City DopeNews

Aldi and the Eastside’s Future; Chains and Downtown’s Future

The Athens-Clarke County Commission’s rejection of a rezoning request for an Aldi grocery store at the intersection of Barnett Shoals and College Station roads by a 5–4 vote last week sparked another round of “anti-business” accusations and hand-wringing about the future of the Eastside’s commercial corridors.

Aldi, which also has an Atlanta Highway location, had wanted to build the 17,000 square-foot store on the site of what is currently a service station, as well as on a neighboring residential parcel.

Residents spoke out against the plan, arguing that it would bring too many cars (an estimated 2,000 daily trips) to an area that’s already seeing increased traffic from the new University of Georgia veterinary hospital nearby, and that a proposed buffer between the development and the Crestwood/Green Acres subdivision was inadequate.

While most said they support an Aldi on the Eastside, they would prefer to see it on Lexington Road or on the north side of Barnett Shoals, where there are several vacant commercial spaces. However, Jim Warnes, an Athens attorney representing Aldi, said the German company looked at 18 sites on the Eastside, and no others were suitable. Many shopping-center owners have signed no-compete clauses with existing grocery-store tenants. And vacant storefronts like the former Bi-Lo, K-Mart and Piggly Wiggly are several times larger than a typical Aldi, making them a poor fit.

In 2007, Walgreens proposed a pharmacy in the same location, but it was also rejected.

“Walgreens was asked to go elsewhere,” neighborhood association president Kent Middleton pointed out. “Walgreens went to Lexington Road and appears to be thriving.” That precedent leaves hope that Aldi may find somewhere more appropriate on the Eastside.

Commissioner Andy Herod, who lives in and represents Green Acres/Crestwood, said he’d like to see an Aldi on the Eastside, but the location they wanted isn’t right. “If we were talking about a Walmart neighborhood market or a dollar store, it wouldn’t have nearly the support,” he said. But commissioners can’t make land-use decisions based on the fact that some people like or dislike a particular brand. They have to weigh the economic development aspect and the benefit to the broader community against the wishes of the people who are most affected.

Some other commissioners said the buffers are generous.

“This is by far the most protection I’ve ever seen from a commercial development,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said. And Aldi supporters, responding to criticism that the Eastside has enough grocery stores, noted that Aldi is a discount grocer that could fill a niche for low-income families and students whose only affordable option currently is Walmart.

Planning commissioners recommended approval because, they reasoned, a worse development could come along if Aldi were not approved. A Kroger fuel center is the backup plan for the gas-station property, Warnes said. And Green Acres Baptist Church, the residential lot’s owner, could follow through on plans for an expansion (the lot is landlocked and not well suited for houses).

Nearby residents, meanwhile, said they favor a smaller-scale business, like a medical office or a bookstore. Something along those lines might be a better fit for that particular parcel, but it’s not going to revitalize the aging commercial centers on the Eastside. That will take significant investment and likely government intervention, such as a self-taxing Community Improvement District, experts with the Urban Land Institute recently told Herod’s study committee on Lexington Road. Plans to extend the North Oconee River Greenway down to College Station Road—also approved at the July 7 meeting—will help, too, by providing a pedestrian and bike link from the Eastside to campus and downtown, making the neighborhood a more desirable place to live, especially for younger people.

“This part of town has real potential to be a walkable, bike-able, village-type area,” said Commissioner Melissa Link. The era of the auto-centric suburb is over, so it’ll have to be walkable and bike-able if it’s going to thrive once again.

Back on the Chain Gang: The developers of Georgia Heights—the luxury student apartments under construction near SunTrust on Broad Street—announced last week that they’ve signed four ground-floor commercial tenants: CVS/Pharmacy (which, we’re told, will sell groceries), a J. Crew factory store, Dress Up Boutique and D.P. Dough calzones.

All these new mixed-use developments downtown are expensive to build, so the rents are high (out of reach of most local businesses), and they’re mostly owned by out-of-town companies that prefer to deal with deep-pocketed regional or national brands, which is why their commercial components mostly fill up with chains, leading to concerns about the corporatization of downtown. (Never mind that downtown somehow survived the Gap and Starbucks, not to mention the pre-mall department stores.)

My first thought was, “there goes Horton’s.” But if we’re really the kind of people we say we are—a community that values locally owned businesses—then Horton’s, Heery’s and Little Italy will survive the chain competition. (College students, after all, have an insatiable appetite for expensive sundresses and cheap Italian food.) Or maybe we’re not, and the local businesses that support Flagpole will be trampled in the rush to buy discounted irregular jeans, and Pete will sell the paper to some alt-weekly chain and retire. We’ll see. [Editor’s Note: Keep an eye on Pete, and see if he shows up in discounted, irregular jeans.]

Athens for Bernie: A group supporting Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination on a Northern European-style socialist platform, are hosting an organizational meeting from 2–4 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at The Blind Pig on Baldwin Street. Also check out their Facebook page, AthensForBernie2016.

Bulldog Bucks: The University of Georgia raised a record-breaking $144 million in fiscal 2015 (which ended June 30) from 64,000 individual donors, up from $126 million the year before, which also set a record. President Jere Morehead described the haul as “unprecedented” as he adjusted his solid-gold monocle. Way to earn that $800,000 salary, Jer.