January 16, 2013

City Dope

Athens News and Views

Buckle Your Seatbelts: The Buena Vista Heights historic district proposal is back on the Athens-Clarke Commission's agenda for discussion Thursday and a Feb. 5 vote. It's virtually unchanged from November, when the commission tabled the controversial district to explore other options.

"I think there's been a little time for commissioners to get some of their answers," says Commissioner Jared Bailey, who represented the neighborhood until new districts took effect at the beginning of the year. (The new commissioner for intown neighborhoods along Prince Avenue is George Maxwell.)


Buena Vista isn't exactly social these days.

Those answers weren't quite what commissioners had hoped for. With residents and landlords sharply divided over a historic district, they asked planners to present alternatives that might appease both sides. A conservation district "didn't really fit to me," Bailey says. It would have given ACC officials more control over what's developed in the neighborhood, with tight restrictions on homes' scale, mass and design. But it would have done nothing to protect historic properties, and Planning Director Brad Griffin convinced them that it would be too expensive and labor-intensive to implement.

Some Buena Vista residents have been working for years to create a historic district in the neighborhood to the north of Normaltown's retail strip—one of Athens' first streetcar suburbs—to protect mill houses that date back to the late 19th century, as well as keeping out what they regard as unwanted gentrification and McMansion-style development. Others have argued that a historic district would stifle developers' creativity and that houses built in the 1950s and '60s, while eligible for protection, aren't truly historic and don't deserve it.

Commissioner Kelly Girtz says he's working on a proposal to tweak the historic district's boundaries, removing some of those questionable homes, and he hopes to have it ready in time for the agenda-setting meeting Thursday. He says he'll spend the next few weeks talking to property owners about the district lines.

Buena Vista historic district advocates didn't get the kind of assistance from county planners that other historic districts received in the past, Girtz says, which led to the animosity over the issue. (Residents pushing the historic district, who hired University of Georgia graduate students to help out with their proposal, blame budget cuts at the Planning Department.) "If some of that interaction had happened earlier on, it might have been ready to fly," Girtz says.

Vexing Vacancies: Girtz is also tackling another big issue facing Athens. For decades, when new apartment complexes were built, college students from upper-class families, flush with HOPE money, flocked to them, leaving the old ones to gradually fall into disrepair, creating, he says, "havens for crime and sites of code violations" and dragging down property values in nearby neighborhoods.

With a spate of development downtown bringing 1,500 new bedrooms, the cycle is about to start again. Girtz has asked Mayor Nancy Denson put the commission's Legislative Review Committee on the case. The LRC and planners would look at crime and code violations at half-vacant multifamily properties, examine ways to redevelop those properties—perhaps leveling them for greenspace—and assess how to put affordable workforce housing near services like health care and bus lines, rather than pushing it to the outskirts of town.

"Certainly, the housing industry does not operate as a unified front, acting in the best public interest, as we've seen from the boom-and-bust cycle of the past decade," he said in an email to Denson and fellow commissioners. "Many investors are [not] concerned about the market as a whole, just their latest project's profitability.

"Though it will not be easy work, diving into these questions and developing policy responses can produce a stronger community for newcomers and longtime residents alike."

An Unhappy Camper: In addition to giving pointless speeches, obstructing bills and arguing on television, congressmen and their staffs do actually get some work done from time to time. Part of their job is help constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy to get passports or on disability, for example. To that end, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun recently announced a series of Constituent Services Days in towns around the 10th District where his staffers will "ask questions, find solutions, and help you cut through the red tape."

Tell that to Andrew Totter. The Athens resident says he's "in between" Medicaid and Medicare. He's been asking Broun's Athens office for weeks for help and says he's gotten no response. "Here's a guy who's an MD and should know better," he says. "I can't get any help."

Totter says he has some serious health problems and needs a $100,000 surgery, but right now he's uninsured. He usually votes Republican, but he's "starting to be a big fan of socialized medicine.

"It seems like his office is saying, 'Well, he's just looking for handouts,'" Totter says. "I'm looking to live, is what it boils down to."