Walmart, Rising From The Atlanta Way Ashes

Earlier this week I attended a meeting at the Abernathy Center, the previous location of West Hunter Street Baptist Church, and the place where its namesake preached during the Civil Rights Movement. The active congregation is in a different location, but this historic building remains, on the corner of a lot otherwise dominated by a now-empty Walmart parking lot on MLK Jr. Dr. SW, in the midst of the Atlanta University Center. The loss of this Walmart location, along with its peer off Howell Mill Dr. has been lamented since both were set fire to some months back. The community wanted a grocery option here, and the Mayor and Council member Amos took great pride in discussing their advocacy for bringing the box store giant back. I tweeted out some specifics while I was in the meeting, but I’m going to dive deeper into this here, with Atlanta’s near-always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for city planning, some disingenuousness I heard in the meeting, my confirmation that Mayor Dickens is definitely NOT Kasim nor Franklin, but giving me more of a Campbell 2.0 vibes, and some suggestions for the rest of Georgia’s city planners that have more strategic vision than Atlanta currently does.

First, much ado was made about Walmart employees “flying in” to answer the community’s questions. I’m sure that’s true for a number of folks, but not actually for Glenn Wilkins, Walmart’s lobbyist, right? He resides in St. Simons but used to be in the metro Atlanta area if memory serves me right. I interacted with him when I worked with Dekalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer about a decade ago. While Commissioner Boyer’s tenure ended on a sour note with her incarceration in federal prison, when I worked with her she was an AMAZING fundraiser for the county employees. Wilkins, along with current Georgia House member, Rep. Anavitarte  (when he was a lobbyist for Kaiser) gave generous checks for Dekalb County Employee’s Picnic. A 20-minute dial-for-dollars session with Elaine was all it took for literally thousands of dollars to come into the coffers that went to a day for the County’s employees and their family members to be celebrated at Stone Mountain with hot dogs and hamburgers and a variety of vendors. It was the sort of direct exploitation of vendor relationships Georgians assume happen behind closed doors. 

The memory of this generosity for our county neighbors makes me wonder how hard it really was for the Mayor and Council Member Amos to make this happen. I’m not saying I’m ungrateful, I’m just saying this is kind of regular business here, right? It is bizarre to me why the Mayor of the “Gateway to the South” acts like we should be grateful the retailer most known for its employees’ wages being so low that Medicaid is the largest provider of their medical coverage has graced us with options for the heart of our city’s beloved HBCUs. At one point the Mayor told the crowd gathered that they should express their gratitude for the big-box giant’s return. It was…hard to watch. The placement of the new police substation here in an already over-policed portion of the city and the recent news about the City of Atlanta skimming off the top of development for Cop City makes me wonder if some money wasn’t skimmed off the top creatively reallocated for Cop City here as well.

It seems the Mayor and Council member (and the Boomers in the audience) expected us all to be glad to have $14/hour entry-level jobs, rather than recognize this rate just perpetuates the poverty in the area. I’ve talked about Area Median Income in my discussions of urban planning. While the term “affordable housing” has become this watered-down phrase that can mean anything from “missing middle” or “workforce housing”, referring to 60%-80% AMI, the AMI for this area (according to the is more like 20%-30%, unless you’re a gentrifier like myself. Here’s the Wiki page if you’d like a brief tutorial on previous attempts by HUD and Campbell to revitalize the area. It appears Mayor Dickens is repeating Campbell’s efforts here. Whether that includes the ever-popular RICO charges remains to be seen. The references section of the Wiki page provides a ton of links to historic documentation of efforts in the area. So, in context, unless Walmart’s entry-level employees are receiving housing subsidies as well, they will either be living on the edge of poverty for Atlanta’s rents or (more likely) be driving in from OTP. 

Have fun with that, Cobb, Clayton, Cherokee, and Gwinnett!

And while we’re talking about traffic, let’s also discuss how Walmart stated this site will have 15K square footage of this 75K total square footage footprint will now be dedicated as a distribution center. Readers in OTP Georgia know about those- right? That means big tractor-trailers will be adding wear and tear to the Lowrey corridor, as it’s the straight shot to I-20, from this location. Lowery hasn’t seen a paving since Buck was a calf and we know how long it took for Dekalb Ave to get paved so why worry about it now? Let’s hope Walmart isn’t seeking a tax abatement so it can actually pay for the road infrastructure it’ll be using, shall we?

