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Forging business relationships at Avalon – DC Aiken

Back in July I wrote about Councilman DC Aiken and a preferred mortgage lender relationship he forged with a past residential zoning applicant. And just like before, an alert blog reader has brought to my attention another similar relationship. This time it’s at Avalon.

Sharp-DC Aiken

Photo from atlantarealestateforum.com

Like previously with Sharp Residential, Councilman Aiken is the preferred mortgage lender at the landmark Avalon project. Those interested in purchasing a home or townhome at Avalon will find Councilman Aiken listed individually on the sales agreement. He’s the only mortgage broker listed, the only preferred lender.

However Aiken’s relationship at Avalon differs markedly from Sharp. First and most obvious is size and scale. Avalon is a $600 million project with enormous visibility and impact. But more importantly, Aiken’s relationship existed prior to the Avalon Phase 2 vote in October and future votes related to the project. At Sharp he came in well after the matter was before Council. He also pledged to recuse from any future Sharp decisions.

But Aiken didn’t recuse himself from Avalon’s Phase 2 vote nor does he plan to recuse from discussions and votes related to the convention center. Why?

His relationship is with Avalon homebuilder Monte Hewett. According to Aiken, that extra “degree of Kevin Bacon” between himself and North American Properties separate him from any conflict. However his name appears on Avalon-branded documents and websites. Additionally he felt he didn’t need to recuse from the Phase 2 vote in October because it didn’t include for-sale residential components.

Aiken consulted the city’s attorney prior to his Phase 2 vote and felt he was in the clear. But the decision to recuse is very subjective. The City’s ethics code calls for officials to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In the past other councilmen have recused for less significant matters in the opinion of this blogger.

Remember that Avalon will continue to have business before Alpharetta’s council in the months and years ahead. The proposed public-private partnership for a convention center is being discussed behind closed doors at this very time. Other future changes are certainly possible at Avalon and conditional use permits may be required for outparcel development.

It’s my opinion that Councilman Aiken should recuse from current and future Avalon discussions and decisions so along as he continues to do business at the development. Additionally I believe Councilman Chris Owens should also recuse for reasons I wrote about involving his wife’s employer’s multimillion dollar contract at Avalon. It all begs the question… which councilmen are not doing business at Avalon?

Reflections on Avalon’s opening

Avalon opens today. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you already knew that.

Avalon logoFrom the point of view of my writing interests, Avalon is in my sweet spot. It combines nearly every theme I ever wanted to blog about, from restaurants to politics to affluence, all into one neat little project. I couldn’t have asked for better writing material.

We here at Roots provided what I believe (and hope) has been the best, most comprehensive coverage of this enormous project. From the time the property went under contract to this opening week and beyond, we’ve written about it all. We’ve gone well beyond printing press releases and the stories spoonfed to editors from PR departments. We’ve tried to dive deep into the issues and discussions of this complicated and multifaceted development.

Comprehensive I believe our coverage has been. Impartial? Certainly not as this is an opinion blog after all. Many parts of the process have turned me off, in particular the back-room deal making and politicking. The sausage making analogy was one I used last year and it still holds true.

And then there’s Mark Toro. The guy is a character and at times has a snarky attitude on social media. “El Toro” was a name I once called him, a moniker he probably relished in a narcissistic kind of way.

But I’ll say this about Mark Toro… he’s delivered on what he promised.

Prospect Park

Photo credit: ajc.com

It’s this kept promise that’s resonated with political and community leaders alike in Alpharetta. Even the apartment opponents I know respect Mr. Toro for what he’s put together. After all, the memories of Prospect Park, Stan Thomas, an incomplete Westside Parkway, the mud pit and broken parking deck are not forgotten in this town. Toro’s kept promise resonates loud in Alpharetta right now, so much so that some on Alpharetta’s council were willing to go against their own past campaign promises and approve more apartments on Monday night.

