My first exposure to the MLK Lofts project came at the end of the city commission meeting of May 18, 2016 during commissioner comments. Commissioner Rob Gilliland said he’d been talking to the developers of the MLK Lofts project for six months. Commissioner Paula Reed was completely shocked, since the project is in her zone and no one thought to involve her in those discussions.
Waving that grave concern aside, Gilliland wanted the city to hire an ombudsman to guide the deal through city hall. He suggested hiring former city employee Paul McKitrick for $25,000. That’s the upper limit the commission can spend without the annoyance of putting it on the agenda and exposing it to full scrutiny.
There was a lively discussion. Commissioner Pam Woods was very strong in her opposition to this idea. She rightfully wanted to know more about the project. But Commissioner Patrick Henry, Commissioner Kelly White, Commissioner Ruth Trager, and Mayor Derrick Henry were all in favor of pushing this project forward, sight unseen. This was another transformative project, a project that would save the neighborhood. They were like children afraid of losing out on an unexpected gift, a gift they were absolutely certain they would like.
Sadly, Reed and Woods were the only adults on the dais that evening. Without allowing for any required public comment, the commission voted 5 to 2 to hire McKitrick as ombudsman to move this sight-unseen savior project forward.
On May 18, was that a good decision or a bad decision? I would argue that it was a bad decision. Once the commission committed to spending the money for the ombudsman, they were committed to allowing that development. Getting that first “yes” was the key to getting the final “yes”. The commission endorsed this project without knowing any of the details. I don’t know about you, but I like to see what I’m buying before I spend any of my money.
A few months later, McKitrick and the developer were ready to unveil the project they’d created. Working with “city staff”, they had put together a deal for the city to borrow $5M to give to the developer. Just to reiterate, we spent $25,000 of taxpayer money to be told how we could borrow $5M to hand to a private developer. That was appalling enough, but we were also told how our responsible “city staff” had talked them out of wanting us to borrow $19M because the commission would balk at that number. Let that sink in. “City staff” and the ombudsman we hired thought they could get the commission to rubber stamp a $5M loan to give to a private developer. In a rare moment of attentiveness, the commission said no to borrowing any money; in fact it was Gilliland leading that denial.
But then the commission went to sleep again. What they refused to see was that the rents were too high and the floor plans were only suitable for student housing. The rent on a three bedroom apartment was projected at $1,800 a month, unrealistically high for our area. One floor plan showed three bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, opening directly to a large open concept living area. Typically, a family friendly floor plan would have the bedrooms segregated from the living area with a shared bath and, if lucky, a master bath.
It was always clear to many of us that not enough people were going to be able to afford to live in this building. It was always very clear to many of us that this project was not the transformative project needed in the neighborhood. It was always clear to many of us that it wasn’t a matter of IF this project would fail, it was just a matter of WHEN this project would fail. The numbers never made any sense.
There is no question that Midtown needs attention and redevelopment but this clearly was never the right project to fill those needs. However, now that the parcels have been assembled, perhaps something could be built there that would benefit the neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be a grand savior project as long as it is a successful project that makes a positive change.
Five members of the city commission made a woefully irresponsible decision on May 18, 2016. I only hope the city commission and the “city staff” are more thoughtful and attentive in the future. I only hope the failure of the MLK Lofts doesn’t kill BCU.