EDIT: Walmart sought a tax abatement of $1.5M for its redevelopment of its vacant structure from Invest Atlanta. Here’s a link to the coverage of that abatement by Rough Draft Atlanta. IMHO, this is yet another example of the foolishness of tax abatements. This is completely unnecessary, and further demonstrates the City of Atlanta’s short-sightedness.

Now let’s talk about the location of this behemoth. 

Good land use, building density, and economic development around corridors of transit aren’t Atlanta’s forte, but I had hoped that this huge piece of land could have been dedicated to a grocer and shops on the bottom and housing on top in a mixed-use configuration that other neighborhoods have used to provide housing and a commercial tax base that can create a CID. I mean, IMHO, why we’re building out rather than up when this literally backs up to a MARTA station is a HUGE missed opportunity. This MARTA station is similar to the Buckhead and Midtown station, in that it has above-ground access points on both sides of Lowery, and parking on either side as well. As a matter of fact, if we’re friends on Facebook or if you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen my recent documentation of the literal weeds growing out of the locked Lena St. parking lot associated with the Ashby MARTA station. It isn’t clear to me why we have this large, vacant piece of land on the edge of a business corridor, but that seems to be an integral part of #TheAtlantaWay. 

A lot just doesn’t make any rational sense here unless you recognize that:

  1. There is no actual plan;
  2. Our Dept. of Planning doesn’t do ish; serves more as a clearing house for permitting developers than strategically planning our city;
  3. The entire bureaucracy is fresh off a lobotomy and the left hand can’t coordinate with the right hand. None of the Depts or Agencies here seem to work together or share information.

I don’t know why this self-hatred of Atlanta is so dense here that it causes us to think so small, but I can confirm, for as “forward thinking” as Atlantans like to claim to be over their GOOA counterparts, the shortsighted aspects of maximizing housing and economic development in our city planning is, frankly, a toddler with some crayons. 

But if we look to our neighbors in the north, we might see hope for the future. Asheville, North Carolina has been a little hippie mountain town for as long as I’ve known it existed. But it’s city planning took a strategic turn some years back when its Mayor started looking at land use with a farmer’s lens. When a farmer looks at a field, she tries to estimate its yield, right? To that end, the technology used in farming is more similar to the GIS maps we use for city planning in that the crops are sown with such precision that a field will yield its most optimal cash-producing arrangement. So Asheville’s Mayor, Joe Minicozzi (with the help of Urban3), began analyzing the tax revenue yield of his city in terms of what businesses yield in tax revenue per square acre of land. Meaningfully for me, they made a comparison between their local Walmart and a revamped JC Penny. 

“Asheville has a Super Walmart about two-and-a-half miles east of downtown. Its tax value is a whopping $20 million. But it sits on 34 acres of land. This means that the Super Walmart yields about $6,500 an acre in property taxes, while that remodeled JCPenney downtown is worth $634,000 in tax revenue per acre. (Add sales tax revenue, and the downtown property is still worth more than six times as much as the Walmart per acre.)”

You can read the link from the Bloomberg article back in 2012 for more. 

Now, what if Atlanta looked at Walmart in a way that is more holistic- dare I say MARTA, Walmart, ADOT, GDOT, the Atlanta Housing Authority, and the Dept. of City Planning all work TOGETHER?? It’s wild, I know, and will literally never happen in Atlanta under the current admin and City Planning, but I share this with you, dear reader so maybe other Georgia cities can benefit from this novel (and not a new idea).  

And before someone wants to call me a tax and spend liberal, let’s look at this for a second. If you optimize for tax production, and you are able to 10x the revenue per acre, then can you imagine the millage rate decreases that can come in for homeowners? Fully funded local schools thanks to smart planning AND lower tax rates. Can I get a “Hell Yeah?”

I’m all for Georgia continuing to grow business. I’m also meaningfully looking at what neighborhoods need in terms of housing and transportation. I just don’t think these things are in conflict with one another and in fact SHOULD be working together to maximize tax revenue to ensure future infrastructure needs are met. It just requires a strategic approach. 

I leave you all with this question: What do your cities yield? 

Change that, and you change Georgia.

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