Sundry Bits: People for a Better Athens, the group organized to oppose the “anchoring” of Selig Enterprises’ proposed downtown development with a 94,000-square-foot Walmart, is hosting a reception Sunday, Jan. 22 at CinÃ© from 3â€“5 p.m. to celebrate locally owned businesses. Food and drink will be provided, along with music from the excellent Scott Baxendale. In related news, local filmmakers Dan Jordan and Bryan Redding are producing a “call-to-action mini-documentary” in an effort to raise awareness of that very initiative, and are seeking funding help via an IndieGoGo campaign. You can find out more about both these things at www.peopleforabetterathens.com.
But the big news this week is from Kevan Williams; the Dope now turns the remainder of this column over to him.
Parking for Parking’s Sake: If Athens-Clarke County commissioners are concerned about paying off a new downtown parking deck that opened last year after meter rates were raised to 75 cents, they may have a bit more to worry about. The nearly 1,200 spaces Selig wants to build as part of their Walmart supercenter-anchored outdoor shopping mall are far more than the project needs, which could wreak havoc on downtownâ€™s parking economics.
According to Selig’s own attorney, Steve Rothman, quoted in a story by The Champion newspaper of Dekalb County about a Walmart supercenter the developer is building in that community, the parking count Selig has proposed for its Athens development is rather outrageous.Â The story details Selig’s request for a variance to Dekalb’s minimum parking guidelines, with Rothman arguing that Selig’s proposed 3.91 spaces per 1,000 square feet of retail is â€œabove what is actually neededâ€¦ Nobody needs 5.5 parking spaces for a shopping center.â€ The story notes that other shopping centers have much lower ratios, including another Walmart supercenter project by Selig on Howell Mill Road in Atlanta, with a rate of 2.8 spaces per 1,000 square feet. How does Selig’s Athens proposal measure up?
The project proposed here has nearly 1,200 spaces; subtracting residential and office uses by Seligâ€™s own allocation of those spaces leaves about 4.7 spaces per 1,000 square feet for retail. Applying ACC zoning standards for appropriate residential and office parking pushes that number up to five spaces per 1,000 square feet, even closer to the kind of absurd ratio Selig’s lawyer asserts no one needs. Why would Selig build nearly twice the parking the complex’s retail components require, especially when they’ve stated that it’s such an expensive proposition on this steep granite site?Â
Turns out, Selig Enterprises is also in the parking business: its subsidiary, AAA Parking, runs more than 200 facilities in six states, according to its website. It seems likely that Selig is betting heavily on the paid parking component of this project, and that’s cause for concern. The city has a monopoly, more or less, when it comes to downtown parking, managing almost 2,000 public spaces in the district. Can the market handle the addition of several hundred more spaces that don’t seem intended for the Selig development’s retail customers?
If Selig starts competing, they’ll presumably do it with lower rates than their competitor, Athens-Clarke County, not only pulling shoppers toward the stores in their complex, but also using their deck to sell monthly spots. That use would be awfully similar to “stand-alone” parking, something on which the ACC Commission has made its policy very clearâ€”most recently, with regard to the very same piece of property. When the Jittery Joeâ€™s Roaster tried to work with the owner of an adjacent property to develop a parking lot for its customers’ use, the ACC government held fast to the letter of the law, despite commissioners’ stated wishes to accommodate a highly valued local business. “No one behind the rail wants to approve a parking lot,” Commissioner Alice Kinman was quoted in an Athens Banner-Herald story at the time. “We want to approve a parking lot that keeps Jittery Joe’s viable.”
But that didn’t happen, largely because such an exception to zoning that prohibits dedicating land in the downtown area specifically to parking would have set a precedent for uses the city has made clear it absolutely doesn’t want. Surely a massive parking deck looming over the Greenway and Oconee Street, with half its spaces apparently intended for off-property customers, should inspire similar concerns.
With so much extra parking supply on the market and the gravity of retail pulled east to a self-contained outdoor mall, filling the city’s new Washington Street deck could become even more of a challenge than it’s already been. That deck was partially debt-financed, and will have to be paid for one way or another; the city may have no choice but to raise meter rates again if the revenue necessary to pay down its debt doesnâ€™t materialize as predicted. That would further drive customers away from independent downtown businesses and towards Seligâ€™s tenants.
The bottom line is that when Selig builds its own artificial version of downtown just across the railroad tracks, it will be in direct competition with everything up the hill in one way or another. Whatâ€™s bad for downtown will be good for Selig, which needs its retail tenants to be successful in order to keep its storefronts rented. Selig’s grossly oversized parking deck and the strategies that seem to underly it should have downtown merchants and property owners very, very concernedâ€”and have commissioners asking some very pointed questions. [Kevan Williams]
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