City DopeNews

Commissioners Push for Affordable Housing, Complete Streets, Curbing Student Housing

Based on last week’s voting meeting, it appears the Athens-Clarke County Commission may be growing the testicular (or ovarian, as the case may be) fortitude to tackle the big issues facing our community.

With new members Sharyn Dickerson and Melissa Link behind the rail—emboldening the rump parliament of progressives Jerry NeSmith, Kelly Girtz, Allison Wright, Jared Bailey and, at times, Mike Hamby—commissioners signaled their intention to attack issues like student housing overdevelopment, Complete Streets and affordable housing with a vigor we haven’t seen since the Heidi Davison Administration more than four years ago.

At the same time, a parade of citizens showed up to the Tuesday, Feb. 3 meeting in numbers that have grown increasingly uncommon over the past four years, urging the commission to implement Complete Streets on Prince Avenue, expand Athens Transit bus service to Sundays and curb student housing in residential neighborhoods near downtown.

Aaron Redman told commissioners that adopting Complete Streets on Prince would benefit businesses, as well as the community as a whole. “I remember when the Baxter Street corridor was four narrow lanes of speeding traffic with no bike lanes or turn lanes, making the road very unsafe for all users, which was very similar to the way Prince Avenue is now,” Redman said. “While Baxter Street can certainly be improved upon for greater safety for users and livability for residents, the changes that have occurred on Baxter included improved bike and pedestrian features that did make the street safer. This was a deciding factor when I purchased my home on Baxter [Street] several years ago.”

Later, Wright called on officials to develop a strategy for Prince Avenue so they’re ready whenever the state Department of Transportation decides to implement Complete Streets on its portion of the road between Milledge Avenue and the Loop. “It was a surprise to me when Broad Street, Atlanta Highway and Oak and Oconee streets were repaved and re-striped,” she said. “I think we missed an opportunity to put some of those plans into place.”

Clint McCrory urged the commission to pursue rezoning the Reese/Hancock and Cobbham neighborhoods from multi-family to single-family to protect those neighborhoods from real estate investors cramming students into single-family homes, causing traffic and parking problems and changing the character of the neighborhoods.

“We purchased our house two years ago, and even in that time, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in houses being purchased for student housing,” said Hancock Avenue resident Danielle Rusk. “We went from having next-door students to students next door, across the street, two doors down and [behind] our entire backyard.”

The newly elected Link, who represents Cobbham, Boulevard and the Hancock Corridor, gave a rather lengthy speech tackling issues ranging from speeding to real estate. In Normaltown and Rocksprings, residents are greatly concerned about tear-downs and out-of-scale infill development, she said.

“There are real estate investors going door-to-door asking elderly folks to sell their homes,” Link said. “I feel like it’s being targeted for some pretty deliberate gentrification.”

She also requested that Sunset Drive and Buena Vista be added to the ACC parking-permit program. “We’re seeing a lot of overflow parking from the Health Sciences Campus,” she said.

New housing—whether $800-a-bedroom apartments targeted at students or McMansions for affluent professionals or retirees—is often out of reach of the typical working Athenian. Inspired by the redevelopment of the Jack R. Wells (Pauldoe) public housing project, Girtz, seconded by Dickerson and Hamby, urged city officials to consider inclusionary zoning, a policy that requires developers to set aside affordable units.

“We need to look at more opportunities for mixed-income development, among them the prospect of an inclusionary zoning ordinance,” Girtz said. “I’d like our planning department to bring us some ideas for how that could be implemented.”

The first phase of Columbia Brookside, as Pauldoe is now known, recently opened, and I attended an open house on Feb. 5. It’s very nice, if a bit sterile, like living in an upscale hotel with amenities like a gym and movie theater on-site.

That first phase includes 100 units for seniors aged 62 and up. The second and third phases will be made up of 275 apartments and townhouses that are open to anyone. One-third of the units will be leased at market rate, one-third will be subsidized for low- to moderate-income families, and one-third will be public housing.

The 125 families displaced when Pauldoe was demolished were given Section 8 vouchers and first dibs on the new units when they’re completed. So far, no one has taken the Athens Housing Authority up on the offer, but only three former Pauldoe residents are eligible to live in the Brookside retirement home, AHA spokeswoman Marilyn Appleby said.

While development may not always be welcome in many parts of the city, replacing an aging 1960s apartment complex can only improve the Brooklyn area around Brookside.

“The transformation of the Jack R. Wells/Pauldoe public housing project neighborhood is a key component in the revitalization of the Hawthorne corridor,” AHA Executive Director Rick Parker said of the $60 million Brookside project, built by a private developer using federal tax credits. (In contrast to traditional public housing, by the way, Brookside will be on the county tax rolls, although AHA already voluntarily contributes about $100,000 a year to an ACC affordable housing fund.)

Even Mayor Nancy Denson got in on the act, appointing a long-awaited implementation committee for the downtown Athens master plan that will prioritize and look at funding sources for UGA professor Jack Crowley’s recommendations. The committee includes Link, Wright, Girtz, Hamby (the commission’s representative on the Athens Downtown Development Authority) and commissioners Harry Sims and Diane Bell. “It’s not something you can just adopt and say we’ll do it, because it’s too complicated,” Denson said.

A lot of these problems are complicated, but it’s good to see our elected officials at least talking about taking action. And it’s good to see citizens pressuring them into action, because that’s what it will take to reverse our local government’s inertia.

“This is what this town is about,” NeSmith said. “This is what makes this town—the citizens. This is what should and often does drive the commission to set its priorities.”