City DopeNews

Athens Wants to Grow Up; Oconee Wants to Grow Out

Back in the late 1990s, Athens citizens pushed their elected officials to reject a land-use plan that would have encouraged sprawling subdivisions on the outskirts of the city with intown neighborhoods to be redeveloped as apartments. Instead, we wrote a land-use plan that limited growth in the undeveloped “green belt” while funneling it downtown.

The end result has not been what we’d hoped for—condos for out-of-town football fans, then luxury apartments for students. But it at least nods in the direction of growing in a sustainable way while preserving neighborhoods, and Athens-Clarke County commissioners are working on drawing more diverse development.

Oconee Countians took a similar route. They too focused development in one small portion of the community to preserve the rest. In their case, they decided to build up their tax base by opening up the area around the newly built Epps Bridge Parkway to development, allowing the rest of the county to remain agricultural and low-density residential.

The difference, of course, is that ACC wants development of the New Urban variety: walkable and human scale, encouraging us to get out of our cars and stretch our legs. Oconee County is still stuck in the auto-centric age. They might be stealing our big-box stores now, but that’s a dead end in the long run. The mall may have nearly killed downtown 30-something years ago, but downtown will have its revenge.

I don’t know what to do about this. ACC and Oconee County are really one community, but we’re working at cross purposes. What Oconee County is doing makes sense for them, for now, but not 20 years from now and not when considered from the standpoint of metro Athens. Maybe we never should’ve split up way back in the 19th Century.

Epps Bridge Center: Atlanta developer Frank Bishop plans on building an expansion of Epps Bridge Centre across the Oconee Connector from the current shopping center that would nearly double the size of the development.

Bishop applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month for a permit to mitigate watershed damage from the development by purchasing credits to protect wetlands in Greene County.

Plans his company submitted with the application call for a 370,000 square-foot development, including a sea of parking, a large standalone anchor tenant, two buildings with smaller retail spaces and seven outparcels, to be built in two phases. Phase 1 of Epps Bridge Centre, which opened in 2013, is approximately 450,000 square feet, so the next two phases would bring the total size to more than 800,000 square feet.

Bishop said in an interview last week that he plans to start construction within the next 12–24 months. “It depends on when we can get our permits,” he said.

The anchor tenant space is rumored to be leased by Costco, though Bishop said he doesn’t have commitments from any tenants.

Epps Bridge Centre has drawn several businesses away from Atlanta Highway, including Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Pier 1 Imports, Old Navy, the Gap and Party City. However, Bishop said he anticipates that tenants in the second and third phases of the development would be “new to the market,” rather than moving from other parts of the Athens area. “It’s good for the region,” he said. “It’s a regional location, is the way most tenants view it.”

(As an aside, talk about how Epps Bridge Centre is eating Atlanta Highway’s lunch because ACC is—ugh, this again—“business unfriendly” is silly. Major retail chains don’t care about our petty little rivalries and political infighting. They make decisions based on rooftops and demographics, and they gravitate to the newest and shiniest spaces. Things like taxes and regulations are just a cost of doing business. Heck, Trader Joe’s didn’t even know they were opening in Oconee County until they tried to file for permits with ACC. Atlanta Highway will be fine in the long run, and maybe we can shape into something other than Generictown, USA. Oh, and as for the loss of tax revenue, SPLOST collections are up this year.)

The new phases of Epps Bridge Centre would be located on 48 acres of a 114-acre tract currently owned by the Gordy family, but Bishop said he has it under contract. It would need a rezoning, but that doesn’t seem like much of an obstacle, given that Oconee County Commission Chairman Melvin Davis has bent over backward for Bishop at every turn.

Construction also is dependent on Oconee County building a road running from Kohl’s behind the Walmart and Lowe’s to the Oconee Connector, which would open up land behind those stores for development. The county commission tentatively approved the $4 million road last August, so again, that looks like a fait accompli.

Bye, Bethel?: Meanwhile, back across the Oconee River, ACC Commissioner Kelly Girtz has hatched an ambitious plan to talk someone into building something without an infinity pool and granite countertops in downtown Athens.

Athens Downtown Development Authority board member Chris Blackmon briefed commissioners at a work session last week on a plan to lease a city-owned parking lot off Dougherty Street in front of Hotel Indigo to a developer who will put an office building there, which would balance out all of the new residential development, possibly bring down rents and address a shortage of Class A office space, not to mention providing customers for other downtown businesses. It’s a good idea; surface lots are a horribly wasteful use of valuable real estate, and other than a few thousand students with wealthy parents, the free market isn’t really giving the community what we want. The ADDA and the commission get to pick the best offer.

Commissioners suggested a few tweaks—like trying to entice a grocery store or another brewery, in addition to offices—but overall, the plan met with approval. Girtz, though, wants to take it further.

“We have several acres of what I view as under-utilized public property,” he said. “We could have a lot more activity that would benefit the tax base.”

Girtz was referring to a couple of other city-owned parking lots on Dougherty, as well as about 50 Athens Housing Authority Units and Bethel Midtown Village, the 500-bedroom Urban Renewal project that is perpetually one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Athens, although residents, educators and social workers have made some strides in improving it.

AHA has shown a willingness to think creatively by redeveloping Jack R. Wells Homes (aka Pauldoe) off Hawthorne Avenue into Columbia Brookside, a mixed-income development that, by virtue of its greater density, won’t permanently displace any AHA tenants. The current thinking is that mixing families of various incomes, rather than segregating the poor, is our best weapon in fighting intergenerational poverty and all the problems that go along with it.

Bethel could be redeveloped, too. The tax credits that are keeping Bethel Section 8 expire in two years, and when they do, Girtz said H.J. Russell, the company that owns and manages the property, is open to doing something new with it. “We may be approaching a golden moment,” he said.

Jack Crowley included many of these ideas in the downtown master plan, and Girtz’s proposal bears some resemblance to Blue Heron, the abandoned “river district” project, as well, so it’s nothing new. What these ideas have lacked in the past, though, is someone to champion them.