City DopeNews

Does Downtown Athens Need Another Parking Deck?

Betteridge’s Law states that when a headline asks a question, the answer is almost always “no.” And that’s probably what most of y’all are screaming in your heads right now.

The upper floors of a number of downtown buildings are currently being converted into apartments. That’s good—more density downtown equals less sprawl, more customers for businesses and the opportunity for more goods and services, like a grocery store, to become available.

There is a catch: Athens-Clarke County law requires that each dwelling unit be accompanied by one or two parking spaces, depending on the unit’s size. New developments downtown meet this requirement with parking decks, usually with the units wrapped around an interior deck. Obviously, you can’t do that if you’re renovating an existing building.

Property owners recently approached Athens Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Pamela Thompson about leasing space in the ADDA’s two decks long-term for tenants. (The ADDA currently leases spaces for 30-day periods, mainly to downtown businesses and their employees.) But the College Avenue deck is nearly full, according to Thompson, and about 400 of 540 spaces are leased now in the West Washington Street deck, which got off to a slow start after it was completed in 2011. Demand for deck parking will increase if and when the ADDA accepts a bid to sell off a surface lot near Hotel Indigo for an office development.

Athens-Clarke County officials are likely to be reluctant to even consider another deck so soon after building one. (One that was an arduous, nearly decade-long process, I might add.)

“I don’t think we’re at the stage right now where we need to be talking about a new deck,” the ADDA’s attorney, Jim Warnes, told the board at a meeting last week.

“Oh, I’m not,” Commissioner Mike Hamby interjected.

“Except for the lead time involved,” Warnes continued.

Years ago, UGA professor Jack Crowley predicted that downtown would experience a parking crunch due to the thousands of people moving in. In the downtown master plan, he proposed a wrapped parking deck in the federal building parking lot. At one point, the federal government was thought to be open to selling the property, but has since pulled back, ACC Manager Alan Reddish recently told commissioners.

Why doesn’t the private sector take care of this problem? Well, structured parking costs about $15,000–$20,000 per space, so even at rates higher than what the local government currently charges, a private developer wouldn’t see a dime for 20 years. “Providing parking is a government function,” Warnes said.

There are other solutions besides a new deck, though. ACC officials recently visited Chapel Hill, NC, which allows landlords to provide parking some distance away, accessible by transit, Mayor Nancy Denson said. She suggested a similar arrangement here, whereby downtown residents could leave their cars at the little-used park-and-ride lot at Oconee Street and the Loop. Leasing part of the Georgia Square Mall parking lot could be another option, Warnes said.

To do that, though, ACC will have to change the zoning code, which requires parking to be within easy walking distance of the apartment building, Warnes said. He indicated that the planning department agrees that the ordinance needs revising.

While they’re at it, I’d suggest reducing the number of required spaces or eliminating it altogether. Minneapolis recently did this for new residential developments that are close to transit stops. (Note that nothing prevents developers from building parking if they think their tenants will demand it.)

“The worst thing that many American cities have done for low-income people is create a world in which you need a car,” retired UCLA economist Donald Shoup told Vox. “Parking pushes everything farther apart, and even if you’re too poor to own a car, you have to pay for all the free parking you don’t use.”

Not that any low-income people are going to be moving into a luxury apartment downtown anytime soon, but not everyone who lives in an urban area wants or needs a car; that’s one of the attractions. Yet someone without a car is still paying for that $15,000 space as part of the rent, even if it’s never used. And parking scarcity might encourage more downtown residents to ditch their cars, which would be good for all of us: less traffic, less pollution.

In the meantime, the ADDA will be looking at ways to more efficiently use the parking we already have, Thompson said.

Food Trucks: After months of committee discussions, the commission is set to vote Oct. 6 on a proposal to allow food trucks—which are currently banned from parking in public spaces because they’re too big to fit—to set up shop around City Hall from 7 a.m. Thursdays to 2:30 a.m. Fridays, for a small fee. The proposal is intended to jump-start the nascent local food-truck scene, which is exploding in places like Atlanta, Austin, TX and Portland, OR.

Some pushback from brick-and-mortar restaurants could be coming, though. Restaurant owners scuttled the commission’s previous attempt to liberalize food-truck regulations a few years ago.

David Carter, longtime owner of Gyro Wrap, told the ADDA last week that he was unaware of the proposal until reading about it in a recent issue of Flagpole. He said he polled other restaurant owners, and they didn’t know about it, either. The market for meals downtown is saturated, and restaurants already are operating on low margins, he said. “It’s sort of a slap in the face for those who’ve made a commitment in the form of time, money and passion to downtown,” he said.

As Carter (correctly) noted, in most cities, food trucks congregate at out-of-the-way places, far from brick-and-mortar competition, creating sort of a food court on wheels that’s a destination in and of itself. While there aren’t any restaurants immediately adjacent to City Hall, which is a dead zone most of the time, there are dozens just a couple of blocks away.

Hamby—who had a hand in organizing a food truck festival downtown in 2012 and another last Saturday—said he thinks food trucks will draw more people downtown, benefiting everyone. “I’d like for us to see what it does,” he said. “At the end of the day, there may not be a lot of interest.”

Eleven of the 12 trucks at the recent festival came from Atlanta, and my fear is that if we make things easier for food trucks, they’ll drive in and push out the handful of local trucks we already have. Perhaps the commission could write something into the law giving preference to those with an Athens business license.

This Way: The ADDA is moving forward with the long-discussed idea of placing way-finding signs at the gateways to downtown. Carmine Fischetti of the state Department of Community Affairs has identified five locations for the signs: the wall where Pulaski Street runs into Broad Street, on the side of the Farmers Exchange building at Broad and Oconee streets, near the trestle crossing North Avenue and the billboard on Dougherty Street by Athens Blueprint (which, Denson said, “is pretty much permanently leased by St. Mary’s”). The signs will cost about $3,000–$3,500 each, Fischetti said, and the ADDA is considering issuing a request for proposals from artists to design them.

The ADDA also is accepting proposals through Nov. 2 from artists to design decorative banners for downtown. Contact Christi Christian at for more information.

The Shoal Creek Redemption: ACC commissioners crawled through 500 yards of foulness I can’t even imagine… and ended up right back where they started.

The commission was briefed on the Public Utilities Department’s five-year update to the Service Delivery Plan—wake up, this involves $240 million of your money—at a work session last week. During previous reviews, plans to extend sewer to the Sandy Creek and Shoal Creek areas around Danielsville and Whit Davis roads, respectively, were scrapped after environmentalists argued that the potential for a sewer-line break was more damaging than leakage from 2,300 aging septic tanks in those neighborhoods.

As you can imagine, the problem hasn’t gone away in the past five years. Those tanks are now 25 years old, give or take, and ready to burst. In many cases, the lots are too small to replace them. Utility officials want to set aside $8 million to provide sewer to those homes if and when tanks fail.

Ironically, the commission rejected the idea of a septic tank utility in 2011. Now that issue is back on the table because, don’t you know, we can’t possibly create buffers around wetlands while septic tanks are leaking.

Catering Laws: ACC officials think they’ve found a fix for the discrepancy in state and local alcohol laws that threatened the future of popular events like AthFest and Twilight, where a surprise raid by the state Department of Revenue shut down the beer gardens at the last race. Reforms proposed by ACC Assistant Manager Robert Hiss would allow nonprofits to apply for two three-day permits per year to serve alcohol at special events. Bars, in addition to restaurants, could also become licensed alcohol beverage caterers, except on Sundays.