, “We can disagree without being disagreeable” and I couldn’t agree more. That is why some of the comments made by him and others supporting his 50% MARTA tax increase are so troublesome.

That doesn’t make sense to Beach. MARTA’s opponents, he said, are desperate for solutions. “Some of the politicians are saying, well, nobody is going to use it, and then in the next sentence they’re saying it’s going to create so much congestion coming into it. Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to have all this congestion, you’re going to have ridership. Just tell me one or the other.”

“The politicians are scared to death” of MARTA expansion, Beach said in an interview earlier this week.

What a perfect example of heavy rail supporters insulting their opponents and misleading the public without addressing the facts laid out by their opposition. Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say, “nobody is going to use it” is just false hyperbole.

I have never heard it said by any opponent of heavy rail. However I have repeatedly pointed out that the U.S. Census shows only 2% of Fulton County residents ride heavy rail to work.

Yet while Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say “nobody” is going to ride MARTA is false, his assertion that some say it’s going to cause more congestion is true and supported by facts.

Only 5% of the people who live in the zip code surrounding the North Springs MARTA station in Sandy Springs use heavy rail to get to work.

Commute chart Sandy Springs

And since only 846 people who live within walking distance of the station take trains to work MARTA had to build enormous parking garages. Why? Because most of the people who ride the trains have to drive cars to the station.

That is why rush hour traffic around North Springs is so bad the state of Georgia is spending a billion dollars trying to fix the problem while Sandy Springs is considering building monorails and the Perimeter CID is designing ways to expand surface streets to accommodate more cars, buses and trolleys at taxpayer expense.

So when Mr. Beach demands to know whether it is “one or the other” the response is “the other” because no politician says nobody will ride MARTA trains. Instead informed politicians say that while a small group of people around train stations will ride them the overwhelming majority of riders are forced to drive cars to the station making traffic worse.

Which means a bill dictating MARTA must expand using expensive, inflexible heavy rail lines along GA 400 will force commuters to crowd surrounding streets exacerbating congestion. The only public transportation that can effectively address existing congestion issues while improving economic development opportunities is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

The people of North Fulton are tired of congestion on the arterial roads and surface streets around GA 400. Of course other people have a vested interest in making sure transit forces people to visit the Georgia 400 corridor.

That’s why it was perfectly reasonable for Senator Beach to sponsor Senate Bill 313. Senator Beach is President of the North Fulton Community Improvement District (CID) a tax district created specifically to increase the property values of commercial properties along GA 400.

Understanding that, it makes sense for Senator Beach to pretend that North Fulton is doomed if taxpayers don’t spend billions of tax dollars to extend heavy rail into the CID there. No law forces political decisions to be decided on objective facts. So if Senator Beach supports a regressive tax increase which takes money from single moms in East Point to build train stations on three properties within the North Fulton CID it is perfectly fine. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’s good business for the CID.

Which is why it was also perfectly reasonable for Mr. Mark Toro to speak in favor of Senator Beach’s MARTA tax increase. Mr. Toro is a partner in North American Properties, the company now selling their Avalon mixed use development in Alpharetta. If Avalon is worth $500 million now it should be worth tens of millions more with a MARTA station. That’s just good business.

That’s the same reason Mr. Toro was a vocal supporter of the failed Tsplost tax that would have brought heavy rail to Atlantic Station in 2012. Now that North American has sold Atlantic Station and has Avalon on the market it is no surprise he supports a bill forcing Johns Creek retirees to pay for a MARTA station there.

And if Mr. Toro has to tell people who live in the City of Atlanta that objections to Senator Beach’s proposal are based on “racism” and a “bunch of old white guys”… so be it. If that’s what it takes to convince minority taxpayers in Atlanta they should pay for a 2.4 billion dollar amenity in the North Fulton CID, that’s just good business.

But the truth is that most elected officials in North Fulton support expanding some form of transit. Objections to Senator Beach’s 50% MARTA tax increase are not based on racism, irrational fears or muddled thinking but on sound reasoning and fiscal responsibility.

