December 12, 2012

No Downtown Athens Walmart

Merry Christmas, Athens! Selig Enterprises' new plans for downtown include a smaller big box and no Walmart. [UPDATED with renderings.]

Hey, remember that downtown Walmart that everybody went nuts about last year? Well, it's not going to happen.

Atlanta developers Selig Enterprises released new plans today for the Armstrong & Dobbs property between Oconee, Broad and Wilkerson streets. The development's big box anchor, at 35,000 square feet, is about a third of the 95,000 square feet in Selig's original design—and it won't be America's favorite discount retailer.

"There will no longer be a Walmart," Selig Senior Vice President Jo Ann Chitty said. "...No one knows who the tenant or tenants might be for that space, but it has the potential to be something very, very special."

Wal-Mart had been experimenting with smaller urban markets that included aspects of drug stores and grocery stores, but it pulled out of a deal with Selig because those experiments didn't go as well as planned, Chitty said. "It wasn't specifically about Athens," she said. "There was a corporate decision to suspend that because the stores weren't performing the way they wanted them too."

On the downside, the anchor space won't be a long-awaited downtown grocery store, either. "We could not make anything work financially because of the cost of the structured parking," Chitty said. "Groceries make low margins and pay low rents. That's just how it works."



A map of the proposed development.

The $80 million development will include a total of 125,000 square feet of retail space along East Broad and Oconee streets—compared to 200,000 in Selig's original proposal—with other stores ranging from 2,500 to 15,000 square feet. It will also include 250 two- and three-bedroom apartments, flats, live/work units and townhouses.


Chitty said she is not concerned about the recent influx of residential space downtown, with a 500-bedroom student apartment complex under construction on Oconee Street, another, similarly-sized one planned for the intersection of North Avenue and Thomas Street, and a mixed-use development slated for the SunTrust property on West Broad Street. "Downtown's such a dynamic location that I'm not worried about that side of it," she said. "From a retail perspective, having more people downtown is a positive."

Selig hired new architects, Niles Bolton Associates, to incorporate feedback from Athens residents, many of whom opposed the scope and scale of the initial plans, the presence of a Walmart or both. Chitty said the new plans address several other concerns critics raised about the original plans, including how the development interacts with Firefly Trail, the rails-to-trails project that will run along the backside of the property. Rather than the trail running alongside a parking deck, apartments will face the trail. The development will include an access point to the trail and possibly a footbridge over Wilkerson Street.

Unlike the original plans, the new plans also include Hickory Street Extension, a planned street that would run from East Broad Street at the Multimodal Transportation Center through the Armstrong & Dobbs property to Oconee Street, creating a connection from the bus station to the University of the Georgia. The street will include two travel lanes that can accommodate buses, parallel parking, bike lanes and sidewalks.



A view of the proposed development looking west on East Broad Street.

A traffic study has yet to be completed, but plans call for a turn lane on Oconee Street and a signalized intersection at Hickory Street Extension to alleviate traffic, and traffic congestion won't be as bad as with the original design because the development will be smaller. 


The development will include a 700-space parking deck hidden inside a building. "We haven't really worked what the parking rates would be," Chitty said.

The historic warehouses on the Armstrong & Dobbs property, including Jittery Joe's Roaster, would be demolished to make way for the new development. "We're very optimistic (Jittery Joe's) will have a place in the project," Chitty said. Some materials from the old buildings will be re-used, she said.

The development will require a permit from Athens-Clarke County to have residential space, rather than retail, on the ground floor facing Firefly Trail. Selig intends to apply for one in February, Chitty said. Once approved, construction will take 18 months, she said.