The first few weeks at Avalon may tick some people off. The crowds will be relentless, traffic will suck, parking will be a mess and service kinks will have to be worked out. But in the end, Alpharetta will treasure Avalon. It is a beautiful development with outstanding restaurants and activities run by people who know what they are doing.

The  process that got us here was downright ugly at times. Hopefully we here at Roots chronicled it well. But at the end of it all, we’ve got a gem. Congrats Avalon on the opening. Welcome to Alpharetta.

Convention center negotiations should be public

I handle rejection well. It’s a valuable trait for a blogger that occasionally writes about government. But in this case my attempts shouldn’t have been rebuffed.

This week the City of Alpharetta turned down my open records request to see documents pertaining to negotiations for a convention center at Avalon. City officials are negotiating in private a deal that could result in a public/private relationship financed by debt paid for with increased taxes. That fact alone should result in a public process but it isn’t the case.

So today I offer two more compelling reasons Alpharetta should come out of the dark and be more transparent in this process.

Avalon Phase 2 – The proposed changes in Avalon’s phase 2 are complicated. It need not be that way. North American Properties’ application, which goes before Council on Monday, hinges on what happens in these closed door meetings for the convention center. The public and members of the Planning Commission have been put in an uncomfortable position. How do you consider a zoning request that is conditional on a private negotiation that no one know anything about? It doesn’t make sense.

Cobb County Braves Stadium – My rejected open request request was written similar to the one AJC attorneys made of Cobb County in the wake of the Braves Stadium controversy. That story is still developing and has Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee in very hot water.

Like Cobb County, Alpharetta is negotiating in private for a public/private deal that involves floating public bonds financed with tax dollars. Unlike Cobb, we at least know this is happening as Cobb residents were completely unaware the negotiations were happening at all. But the similarities end there in my opinion.

Alpharetta has the opportunity to do the right thing. They have the opportunity to set a high bar for transparency and ethics, especially in the wake of the Cobb County fiasco. It’s time for the convention center meetings to take place in public and not in executive session. The city should release documents pertaining to the negotiations. And all this should happen prior to considering changes to Avalon Phase 2.

Hemma Concrete and the Owens

Back in July we wrote about Alpharetta Councilman DC Aiken and his business relationship with homebuilder Sharp Residential. We hinted at the time of another similar business relationship. This time it’s with a spouse.

OwensThe wife of Councilman Chris Owens is in the concrete business. Approximately a year ago Mrs. Owens was hired by Marietta-based Hemma Concrete to be a senior estimator. Her responsibilities include being awarded commercial concrete projects.

For many years Hemma’s business consisted of mainly small residential projects such as driveway improvements, fancy sidewalks and other decorative hardscapes. In recent years the company has branched out to include large commercial and municipal projects.

On their website the firm touts three large projects in Alpharetta with very high profile and high visibility construction projects. We’ve been able to confirm a fourth of similar profile. The projects are…

Avalon – Hemma was awarded a $2 million contract by North American Properties and their general contractor Hoar Construction. Their work includes building site walls, hardscapes, the water fountain and all the decorative sidewalks you’ll walk on in the 86 acre project.

TopGolf – Hemma teed off the construction by pouring the foundation, walls and composite concrete slabs for the metal building frame.

Haynes Bridge Road realignment – Hemma was selected by contractor CW Matthews to work on the new road, traffic circle and sidewalks.

City Center – Not mentioned in Hemma’s portfolio online, we’ve been able to confirm that the company is performing work downtown. They were selected to perform hardscape and other concrete work on the project by City Center’s construction manager, Choat Construction.

Mrs. Owens’ employment with Hemma started after these projects were awarded. She’s not a principal or equity holder with the company but rather a employee.

Councilman Owens said the relationships would not cause him to recuse from future votes relating to North American Properties or City Center. He would only recuse in the scenario where the city contracted directly with Hemma for work.