SB 313 diverts billions of dollars from efforts to build a sustainable transportation network that can support a vibrant region and directs them to an overpriced, inflexible mode of transportation that primarily benefits the commercial properties like Avalon within the North Fulton CID. To characterize principled, informed opposition to Senate Bill as irrational fear or uninformed reactionary politics is insulting.

A decision of this magnitude deserves better.


Alpharetta, from “Solid Gold” to “Bunch of Old White Guys” in 30 seconds

Recently I attended the “North Fulton Opportunity Outlook” event held in the city of Alpharetta. The forum was hosted by the Council for Quality Growth, a not-for-profit trade association comprised of developers, contractors, engineers, architects, planners, law firms and bankers–anyone with an interest in growth and development.

The event was promoted as an economic development forum to provide an update on development opportunities in North Fulton county. It was co-hosted by the Progress Partners initiative which is partially funded with Alpharetta taxpayer money so I attended in support of the effort.

It was expected it to be an upbeat, informative discussion about the many exciting opportunities in our region. For the most part that was the case. Nearly all of the participants were professional and positive as they discussed the unique quality of life, business climate and cooperative local governments that attracted their businesses and continue to help them thrive.

The lone exception was Mark Toro, managing partner for North American Properties, who chose to insert racially charged comments about the people of North Fulton into his own personal diatribes. It was disturbing to hear someone who has benefited so much from the support of this community use the occasion to insult the people who live here.

Mr. Toro introduced himself by saying,” I am the self appointed president of the Keith Parker (MARTA CEO) fan club, frequent MARTA rider… advocate… messiah” and spent most of his time pleading for billions of dollars in higher taxes that could bring MARTA trains to Avalon’s doorstep. While Mr. Toro’s introductory spiel was conspicuously self serving in a forum designed to be about investing in North Fulton it was the way he framed the remainder of his comments that was most disturbing.

In response to a question about why companies should invest in Alpharetta Mr. Toro spoke of our excellent demographics and said, “this is a solid gold community, strong… financially strong, stable and forward thinking”. He even added that collaboration with the city of Alpharetta had been “phenomenal”.

Yet just seconds after saying Alpharetta was “solid gold” Mr. Toro turned around and used racially charged comments to explain resistance to his eight billion dollar tax increase. Speaking about MARTA expansion once again he said, “I’ve heard it said. You’ve all heard it said. Some of us have even said it ourselves. The train goes both ways and we don’t want those people out here.”

This was a public forum where developers, investors, elected officials and economic development professionals had been invited to hear about opportunities for investing in this community. For Mr. Toro to falsely insinuate that opposition to his tax increase and his “urban-burb” vision of their city’s future is caused by racism was disgusting and inappropriate. But he didn’t even stop there.

Mr. Toro went on to attack the community leaders he had just praised in his comments moments earlier. “And the fact that the leadership of this community is all a bunch of old white guys like me is a problem!“, he continued.

Bunch of old white guys. So in a matter of seconds this community went from “solid gold”, “forward thinking” and “collaborative” to a place where “we don’t want those people out here” led by “a bunch of old white guys” who are the “problem”.

How could that be? What could have possibly changed Alpharetta from “solid gold” in one breath to “a bunch of old white guys” in the next? Actually the only thing that changed was that in one breath Mr. Toro spoke about everything this community has done to make his investment successful and in the next he lashed out at those very same people because they don’t embrace Mr. Toro’s self serving goal of turning Alpharetta into an urban mass transit hub.

Over the last four years the people and leadership of North Fulton county have bent over backwards to support Mr. Toro and the investment North American Properties has made here. Alpharetta revised municipal codes and gave them competitive advantages over every other commercial property owner in town. The city hired new staff and paid thousands of dollars in overtime to facilitate their extremely aggressive construction schedule.

When North American went to the Fulton County Development authority for a tax abatement that cost Alpharetta taxpayers millions of dollars without even letting us know we absorbed that loss. When North American failed to live up to their promise to build hotels in the second phase of Avalon it was the City of Alpharetta who committed $42 million of taxpayer money to support a convention center and hotel within their development .

