Photo Credit: Austin Steele
"I've made a huge mistake," said Commissioner George Oscar Bluth.
Like elections, zoning has consequences, often unintended ones—a lesson Athens residents have been learning the past few years.
In 2000, responding to community concerns about sprawling development, the Athens-Clarke County Commission approved a new zoning map that limited growth in rural areas on the outskirts of the county, increased the allowed density downtown and designated neighborhoods near downtown like the Hancock Corridor for multifamily development.
The decision cost then-District 3 commissioner Alvin Sheats his seat. George Maxwell beat him two years later and succeeded in changing part of the neighborhood’s zoning back to single-family.
Today, even Sheats is in favor of measures to protect the Hancock Corridor. “We realize we’re being pushed out, priced out, taxed out,” he told the commission Feb. 7 on behalf of the local NAACP chapter.
Sheats and other Hancock residents were at the meeting because the commission was poised to pass an infill housing ordinance written in response to homebuyers knocking down normal-sized homes, mainly in Five Points, to build huge ones that loom over their neighbors. However, the ordinance only covers single-family neighborhoods, not ones that are zoned multi-family but are mostly made up of single-family homes, such as Hancock, Rocksprings and West Broad.
“If you can’t build your big dream mansion in Normaltown, are you going to move to Hancock?” said Commissioner Melissa Link, who won the District 3 seat after Maxwell retired in 2014.
Hancock Corridor residents are nervous about what might happen to their neighborhood, especially considering the rumors about turning The Varsity into a mixed-use development with a grocery store. (No plans have been filed, and commissioners say a representative for the Gordy family, which owns the iconic restaurant and is assembling property around it, has assured them nothing is imminent.)
“Everyone in the neighborhood is incredibly concerned about the encroaching development,” resident Casey Nissenbaum said.
Link was ready to propose a moratorium on development in the corridor while officials look at zoning tweaks, but Mayor Nancy Denson and ACC Attorney Bill Berryman blocked it, ruling that it wasn’t germane to the infill housing ordinance.
But the issue isn’t dead. A committee appointed by ACC, the Clarke County School District, the Athens Land Trust and the Athens Housing Authority is writing a master plan for the West Broad area. The Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation also weighed in on behalf of protecting the neighborhood. Board of Trustees President Adam Hebbard told the commission that the ACHF supports the infill housing ordinance, “but we are also keenly aware this ordinance would not provide protection to all neighborhoods,” specifically West Hancock Avenue, “one of the few intact [historic] African-American neighborhoods in Athens.”
Back to the 2000 comp plan: Newspaper archives from the time show that downtown development wasn’t really an issue. Rather, the fight was over whether rural landowners should be able to maximize their profits when selling their property to developers to build subdivisions.
A few years later, condominium developments, mainly marketed to Georgia football fans, started to pop up downtown. People thought they were ugly, so ACC adopted design guidelines under Mayor Heidi Davison that don’t really seem to have done the trick.
Development stalled during the recession, but about five years ago the market for “luxury” student housing within walking distance of the UGA campus (and downtown bars) exploded. The 2000 zoning map worked, as commissioner Diane Bell noted. But no one had anticipated that thousands of people would move downtown in the span of just a few years, or that they’d almost all be college students. Who drink. A lot. Now many residents are worried that downtown is becoming “an alcohol theme park,” as David Lynn, one of the candidates for Athens Downtown Development Authority executive director, recently put it.
At its Feb. 7 meeting, the commission voted to ban all but the smallest new bars and apartment complexes downtown for one year while a study is underway to address issues like overcrowding, rampant binge drinking and a toxic, discriminatory culture on the student bar scene east of Lumpkin.
“We’ve got enough multi-family student apartments downtown,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said. “We don’t need any more… The same discussion has happened about bars on numerous occasions.”
As Link argued, “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict that these kinds of problems would ensue.” In fact, commissioners did try to grapple with it back in 2011, briefly declaring a moratorium on downtown development to study whether the infrastructure could handle it. But they opted not to change downtown’s 200-bedrooms-per-acre maximum density in spite of discovering that the eastern side of downtown might not have the sewer capacity to handle it.
That was not long after Denson killed the Blue Heron plan for a research park and riverwalk along the North Oconee River to clear the way for the notorious Selig/Walmart development, which morphed into The Mark, the massive 900-bedroom apartment complex under construction on Oconee and Wilkerson streets. Now that it’s too late, Denson—who put the current moratorium on the agenda—has seen the light.
“There are things we didn’t deal with incrementally that we have to deal with now,” the always-diplomatic Commissioner Kelly Girtz said. “Better to deal with them now than to ignore them altogether.”