So why write about this relationship at all? The expanding economy in Alpharetta will create opportunities for the lawyers, engineers and real estate professionals sitting on Council. It’s important to understand and be aware of the business and professional relationships your elected officials have. It’s of particular interest when the relationships involve firms with past or potential future matters before Council. Both are the case here.

Forging business relationships from favorable zoning decisions – DC Aiken and Sharp Residential

Consider this perhaps an epilogue to the controversial Sharp zoning on Providence Road. But much more than that, this story demonstrates what may be a growing trend of Alpharetta Councilmen forging business relationships with those who previously had zoning decisions before the city. Follow along for now.

Sharp-DC Aiken

Photo from atlantarealestateforum.com

Back in November 2012 Alpharetta approved a contentious zoning application from homebuilder Sharp Residential. The 79 acres of land along Providence, Bates and Mayfield roads was one of the largest undeveloped residential tracts in the city. The zoning represented the first real challenge to Alpharetta’s new Comprehensive Land Use Plan and its idea of a northwest character area. We chronicled the story here on Roots and a lengthy discussion followed. In the end, Alpharetta’s Council approved a plan very favorable to the developer despite the strenuous objects of the community.

Fast forward to this week. An alert blog reader forwarded this article from an Atlanta real estate website. It depicts Alpharetta Councilman DC Aiken, in his capacity as mayor pro tem, participating in a promotional event for Sharp. In the photograph he’s wearing his company’s golf shirt.

Aiken, a residential mortgage broker by trade, is Alpharetta’s longest-serving councilman. Since the time of the Sharp zoning, which he supported, he’s changed employers but is still in the mortgage business. In his new capacity he’s starting a builder division – and he’s become a preferred lender of Sharp Residential.

Therein lies the rub. Is creating a business relationship with a past zoning applicant kosher? Does it cause the appearance of impropriety, particularly when the zoning applicant left council chambers with a very favorable decision in hand?

In Aiken’s case Sharp isn’t directly paying him. However business from their Providence Road neighborhood, now called Hearthstone, is coming his way. It’s a relationship that, according to Aiken, would cause him to recuse himself from any future zoning decisions Sharp may have with Alpharetta.

And it’s a scenario that’s likely already happened with another councilman. The professional makeup of Alpharetta’s council is that of lawyers, those in real estate and construction. Given the expanding economy in town, professional opportunities exist for these gentlemen to capitalize on the business generated by their own favorable decisions. By taking advantage of such opportunities, Councilmen are either shrewd businessmen or have compromised the integrity of their body. Which way is it?

It’s again time for Jack Murphy to go

Two years ago I wrote this article on Forsyth County’s Jack Murphy and his troubled dealings. Murphy went on to narrowly win re-election. My opinion has not changed since that time. What has changed is that Murphy has two serious and well-funded opponents this year. Either would be a great replacement but I’m supporting Michael Williams.

Meet Jack Murphy. He’s the state senator for much of Forsyth County, including the extreme southern part of the county where I live. I’ve never written about politics in Forsyth but this story has an Alpharetta connection so I beg your indulgence. I’ve also never formally endorsed a candidate for office on my blog. That changes today. Jack Murphy should be defeated in the GOP primary on Tuesday.

In January of last year Murphy was appointed chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Days later he was sued by the FDIC for breach of fiduciary duty and gross negligence from his days as a director of an Alpharetta-based bank. That bank, ironically, was called Integrity Bank. The bank was the first bank in Georgia to fail back in 2008. Scores more would follow.

Murphy continues to say that this is a civil case, not criminal, which is technically true. However it is very rare for the feds to go after board members of failed banks in the manner they have with Integrity’s board. Furthermore, the nature of this case precludes Murphy from sitting on the board of any bank anywhere.

Nevertheless Murphy continues to lead the Senate’s Banking Committee. Calls came from all over the state for him to step aside until this case was resolved. He refused to resign, holding onto the chairmanship to this day.

The voters of Forsyth County need to do what Jack Murphy and the Senate leadership wouldn’t do – remove him from power.

