Selig really is a done deal this time.
After two hours of public input and debate, the Athens-Clarke Commission voted 8-2 tonight to approve a special use permit for the development at the Armstrong & Dobbs property, all but ending nearly two years of wrangling over the mega-project that will change the face of downtown.
Selig was seeking permission to build 15 residential units on the ground floor along Wilkerson Street when, ordinarily, commercial space is required on the ground floor. The Atlanta developer, commissioners and other ACC officials all agreed that the narrow street isn't an appropriate place for retailers.
Selig's Athens attorney, Mike Morris, drew jeers and laughter when he insisted that the project would go through regardless of the outcome of the vote on the special use permit.
"While it's important to us, it's not a deal-breaker," he said. "This project is going to get built."
Critics of the development asked for more time to digest Commissioner Kelly Girtz's compromise plan between approving the development as-is and taking a hard line on whether a future transportation corridor map meant the development had to go back to the drawing board.
"Listen to us," said Tim Denson of Occupy Athens. "That's your job... Mr. Morris seems to think that's not your job, that you can only listen to people like him."
Some speakers, like Melissa Link, insisted that the map specifically protects an abandoned rail bed that could have provided a level connection around a 90-foot hill to the University of Georgia campus.
But while being questioned by Commissioner Andy Herod, ACC Attorney Bill Berryman and Brad Griffin said that corridor isn't specifically protected. Selig is only required to provide a road and bike and pedestrian facilities through the development; where doesn't matter, Griffin said. Those facilities will be built to government standards but privately maintained, and an easement will guarantee public access, he said.
Others said they have concerns about traffic and the safety of crossing Oconee Street on foot or by bike. Lawrence Smith paraphrased the late Fred Birchmore: "He claimed, after riding all the way around the world, Athens is the most dangerous place to bike."
Because Oconee Street, aka Highway 78, is state-owned, the Georgia Department of Transportation (which, like ACC, recently adopted a Complete Streets policy) will be responsible for managing traffic. There will be a traffic light, a left-turn lane and crosswalks at the Hickory Street intersection, which will line up roughly with the Hodgson Oil parking lot.
Surprisingly, Jittery Joe's CEO Bob Googe voiced his support for the development, even though it will involve tearing down the leased building that houses his coffee roaster on East Broad Street. There was no way to save it, he said.
Selig had a few supporters. Marvin Nunnally said the development will provide jobs for poor Athenians. Former mayoral candidate Charlie Maddox and Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge also spoke in favor of it.
Commissioner Jerry NeSmith originally wanted to delay a vote over a host of concerns related to Firefly Trail. But Girtz's proposal—a shallow ramp from the trail to the development and sidewalks and bike lanes separated from car traffic along the Hickory Street extension through the property—accomplishes much the same thing as using the old Belt Line rail bed. Selig will have to come back for approval of detailed plans for its interface with Firefly Trail.
NeSmith was also upset that ACC's rails-to-trails committee, greenway commission and associated user groups weren't consulted, but once Girtz included a clause requiring meetings between Selig and those groups before the final vote on the Firefly Trail connection, he relented.
Only commissioners George Maxwell and Jared Bailey voted against Girtz's motion.
Comments got testy at times. Morris decried what he called personal and political attacks and threats against the company and ACC officials, especially anonymous ones on the Internet.
"I guess maybe they're the NSA now," Lauren Farmer quipped.
Selig's critics said they were insulted by Morris' comments. Those "flippant comments made it extremely clear he and his client are working against Athens, not with us," Avid Bookshop owner Janet Geddis said.
One of the development's main opponents, Russell Edwards of People for a Better Athens, apologized for any personal attacks.