Photo Credit: Blake Aued
Danny Sniff isn't a fan of Selig Enterprises' proposed downtown development.
The University of Georgia's chief architect—who owns the Flagpole building next door to the Selig site—agrees with critics who say it's out of scale, architecturally bland and car-centric. Yet he stepped to the podium at the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission meeting Thursday, June 6 to announce his support for approving the project.
Sniff said that, while not perfect, the development was as good as it was going to get. ACC's zoning code, he later explained, is not nimble enough to deal with citizen concerns. And so we wind up with developments that no one really likes that end up passing.
Photo Credit: Melissa Link
"I think we need to tighten up our zoning rules so we can have the Athens we want," Jerry Daniel told the planning commission. "This is not Atlanta. We don't want to be Atlanta. But this is an Atlanta-style development."
It includes a Walmart's worth of commercial space—102,000 square feet—375 student apartments with 990 bedrooms and 1,483 parking spaces in two decks that are, mercifully, hidden from view inside the six-story development. It will dwarf even the monolithic Classic Center.
Yet none of that matters. Just a minor part of the development is up for consideration: 15 residential units, rather than the commercial space the zoning code requires on he ground-floor level. Selig wants to build the residential units on the ground floor along Firefly Trail and along narrow Wilkerson Street.
And so Selig has us over a barrel. Except for that one tiny exception, everything else the Atlanta-based company wants to do, it can do without asking, and more.
Attorney Mike Morris issued a veiled threat to the planning commission: deny or table this, and Selig will reconsider asking for a special use permit and build by right. That could mean the development that's on the table now, with a few vacant storefronts added. Or it could mean something even bigger, with twice as many bedrooms. The parcel is almost 10 acres, and downtown zoning allows 200 bedrooms per acre. There are no regulations on parking.
While expressing distaste for the project, planning commissioners said they had little choice but to approve the special use-request. So they did—unanimously.
"We're actually getting a better project and a few nifty perks we won't get if we (turn it down)," chairman Paul Dellaria said. "Because they can build this by right. They don't need us."
The mega-project now moves on to the county commission for a final vote Tuesday, July 2, where the outcome will probably be no different.
Prince Avenue: Oh, yeah, and planning commissioners punted on the Prince Avenue corridor study. They tabled it for 90 days to refine the new CNE zoning category while strongly urging the county commission to fund a more comprehensive approach that includes transportation and safety.
Auditor Out: The Athens-Clarke Commission essentially fired longtime county Auditor John Wolfe at its June 4 voting meeting.
A majority of commissioners indicated they would not vote to renew Wolfe's contract for another two years after his recent perfomance review, Mayor Nancy Denson said. "I don't think I can comment beyond that," she said.
Wolfe is one of four high-ranking county officials who report directly to the commission, along with Manager Alan Reddish, Municipal Court Judge Leslie Spornberger Jones and Attorney Bill Berryman. The other three were reappointed—Reddish and Berryman with substantial pay raises.
Wolfe most recently audited the Athens Downtown Development Authority. While commissioner and ADDA board member Mike Hamby was pushing outgoing Executive Director Kathryn Lookofsky to clean up downtown, Wolfe absolved the ADDA of responsibility and put the blame for perceived odor and trash issues squarely on the commission for not properly funding the Solid Waste Department.
The position will take "a month or two" to fill, Denson said. "One thing I want us to concentrate on is what we're going to require of the next auditor," she said.
She and commissioners will discuss what they want from the position at a retreat tentatively scheduled for later this month, including the length of time it takes to turn in reports, the hours the auditor works and whether the auditor should bring up issues he or she wants to pursue.
Wolfe took the high road, thanking the 60 commissioners and four mayors he's served under for reappointing him 10 times. "It has been truly an honor to serve the community," he said.
ACC will have another top position to fill, too. Fire Chief Iby George is quitting to start a fire science program at Athens Tech. Reddish will choose a replacement.
Red & Dead Part Deux: After presiding over disastrous print cutbacks two years ago and a staff strike last year, Harry Montevideo is no longer the publisher of The Red & Black, the University of Georgia's independent student newspaper.
The paper made waves in 2011, when it reduced its print edition from five days a week to one and started focusing on online content. Last summer, the student staff walked off the job and made national news in response to a board member's plan to run more positive stories and turn editorial control over to the professional editorial advisor. Montevideo came under fire for his outrageous salary ($189,000 at its peak, though later reduced) and allegedly manhandling a student journalist covering the walkout (no charges were filed).
Chuck Reece, the spokesman for the nonprofit's board of directors, credited Montevideo with keeping The Red & Black on sound financial footing for most of his 30 years at the helm. But he and the board both agreed that the paper needs new leadership in the digital era, Reece said.
The board is writing a new strategic plan and simultaneously searching for a new publisher, Reece said. In the meantime, Advertising Director Natalie McClure is acting general manager.
No matter what, Reece promised that The Red & Black will remain "an independent student voice" and a training ground for young journalists.
The Electric Ride: Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols brought his Alternative Fueled Vehicles Roadshow to the Classic Center June 3. The event showcased electric Nissan Leafs and a Tesla Roadster, a school bus powered by propane, a Mercedes that runs on cooking oil and several vehicles that use compressed natural gas (CNG). The audience included Mayor Nancy Denson, Athens-Clarke County Transportation and Public Works Director David Clark, Police Chief Jack Lumpkin and state Rep. Chuck Williams (R-Watkinsville).
Echols himself used to drive a CNG car but sold it because the fuel isn't available in Athens. "It wasn't practical," he said.
Now, he fills up his state-issued Chevrolet Impala with E-85 (85 percent ethanol) gas in Conyers on the way to and from the Capitol. But he bemoaned the fact that many alternative fuels aren't available in Athens. The PSC approved an Atlanta Gas Light plan in 2011 to build CNG stations across the state, but none are planned for Athens.
"How can we be this progressive in this town and not have a CNG pump and not have an E-85 pump?" Echols asked.
Solar Power: Echols also discussed a movement afoot on the PSC, the state's utility regulators, to force Georgia Power to add solar to its energy profile. The company's 20-year plan the PSC is voting on next month doesn't include any solar, but PSC Chairman Lauren McDonald is pushing to add some.
"If we can figure out how not to have a subsidy on solar, there is a very good chance I could support that," Echols said.
No subsidy may be needed. "In the past, solar just hasn't been there economically, but prices have dropped by half over the past 18 months," said Ted Terry, field coordinator for Atlanta-based Georgia Solar Utilities.
The PSC recently voted to close two of four coal-fired boilers at Plant Branch in Milledgeville and will vote on closing the other two next month. Georgia Power is proposing an extensive and expensive greenfield environmental cleanup. Echols has another idea: clean it up to brownfield standards and turn the 1,900 acre property into a solar farm.
Broun Rowndup: Ron Paul may have endorsed Rep. Paul Broun (R-Athens) for Senate, but his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), isn't Broun's biggest fan. After a recent Silicon Valley speech, Rand Paul was asked how tech entrepreneurs can support Republicans, citing Broun's comment that evolution and the Big Bang are "lies straight from the pit of Hell."
Rand Paul threw Broun under the bus. “Most Republicans live in this century, not two or three centuries ago,” he replied.