City mulls possibilities to honor Mark Toro

Alpharetta is crafting plans to honor real estate developer Mark Toro. A combination of options are available to the city.

Mark ToroIt seems that conversations regarding the subject have taken place privately for some time. The City Council finally went public with the idea last night in the form of a work session agenda item.

“Alpharetta owes Mark Toro an enormous debt of gratitude,” said Councilman Mike Kennedy. He then proceeded to rattle off Toro’s Alpharetta resume. Mansell Crossing was his work a generation ago while at Cousins Properties. The project defined North Point Parkway beyond the mall.

And of course there’s Toro’s $600 million investment in Avalon, rising like a phoenix from Alpharetta’s ashes. Councilman DC Akien commented that we’d still have a mud pit were it not for Mark Toro. Chris Owens concurred, saying Toro’s benevolence cannot be understated.

Council went on to cite the Gwinnet Tech deal which is happening on adjacent land. And of course there’s the proposed Alpharetta convention center, a potential public/private partnership.

“He’s Mister Alpharetta,” quipped Jim Gilvin. “I love the guy and he owns this town. I can’t wait to partner with him using taxpayer money.”

The love fest continued for a few minutes at the start of the work session. It seems that the touchy subject Avalon’s tax abatement is but a distant memory.

Mark Toro BlvdCouncilmen mulled three options to honor Toro. The favorite seemed to be renaming a portion of Westside Parkway to Mark Toro Boulevard. The stretch of the road adjoining Avalon would bear his name. Council instructed city staff to explore the option however the city’s public works director didn’t think it would be a problem. The request would be forwarded along to the USPS for their consideration.

Another possibility would be to erect a statue in honor of Mark Toro in a potential new pocket park. The city owns land in the former Ellman Tract near Avalon. It would be an appropriate location as this land played a key role in approving Avalon’s controversial apartments.

Cost would be a factor here as the city has not budgeted for such a park. However private funds may be available. Councilman Michael Cross committed to press the Chamber for a grant. And the council’s resident decorator Donald Mitchell stepped forward to chair a committee to design the monument.

Mayor David Belle Isle ended the conversation by offering Toro the keys to the city during the road renaming ceremony. “It’s the least I can do. Mark Toro saved Alpharetta from the doldrums of the great recession. I shudder to think where we’d be without him. Bankrupt probably. I’d name my first born after Mark Toro if I didn’t have kids already.”

Council agenda: City Center and Northpoint LCI

Tonight’s Alpharetta City Council meeting has a handful of interesting items to follow, including City Center issues.

The first will be a proposal to add a Veterans War Memorial to the park in City Center. Tonight Council will likely change the master plan to allow for such a memorial. Design of the memorial and funding are still to be determined.

And the city will draft a second request for qualifications for development of the four outparcels at City Center. Alpharetta received interest last year from several developers but stopped the process shortly thereafter. This second, grouped effort begins again tonight.

Council is likely partially divided on the issue of allowing residential over retail in downtown. We’ll see if this issue comes up again tonight or if it will resurface once proposals are considered. Nevertheless this blogger thinks the votes are there to allow it to happen.

And finally, Council has a workshop agenda item to discuss the Northpoint LCI study. About a year and a half ago there seemed to be some interest in watering down this plan, perhaps reducing the densities it suggested. We’ll see if that interest is still present or where the conversation may lead.

This LCI plan sets aside land for the development of a MARTA transit station near the mall. If Council is truly serious about halting MARTA expansion into Alpharetta then they should remove this designation altogether.

Oversimplifying zoning opposition discredits hard-working, concerned citizens

Last week Hatcher Hurd with the Appen newspapers wrote an editorial titled “Zoning decisions: Why can’t they just say no?” He attempted to explain why zonings are contentious. Hatcher boiled down opposition to those who just want government to say no to all zonings. It was a very one-sided article.

kennedy hatcher tweet

Autocorrect gets me every time.

