On the surface, it's tempting to label Wayne Mason a walking contradiction -- or at least to say that, with his entrée into the progressive and markedly urban Beltline project, he's trying to make up for 45 years of contributing to metro Atlanta's sprawl.
But no, Mason simply follows trends. Wherever people move, Mason buys land and develops it. That's why the developer of Gwinnett County's Discover Mills mall is now focusing on mixed-use projects for urbanites sick of big boxes.
Nearly a year ago, Mason and his son Keith bought five miles of the proposed Beltline, a 22-mile loop of mostly unused train tracks that, if city planners have their way, will morph into a transit line, greenways and paths circling intown Atlanta.
If ever there was a project that screams anti-sprawl, the Beltline is it.
Now, Mason is offering to give the city of Atlanta 50 percent of his Beltline land to use for the transit and greenspace portions of the project. He's also offered to develop his property without government subsidies, freeing up $75 million for economic development projects along other sections of the Beltline.
But there is, of course, a catch: The Masons say they'll donate the land and forgo the $75 million if, and only if, the city agrees to rezone certain portions of the Masons' property to allow for high-density developments -- the most controversial of which is a pair of soaring condo towers that would be built on the congested corner of 10th Avenue and Monroe Drive. The Masons have sold that particular tract to Trammell Crowe Co., the largest residential developer in the country, and the more units that Trammell Crowe gets to build, the more money the Masons stand to make.
Neighbors of the proposed condos, as well as the Atlanta Development Authority, vehemently oppose the towers, which would rise 38 and 39 stories alongside Piedmont Park. In Mason they've found the perfect whipping boy, a suburban developer who's moved from one multi-million-dollar deal to another with little regard for the impact of endless strip malls and subdivisions.
On the one hand, Mason critics such as neighborhood activist Liz Coyle -- who has complained that the proposed towers are "completely inappropriate for single-family neighborhoods" -- might have a point. The man who made it big in the 'burbs is not going to treat the city any differently. Mason himself is quick to admit he's here to make a buck.
And that's exactly what's so promising for the Beltline. The project's appeal has a master of suburban sprawl spouting smart growth gospel -- something that would've been an impossible sales pitch a decade ago. Now, Mason and his son are telling intown Atlanta that it needs to grow up -- rather than out. And he might be right, too.
In an interview last week with CL, Wayne and Keith Mason described how the Trammel Crowe property is just the beginning of their ambitions. In all, the Masons say they plan to develop about 3,000 residential units along their portion of the Beltline. They propose to build 550 of them just west of the Amsterdam Walk shopping area, bordering Piedmont Park. They also plan to build another large project between North Avenue and Ralph McGill Boulevard, though Keith Mason says those details haven't been hammered out yet.
The rest of the Masons' five-mile section of the Beltline ideally will be three or four stories of residential townhouses and condos built over retail. What's more, in some sections, the Masons plan to build literally on top of the Beltline.
Thus, if father and son succeed in getting their way, their ultimate plans will be much more grandiose than previously described.
Below are excerpts from the interview, in which the Masons laid out their plan for creating a more vibrant Atlanta -- and described the hardball deal it will take to get there.
The allure of intown
Wayne Mason: I was doing business with [Norfolk Southern], and their real estate guy walked into the office and says, "I can deliver the Beltline from DeKalb Avenue to I-85. It's 70 acres of land, and it's got an appraisal of $51,900,000. I want a check for $250,000 and a letter of intent for $20 million."
I said, "I'll do it, I'll do it, I'll do it."
Creative Loafing: When was this?
WM: Latter part of '04. I closed in December.
I've been watching it for years. The whole lifestyle people want is changing. People are choosing to live where there's more density. They're getting tired of the automobile. They're getting tired of traffic. They're getting tired of having to go to big boxes and taking the station wagon to buy a week's worth of groceries. They want to be able to get on the sidewalk, and walk into the butcher shop.
What we'll do is set the tone that'll be emulated around the rest of the [Beltline] corridor. We are trying to implement the vision. No other major city in America has the [same] opportunity as Atlanta.
WM: If I don't get the [city to approve] density to substantiate this, then I can't give [the land] away. The city has every right to take it under eminent domain, but they have to pay.
Keith Mason: We didn't buy this land to provide transit. We bought it to develop it, and to develop it in a way that keeps transit options open.
CL: But that's not contingent on that one Trammel Crowe site, is it?
KM: That's the most valuable site of the whole five miles. We're not going to [donate the land] without the density on that site. That one site drives the economics of the whole entire deal.
WM: Oh, there's no question. I'm going to make a profit. If you go to America's major cities, the vertical density is next to major parks.
The only way you are ever going to have a viable downtown is to have people. And the only way to have people is to go vertical. You've got to have density in order to have a 24-hour street life, where you can walk out on the street at 2 o'clock in the morning or 2 o'clock in the afternoon and not have to worry about [crime].
It's going to be a defining moment for Atlanta. [City officials] are going to decide if they want to grow up or grow out.
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Finally - common ground!