Wayne Mason, the consummate Gwinnett County developer who has made millions, lost millions and made them again, is sitting in his son Keith's law office on the 53rd floor of SunTrust Plaza. He jerks his head over his shoulder, his snow-white mane jutting toward Atlanta's northwest neighborhoods, and growls, "That's it, right over there."
He really does growl, with a rural Georgia twang, especially when the subject is neighborhood activists who don't like Mason or his plans for "it," 72 acres stretched thin along 4.6 miles of old railroad tracks from DeKalb Avenue to I-85.
The land constitutes about a fifth of the planned 22-mile Beltline, a still hypothetical transit system linking neighborhoods in an oval corridor punctuated with staccato bursts of parks, trails and development. Mason envisions building 120,000 square feet of commercial space, and 3,100 residential units, including 38- and 39-story high-rises at Monroe Drive and 10th Street, and 900 apartments and townhouses at Amsterdam Walk.
"They think Piedmont Park should be their private park," Mason says of his foes. "They can't see beyond their own yards that [the Beltline] is the future of the city."
His ire is directed at people such as Liz Coyle, vice chairwoman of NPU-F, the neighborhood planning unit for the area near Mason's property. She grouses that Mason took advantage of the city's slow pace to snap up the property. Mason shrugs at the criticism. "So?" he says.
"He's just like any developer," Coyle fumes. "He makes threats, but he won't carry through with them. It's the [Atlanta] City Council that will say what's appropriate. They'll come up with some middle ground."
On that point, Mason agrees. "This isn't a [public] referendum. The only thing that counts is eight votes at the City Council."
On everything else between Mason and Coyle, it's all-out war.
Coyle hasn't always alluded to compromise. A year ago, her rallying cry was "zero stories," meaning no development. Why is she now talking city-mandated "middle ground"? One answer is that Mason has been winning the battle of bureaucracy. Both the Atlanta Regional Council and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in recent days have given the nod to transportation elements of Mason's plans.
But numbers and negotiations aside, underneath Coyle's desire to strangle Mason with red tape, and his penchant for stretching it to a millimeter short of snapping, are competing visions for the city's future.
"This decision is not so much about specifics, but about whether Atlanta becomes a major city or whether we continue to be polarized," says Roy Barnes, the ex-governor and one of Mason's phalanx of attorneys. "[Mason's land] is an area that's basically a wasteland. We're going to take it, give half of it for open space and transit, and the rest for a mixed-income community."
It was during a trip with Georgia politicians to Chicago that Wayne Mason first heard about the Beltline. Then City Council President Cathy Woolard, who ignited public interest in the project, buttonholed Mason. "She told me it was revolutionary," he recalls, "but I didn't pay much attention."
Mason is a shrewd dealmaker who began his career painting houses in Snellville. He defies some of the developer stereotype. "I've lived in the same house for 41 years," he says. "Don't have a yacht, don't have a plantation, although I do enjoy a little bird hunting." His politics? "I'm not mean enough to be a Republican."
He perked up to the Beltline when a broker told him in 2004 about the possibility of buying the track and adjacent land from the Norfolk Southern Railway. "I'll probably die putting together my last deal," the 66-year-old developer smiles ruefully.
The broker needed $250,000 to get things rolling. "He came back, said there was a counteroffer and needed another $250,000," Mason says. "I wrote the check." The deal happened, and for $24.5 million, Mason owned the linchpin for the Beltline.
In December 2004, the city approved a Beltline tax allotment district. It's projected to raise about $1.7 billion over 25 years, mostly to pay for infrastructure. Until decisions are made on transit -- light rail, trolleys or buses -- the final cost of the Beltline is a big question mark. But $3 billion would be a safe guess.
Here's where Mason plays his trump cards. First, he's brought in affordable housing experts to ensure that a broad range of incomes inhabit his towers. "People will all go out the same door in the morning, but some will earn $40,000 a year, and others will be worth millions," Mason says.
Not only is he donating 54 percent of his land for parks and open space, worth about $70 million if developed, his project will generate about $114 million in TAD dollars. Typically, developers get about two-thirds of that money back to pay for infrastructure. Mason is saying, keep it, it's a gift.
Coyle reacts to the offer about the same way the Trojans did when they found out what was inside the horse. "I don't believe him," she says, but can't say exactly why.
There is a fist in Mason's velvet glove. "If we don't get approval," he says, "I can sell off or develop the land. I could put a gate on the street and build million-dollar houses and make some easy money. But a Millionaires Row won't do anything for Atlanta. What we've planned will."
Basically, the biggest "gift" will be increased density. Atlanta is one of the least dense major cities in the nation, a fact that is a daunting obstacle to any form of mass transit. Mason's towers -- within 150 feet of single-family homes -- will be about 100 units per acre.
Coyle: "The corridor should be an emerald necklace. It shouldn't be high-rise towers."
Mason: "Greenspace won't produce TAD dollars. If we want to be a great city, a 24-hour city, if you don't want to be married to a car, if you want access to parks and trails, that's what I'm offering."
· To become active in the Beltline Partnership, visit www.beltline.org/getInvolved.shtml.
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