Across from Atlanta City Hall on Trinity Avenue sits an unused lot that has been fenced off and vacant for a decade. There has been no shortage of interesting ideas to make the property useful, including affordable housing units or a possible urban farm. Yet, two weeks before a new administration takes its place, Atlanta City Council voted this week to approve $3M “to renovate the Trinity Lot to improve and upgrade the drainage, slope, grading, landscaping, safety, and accessibility” at the request of the Mayor, with no opportunity for public engagement or comment. There is no assessment that indicates the need to spend $3M, nor is there any clear plan as to what that $3M will go toward.
This is what happens when we don’t pay attention, Atlanta. We spend $3M on who-knows-what.
Some of the key issues raised in this City of Atlanta election cycle have been transparency and community engagement. Yet here we are again with a significant expenditure that not only has zero public engagement, but it also was only added to the agenda of a specially-called City Council meeting at the last minute with no explanation.
This is not just about downtown, or affordable housing, or urban farms. It’s about good governance.
On January 2, the City of Atlanta will have a new Mayor, a new City Council President, and 7 new City Council members. We have a chance to demand more of our representatives.
In 2018, the City of Atlanta leadership needs to pledge to the following:
- Decisions need to be data-driven. Before City Council votes on any significant expenditures, there should be a clear rationale as to why this expenditure is needed, what that money will buy, and what the expected impact will be. With this vote, there is no assessment that indicates the need for the supposed erosion control nor any kind of budget to show how $3M will be spent.
- Public engagement is a necessity, not an accessory. Recently the city of Chattanooga decided to ask citizens for their input on how to develop an appropriate budget. This effort isn’t just about checking a box to claim some sort of engagement was part of the process – this is true citizen-led decision-making. This week’s $3M vote for the Trinity lot doesn’t even pretend to ask for input and specifically states that “any future project on the site may be brought to the neighborhood association for discussion purposes only.”
- Votes must be clear on meeting agendas. In the City of Austin, not only are the meeting agendas clearly promoted online without last minute changes, but they have a specific staff structure to create and set the agendas so the meetings can’t be hijacked by a last minute special project of a Mayor or City Council member. During this week’s specially-called Atlanta City Council meeting, the $3M expenditure only popped up hours before the meeting itself and allowed no public comment.
These expectations should be the basis of any good governing structure. With half of our City of Atlanta leadership being replaced for 2018, citizens need to not only expect good governance – we need to demand it.
1) The lot has sat vacant since 2007 because it used to be the location of the city’s court building until a newer, bigger facility was built a block away. A parking deck was going to be built here but the neighboring churches proactively worked with the City to reconfigure the parking deck to allow for affordable housing to be built in a second phase on the vacant corner lot and on top of the parking deck. Yet the second phase remains just an idea.
2) Realizing something else should happen there, in 2011 the City of Atlanta launched the Trinity Avenue Urban Farm design competition. Over 80 entries were received. 3 finalists were selected, but the $25,000 in prize money was never awarded and the City stopped communicating with the finalists.
3) Flash forward to December 13, 2017 and at a specially-called City Council meeting (the last regularly-scheduled meeting occurred last Tuesday) this morning at 10:00 am a new item pops up on the agenda to spend $3 million to improve and upgrade this lot. There has been no public engagement, no explanation of why the City’s not pursuing affordable housing or an urban farm on the site, and no presentation of what the $3 million will be funding.