A split Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission voted last week to approve a massive and controversial apartment development off Lexington Road after putting it off earlier this month.
The inclusion of affordable housing in the development created an odd dynamic, with some commissioners who ordinarily oppose big student housing projects arguing for it, while other commissioners criticized its scale and said it’s not good enough to warrant concessions. The complex, on 40 acres across from the county jail, will include 501 units with 1,058 bedrooms. At least 66 and possibly up to 120 units will be set aside as affordable for workers who make less than the median income and will be managed by the Athens Land Trust.
The development is in Commissioner Mariah Parker’s district, and she said she’s been working with the developer and nearby residents to address concerns about noise and environmental buffers while trying to alleviate Athens’ affordable housing crisis.
“It’s tricky, messy work that requires some tradeoffs,” Parker said at a called meeting before the Feb. 9 work session.
The company behind the development is Indiana-based Trinitas, a major student housing developer. “Their commitment here is to their profit, not the community,” said Commissioner Carol Myers. “We can do better.”
The project goes against the county’s zoning map and master plan, which call for commercial space on Lexington Road and five single-family homes per acre on the rest of the property, Myers said, also noting that the planning commission voted unanimously against rezoning and code variances for the development.
The county’s plan calls for putting dense development in the downtown area, but Commissioner Melissa Link favored this project for spreading out that development.
“We are overwhelmed in the downtown area with student housing. We are overwhelmed in North Athens,” she said. “We need to find new places for student housing that are also convenient to campus.”
The Eastside already has its fair share of student housing, Commissioner Mike Hamby said, and the “quid pro quo” style of land planning—trading almost 1,000 student bedrooms for a handful of affordable ones—is reminiscent of the mistakes of the 1980s.
“We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to workforce development,” Hamby said.
Making such deals with developers, though, is one of the only ways to get affordable housing, short of spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on projects like the Bethel Homes redevelopment, Commissioner Tim Denson said.
Growth shouldn’t be driven by developers, and Athens needs a vision, Commissioner Ovita Thornton said. “When I got on this board [in 2018], developers were the bogeyman,” she said. “Now it looks like we’re yielding when we could have something better.”
Instead of approving this development, the commission should look at the zoning to encourage affordable multifamily housing for young professionals, young families and retirees, Myers argued.
In the end, though, Mayor Kelly Girtz broke a tie vote in favor of approving the rezoning—joining Parker, Link, Denson, Jesse Houle and Russell Edwards, with Myers, Hamby, Thornton, Allison Wright and Patrick Davenport opposed.
After the vote, one nearby resident accused the project’s supporters of selling out to an out-of-town developer and said they should have followed the recommendation of the planning commission.
“The developer knew our ‘hook’ and expertly used it to leverage us to get what they sought,” Tess Cunningham wrote to the mayor and commission.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.