Georgia Tech bio science park gets initial OK for tax breaks

Millions in incentives could support speculative project west of Tech’s campus

The Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) gave preliminary approval Tuesday for property tax breaks that could grow to $29.4 million for a long-planned life sciences and residential complex tied to Georgia Tech.

Developer Trammell Crow and Georgia Tech plan a nearly $650 million project at North Avenue and Northside Drive west of Tech’s campus.

The multi-phase speculative development has been in planning for years. Development is expected to take potentially 14 years and includes five laboratory and office buildings, hundreds of apartments and retail that would rise adjacent to Tech’s campus and nearthe English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods.

The first phase of construction could start next month.

The estimated $29.4 million in future tax breaks would largely be passed along as an incentive to future tenants to reduce rents, the developers said.

DAFC has been criticized for years as a rubber stamp that grants lucrative tax breaks for projects in well-off parts of the county.

But the authority has undergone an overhaul in the wake of reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year that revealed a culture of loose financial oversight at the agency under former leadership. Since the summer, the DAFC has been more judicious in its support of projects.

On Tuesday, the board unanimously approved what is known as a letter of inducement, a preliminary step towards granting tax breaks. But DAFC amended the proposed agreement to install safeguards because of the long horizon of the planned development and its speculative nature. No tenants were announced Tuesday.

DAFC stipulated that Trammell Crow and Georgia Tech must return to the authority for final consideration of each of five planned phases in case market conditions change and incentives are no longer needed.

“It is a safety valve so that there’s no misunderstanding,” said board member Tom Tidwell. “I don’t want future board members to be bound by (today’s decision), and I want to make sure Trammell Crow understands that this isn’t a guaranteed rubber stamp.”

Metro Atlanta isn’t as big a life sciences hub compared to rivals such as Boston, North Carolina’s Research Triangle or the Bay Area in California.

But Trammell Crow and Georgia Tech officials said a market study they’ve commissioned indicates corporate and startup demand exists to support a life sciences complex at the Technology Enterprise Park site, and such a complex would make Atlanta more competitive nationally.

Expanding companies want high-grade, move-in-ready lab space, and the Atlanta area lacks it.

“We have zero available commercial lab space,” Trammell Crow executive Katherine Lynch told the DAFC board. “It’s very competitive market.”

Georgia Tech moved east across the Downtown Connector two decades ago and built Technology Square, which helped trigger redevelopment of parking lots in Midtown into a hive of tech companies. That expansion was punctuated by the Coda development, which attracted a number of major corporations to Georgia Tech’s doorstep.

“I see this very much in a similar lens as Coda,” said Samir Abdullahi, the leader of Select Fulton, one of the county’s economic development agencies.

The first phase would rise near an existing lab and office building already fully occupied on site. The initial phase includes more than 360,000 square feet of new office and lab space and 280 apartments.

Twenty-eight of those apartments would be considered affordable to residents earning 60% of the area median income or about $52,000 for a family of four in today’s dollars.

The partners also said the project will include nearly $10 million in infrastructure costs, including a new pedestrian bridge connecting to Georgia Tech.

Trammell Crow has also promised $500,000 per lab building, or $2.5 million across all five phases, to support education efforts in surrounding communities to help nearby residents gain skills to work in the life sciences industry.

But the developer and Georgia Tech representatives provided few details on how that money would be deployed. Board members Mike Looney, the superintendent of Fulton County Schools, and board Secretary Kyle Lamont said they wanted more specifics on those proposals.

Board member Erica Long, who represents Atlanta Public Schools, said she wanted more information about preventing displacement of nearby residents. Trammell Crow representatives said they sought community input from Vine City and English Avenue groups throughout the multi-year planning phase.

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