What A New Downtown DeKalb May Look Like, And Cost

Kensington constructionDeKalb issued a request to architectural firms last week for renderings of a new Downtown DeKalb next to the proposed soccer stadium at I-285 and Memorial Drive, the AJC reported yesterday.

The plans are ambitious. They’re also bound to be incredibly expensive.

A concert hall. A convention center. Hotels. A new 20-story government office building. And the jail converted into condos.

That last bit is why I’m thinking of this RFP as a publicity stunt. I absolutely cannot imagine the county agreeing to build a new facility to replace a 25-year-old jail that cost $88 million in 1990 and operates at about 75 percent capacity today, never mind the cost to renovate it into some kind of mixed-use facility.

The county is suggesting that the giveaway soccer stadium — $12 in public funds with zero return for the investment — would be surrounded by the glories of suburbia, a-la-Brookhaven or Dunwoody.

Interestingly, the RFP calls for two renderings; one with the stadium, and one without. That suggests the $12 million deal isn’t quite done yet. 

Here’s the design proposal.

“This option includes planning a live-work-play urban mixed use district namely Downtown DeKalb that will have a sports arena as the anchor with a new convention center, hotels and concert hall adjacent to the existing Kensington MARTA Station plus another anchor which will be a +/- 20 story high rise office tower for the DeKalb Government municipal offices (to house over 3,000 employees) with a public green space/square with fountains and retail/mixed use buildings as well as a recreation center to replace the existing animal shelter.

The firm shall also design other office towers, mixed use buildings, mid to high rise apartments, open air live-work-play shopping/retail centers, movie theater, parks, conversion of the existing county Jail into an office or high rise apartments, as well as required parking decks, new roads, new landscaping, tree scape, pedestrian bridges, pedestrian paths and other site/urban features, pedestrian friendly streets/main street concept and walkways and public plazas, conceptual layout of pads for lots for each residential and commercial uses of mixeduse development programs. In addition the firm shall optimize the high density layout of the property to yield a better number of profitable useable lands for more buildings to produce more cash flow for DeKalb County, MARTA, the developers and other stakeholders.”

This is big thinking. I’m normally quite fond of that.

Is this kind of long-term planning necessary? Yes. It’s even desirable. It’s also what you do before agreeing to hand over $12 million in public money for a soccer stadium anchoring redevelopment, not after.

Consider the mixed-use retail development being built across from MARTA’s Kensington station, on the site of the old Kensington Manor apartments. Eikon Partners and Proterra LC are building Avondale Hills, which will be 48 single-family homes in the $300,000 range, plus about 100 townhomes,  condos, 250,000 of office space and 120,000 square feet of retail.

The pace of that project leaves something to be desired. Eikon Partners has had permits for construction since March, when they started knocking down the old apartments. The buildings have been half-destroyed all this time. A worker there told me that they’ve had to drop trees on the buildings to prevent squatters from taking up residence, leaving it with the look of the aftermath of an ent attack on the way to Isengard.

In Dunwoody, those buildings would have been gone in a month. Because developers there write a check and get it done.

For the Downtown DeKalb proposal, where does the money come from? Even accounting for lower incarceration rates moving forward — a consequence of sentencing reform and lower rates of crime — a new jail will probably cost on the order of $30 to $60 million, and that’s for one with half the capacity.

Renovating the old jail for other purposes is easily another $10 to $20 million. A 20-story office tower is $35 to $45 million. A concert hall worthy of the word — and, never mind operations costs or the competitive effect of having another hall in the same market as Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton and Atlanta — probably starts at $40 million. A convention center? I have no idea. None of this includes the cost of infrastructure improvements.

We’re probably looking at $200 million in public costs, minimum.

Now, I understand that bond interest rates are absurdly low right now. DeKalb has an aa3 bond rating from Moodys, which means it’s paying a yield of about 2.5 percent. But DeKalb’s public debt of $570 million is roughly $813 per capita. Fitch considers that manageable, but DeKalb’s tax base has been bleeding and housing values have been volatile, while the county has about $1.6 billion in unfunded pension and retirement obligations and a sewer system to fix.

DeKalb County takes in $1.2 billion annually in taxes. It pays about $65 million a year in principal and interest payments. Adding $200 million in debt would imply an increase of about $20 million a year to that cost. (Someone, perhaps John Jackson, will correct my thumbnail estimate there.)

It also imposes risk. If the investments don’t result in increased tax revenue to the county, another downturn would result in a major property tax increase to cover the cost.

This bears thinking about. I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. I’m pretty sure that only a financial investment of this scope can change Memorial Drive into something worthy of its place. The question is whether the hands at the wheel are capable of steering the ship in the direction they’re pointing.


  1. Ellynn says:

    I read the whole RFP. This is for just a ‘master plan’ of the area. The scope is very limited on what they are looking for and based on the design fee, they are not looking for more then urban space planning and pretty pictures. This is all very vague. It has none of the development items you would see in ‘real’ projects. No programing, no zoning or land research, no construction or estimating. This is the type of pretty pictures one uses for say… a SPLOST campaign.

  2. Dave Bearse says:

    Me, I don’t have your reservations about dismissing it out of hand. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you stated the recent actions of a majority of the Board are those of a Board seeking municipalization of the County.

    Is it because they’ve realized that giving billionaire Arthur Blank $20M for his playground was such a bad idea that they’re already looking to through good money after bad?

    Maybe it’s to put the whole County on the hook largely for the benefit of a future city.

    • George Chidi says:

      The purpose of creating this center for commerce is to avoid having it become part of incorporated territory. As cities form, they establish services of their own and draw taxes from commercial property to support those services. That reduces the tax base for the provision of services to unincorporated DeKalb County … where most of the people live, many of whom are poor.

      The board desires to create a tax base for DeKalb outside of cities. It also wants to develop fallow property that — in a sane world — should be used better and be much more valuable, given it’s proximity to I-285, MARTA and Memorial Drive, which is a straight shot downtown.

      The idea itself isn’t stupid. It’s exactly what should happen. The problem is how, and who, and how much. I don’t have a problem with the concept.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Neither do I. You mentioned how, who, and how much, but you didn’t mention when.

        A County government with a recent history of malfeasance, pending matters of malfeasance, headed by an unelected CEO that secretly negotiated a deal to give a billionaire $20M, presented then voted on the deal about a week later without allowing any public comment, that has trouble delivering public services, is not a position to chip in a couple hundred million dollars to backstop a private developer, until its house is in order.

        Incorporation is a matter determined by the General Assembly, voters, and courts. There’s little if any precedent that Commission board wishes prevail.

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