Yet despite everything the people of North Fulton have done for Mr. Toro it hasn’t been enough. Mr. Toro still seized the opportunity to insult his hosts in front of a large group of investors, economic development professionals and elected officials who were invited to hear about opportunities here. How disappointing.

But the good news is that Mr. Toro’s comments at the North Fulton Opportunity Outlook were informative. They told the people of North Fulton everything we needed to know about the kind of man he is.

Editor’s note:

Despite Mr. Toro’s comments North Fulton remains a diverse community. People from all over the world call Alpharetta home because of our unique blend of incredible business environment combined with an exceptional quality of life and great schools.

Statistically Alpharetta is every bit as racially diverse as the Atlantic Station development Mr. Toro recently sold in downtown Atlanta and even more diverse than that of Decatur, GA. The supporting census data is available online at citydata.com

Are you kidding me?

The past six months have been crazy. I’ve had to devote an extra 20-30 hours a week to my city council responsibilities and to do that I’ve had to overload what was already a pretty crowded calendar. It hasn’t been easy but I feel good about the job I’ve done and I’ve never lost sight of what is most important in my life… my family.

But something had to give and several things that I used to enjoy were lost in the shuffle. In the snippets of free time I had before taking office I used to read, blog and play guitar and lately those times have been nearly nonexistent.

I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into and I don’t regret it. But Alpharetta is an exciting place to be with a lot going on so there has been much to do. It has been great to work with our new mayor and city council setting bold new goals while looking for better ways to serve our community.

One of the biggest challenges I faced over the past few months was the decision to approve a mixed use project proposed for Alpharetta. I attended meetings with city staff, fellow council members, developers, attorneys, friends and constituents. I spent hours researching the proposal and trying to anticipate all of the possible positive and negative consequences of my vote. For weeks I agonized over numerous aspects of the issue and after all of that I cast a vote which cost me some very dear friends. That project was named Avalon.

So I was elated to discover a little free time the other night and decided to download a new book on my wife’s Kindle.

The book is titled At Any Cost by Cara Ellison and you can download it here if you are interested. Ms. Ellison is a brilliant writer who I have followed online for more than a decade. She lived in Washington, DC during the September 11th attacks and wrote incredibly powerful short stories about the days which followed and how they affected her life and her nation.

So I settled into bed with my new book. It felt great to relax.

I knew from Cara’s blogging that she was familiar with the world of the Secret Service so it seemed quite natural that the protagonist of the book was a Secret Service protectee. I quickly became engrossed in the story and after a few pages a Secret Service agent began calling the protagonist by her protectee code name…


God really does have a wicked sense of humor doesn’t he?

The Avalon project in Alpharetta moves forward

Below is a statement released yesterday by the City of Alpharetta. It is a call for public input on the zoning application submitted for a new development to replace the rotting parking garage currently sitting at the doorstep of our city on Old Milton Parkway.

I encourage all of you to participate in this process. It will have an enormous impact on our community, our quality of life and our property values for years to come.

We Want To Hear From You

North American Properties, the new owner of the 80-acre site at the northwest corner of GA-400 and Old Milton Parkway that was formerly known as Prospect Park, has submitted to the City ofAlpharetta their proposed plan for developing the site. As envisioned by the owner, the project, now named “Avalon”, would be a development consisting of retail, office, hotel, and residential uses with additional outparcels set aside for future sale or development.

While the formal public hearings for the Avalon Proposal are tentatively scheduled to begin on March 1st when the proposal is presented to the Planning Commission, the City ofAlpharetta is seeking early feedback on the owner’s plans.

Please take a few moments to visit our Open City Hall online discussion about the new Avalon Proposal.  There you can view the proposed site plan for Avalon and the table comparing the uses proposed by North American Properties to those that were approved for the formerProspectPark.  Then, let us know your initial impressions, thoughts, concerns or suggestions. Your comments may be helpful to North American Properties as its plans are further refined and may also assist the Planning Commission and the City Council as they consider the proposal.

Also, please consider sharing this opportunity with your friends and neighbors.  We want to hear from all interested citizens.

Thank you for your participation.

James T. Drinkard
Assistant City Administrator, City of Alpharetta