City DopeNews

The Pending St. Joe’s Sale Underscores the Importance of the Downtown Master Plan

The need for urgency on the downtown master plan and design guidelines is underscored by whatever’s about to happen on the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church property at the corner of Prince Avenue and Pulaski Street. The church is in the process of gradually moving to Epps Bridge Road, and according to several sources, its prime piece of intown real estate is under contract, with a deadline to put up a hefty sum of earnest money approaching in a couple of months. The parcel’s been “crawling” with surveyors for a month, Commissioner Kelly Girtz said.

No details were available at press time about who the buyer might be or what they have in store. The Atlanta archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment.

The property is zoned commercial-office, a relatively light designation. Whoever develops it will undoubtably seek approval from the commission for a denser planned development, and any sale is likely contingent on that approval. However, no plans had been filed on Friday.

The downtown master plan (whose director, Jack Crowley, it should be noted, is also on St. Joe’s building committee) calls for the church to be repurposed, along with a small 20,000–30,000 square-foot commercial building and a “medium density” multi-family building, townhouses along Childs Street, single-family homes off Pulaski and a two-level parking deck on the back of the property with primary access from Prince, secondary access from Childs and pedestrian but not vehicular access from Pulaski.

It’s likely, though, that whatever this developer seeks to build will be closer to the 800 bedrooms that could put on the four-acre tract if it were zoned commercial-downtown than the modest development Crowley proposed. It’s also likely that those bedrooms will be occupied by students, since they’re the only ones with the money to pay the rents required to make the numbers work. (Yep, more luxury student apartments, just what everyone wants downtown.) But the underlying zoning and the PD process gives Athens-Clarke County a lot of leverage, so let’s not freak out just yet.

In addition, the ACC Commission recently passed a law forcing Mayor Nancy Denson to put the Prince Avenue Corridor Study back on the table and assign downtown design guidelines to committee. If she had done it two or three years ago, we’d have something in place by now that would apply to this future development. Now—again—it’s going to end up being too late.

Downtown Master Plan: As commissioners continue to discuss implementing it, one of the main funding mechanisms Crowley recommended for public improvements is looking increasingly farcical.

Crowley has long urged city officials to fund the cool greenways, parks, plazas and such in the DMP with a Tax Allocation District, where the government builds infrastructure, then sets aside additional tax revenue from new development the infrastructure lures to pay for said infrastructure. However, according to county attorney Bill Berryman, in order to create a downtown TAD, Athens-Clarke County has to show that the district is not being and will not be privately developed without public investment—which is laughable.

“If you can’t get over this hurdle, you’re not going to be able to do it,” Berryman told the commission’s Downtown Master Plan Implementation Committee last week. Commissioners Melissa Link and Girtz were openly skeptical of the idea that ACC could pull off that sleight of hand when land downtown is selling for $1 million an acre.

Berryman offered a potential solution: Severely downzone downtown, restricting density and land uses to make it unsellable and force developers to the bargaining table. “You change the market value of that property, and unless you subsidize it, it’s not going to be redeveloped,” he said.

Normally, TADS are used to encourage development of blighted neighborhoods or properties—a Costco in a run-down part of Augusta, for example, or Atlantic Station in Atlanta, built on an environmental nightmare of a brownfield. The issue in Athens, though, as Link noted, is not that there’s no development, but that the development isn’t necessarily what we want.

“We might want to consider a moratorium [on downtown development] until we figure this stuff out,” she said.

Ironically, the many developments currently under construction downtown could also contribute to a TAD if they’re not finished by the end of the year, when property-tax values are set.

“At the end of the day, we want projects to be built to help us pay for the public projects that are on the table,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said.