Unfortunately Alpharetta Councilman Mike Kennedy praised the article on both northfulton.com and twitter. He suggested the opinion I’m going to express here is not his experience.

Like Hatcher, I’ve followed a lot of zoning cases in north Fulton and south Forsyth. My experience with the opposition is quite different. The citizens of this area are intelligent, highly educated and generally slant towards being conservative Republicans. They understand property rights.

They’re not dummies. They understand that growth is coming but want it managed. Citizens are concerned with traffic and road capacity. And they’re keenly aware of the situation at local schools pertaining to overcrowding.

Citizens want things like comprehensive land use plans followed. Nearly every zoning request pushes the envelope, asking for a one or two notch jump in density classification. They usually get it.

As frustration grows, opponents form grassroots organizations. You’ve probably heard of a few of these. In Alpharetta you’ve got guys like Windward Homeowners Inc. Preserve Rural Milton has been very busy recently. South Forsyth has no less than four community groups working zoning cases. I’ve been fortunate to meet folks from most of these groups. They put in hours and hours of tireless work. They’re meeting with developers, planers and politicians, working to find common ground and compromise. These are smart guys and gals who know the process and are working within it.

But that’s not the narrative Mr Hurd and Mr Kennedy would like to be told. Their comments do a disservice to citizen groups like this and their hard work.

Are there some citizens who want no development at all? I’m sure there are. But don’t boil down all zoning opposition like this. The citizens are smarter than you think. They want growth managed and the processes followed. Is that too much to ask?

Ashton Atlanta Residential, data centers and compelling reasons

Today’s secret words are “compelling reason.” Whenever you hear these words, scream really loud. Got it?

Tonight Alpharetta’s City Council will hear a request from Ashton Atlanta Residential to build a neighborhood in the business portion of the Windward development. The plan calls for 91 homes on lots as small as 6,000 square feet. Mass grading may be required due to the steep topography. No, we’re not talking Forsyth County here, this is squarely in Alpharetta. Windward in fact.

Required would be an amendment to the Windward Master Plan, a planning document held sacred in this town. And why shouldn’t it be? The Windward development helped define Alpharetta a generation ago. And even though it’s got a few years on it, the land uses it calls for still make sense.

So before anyone makes changes to this holy document, planners and politicians look for a compelling reason.

Whatever a developer has planned has gotta be good. Real good. Or perhaps there’s a significant burden placed upon the land owner by the master plan, something so onerous they cannot use their land otherwise.

That’s what was argued in the last major challenge to the Windward master plan. Two and a half years ago charter school Amana Academy sought to relocate to a vacant office building on Windward (and in fair disclosure, I supported this). The applicant cited, among other reasons, that the office space was not marketable in this current environment.

Alpharetta unanimously rejected Amana’s request saying that there was no compelling reason to change the master plan. And as irony would have it, last year Amana’s potential digs were sold to Peak 10, a Charlotte-based company who plans a data center in this space.

If anything, the Amana case offers a very compelling reason to reject tonight’s zoning request and leave this property’s designated use alone. Alpharetta has undertaken a huge push to rebrand itself as the Technology City of the South. By approving the Ashton zoning, the city would remove one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels in the technology corridor. It’s a parcel that could hold a very large data center. Perhaps several.

“Alpharetta is one of the more significant data center hubs within Atlanta,” ByteGrid CEO Ken Parent said to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We wouldn’t roll out a 100,000 square foot facility and flood the market with new supply if we thought the demand wasn’t there to support it.”

ByteGrid’s building that facility now. T5′s massive new data center is up the road. And Peak 10 will get started pretty soon.

The technology city of the south doesn’t plow up their much coveted and prized data center farmland to plant a Forsyth-style neighborhood. There’s no compelling reason whatsoever. Perhaps in a few years Mayor Belle Isle will cut the ribbon on a shiny new technology center in this very space.

So watch tonight’s City Council vote carefully. Any councilman who played the compelling reason card with Amana should have a tremendously difficult time voting for Ashton tonight.

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