Photo Credit: Rebecca McCarthy
An infill house under construction on McWhorter.
For some who met at the library with Athens-Clarke County Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee on Monday to discuss the emerging infill ordinance, there is no infill crisis. Builder and Five Points resident Jared York told the crowd of 100 or so people that Five Points’ character hasn’t changed significantly. Another person said the new houses scattered through the neighborhood have improved it.
Homeowner Janice Flory isn’t a member of that group. She has lived in Five Points on Catawba for 14 years and has seen her own street undergo a stark transformation. People have punched out houses, doubling the square footage. A large home has gone up on what she thought was a protected stream buffer and springs.
Flory and her husband chose their house because its location allows them to walk to school, jobs and a grocery store, among other businesses. Had he accepted a job at UCLA, they knew they would be driving everywhere, not walking or cycling. But if her husband and she were today considering moving to Athens because of his faculty position at the university, they would think twice about living in Five Points, Flory said.
“We would have to look at our budget much more closely than we did when we bought in,” she said. “It gets more complicated when the neighborhood becomes unpredictable, and we feel we have nothing to say about it.”
If you walk through Five Points with Flory, she can show you where houses have been demolished and replaced with larger buildings. Some of those torn down were well-built houses that could have used a little upgrading, while others were long-time rentals that had passed beyond the pale. Currently, two houses on Milledge Terrace are slated to be demolished, as well as one on Highland Avenue—where two houses have been torn down in the past three years—and three buildings on West Lake, one of which is little more than a shack.
“Yes, we’re in a building boom at the moment, but it’s possible we could end up with a property bust after this boom,” she said. “And what would that do for the neighborhood? To have these ginormous houses too expensive to maintain?”
At Monday’s meeting, Lonnee presented the same information he’s given multiple times around town: the intent of the infill ordinance was to reduce sprawl; most infill happened along Ruth Street, Archer and MLK; there was little outcry about the transformation of that part of town. When demolitions, new construction and large additions began occurring in Cobbham, Boulevard and Five Points, residents began pushing back and complaining. The 14 buildings in Five Points that have increased in size by 50 percent have brought up compatibility issues, Lonnee said.
A show of hands revealed that those at the meeting didn’t care much about the style of new houses, just the scale. One Cherokee Avenue resident said he did care about building materials, pointing to a new house going up at Hampton Court and Milledge that doesn’t display high-quality products.
One woman wondered what she can do about her rising taxes. If she’s 65, she can effectively freeze the portion that goes to public schools, she learned. Other than that, nothing, though she can look forward to leaving her heirs an expensive piece of property.
Another question about what can be done about demolitions has the same answer: nothing, except have the street designated as a historic district, which would prevent demolitions, mandate guidelines and freeze taxes for seven years.
Realtor Jeb Bradberry told the crowd that people with enough money are going to do whatever they want, spend what they want to get the house they want. If one lot isn’t large enough to support the house of their dreams, well, they’re going to buy two lots. There’s nothing that zoning rules can do to stop a rich person from doing and getting what they want, according to Bradberry.
The idea of a conservation overlay district for a neighborhood left many people shaking their heads. How many people would be necessary for deciding what features matter on a particular street? What people? Would renters be allowed to participate? Absentee landlords? Or just people who live in the homes they own? Who would make sure the rules are enforced?
The Friends of Five Points listserv has carried a lot of discussion about the upcoming demolition of a longtime rental house at 233 Highland Avenue. At Monday’s meeting, a woman who identified herself as Tootsie Adams, the person who plans to demolish the house, said she “felt like a pariah.” In place of the 77-year-old dwelling that was once home to the Rev. James C. Wilkinson, pastor of First Baptist Church, she said she plans to build “a jewel box of a house.”
Commissioners can place a 90-day hold on demolitions to buy time to convince the property owner to reconsider or find someone willing to move the building, but Commissioner Diane Bell quickly approved that demolition permit application, which angered some of her constituents. Bell told Flagpole she quickly signed off because she knows the owner and knows her intentions are good.