City DopeNews

Behold, the New Design for the Classic Center Hotel

Plans for a long-delayed hotel next to the Classic Center are moving ahead, and construction could begin next month, say developers of the Hyatt Place hotel. The privately-owned hotel will connect internally on its two lower floors with the Athens-Clarke County-owned Classic Center. The center’s managers have long argued that conventioneers prefer a directly connected hotel, and by not having one, the Classic Center is losing convention business.

An updated drawing of the hotel’s exterior was generally praised by ACC commissioners at last week’s work session. “I did have an issue with the initial design, and I’m glad to see that some vast improvements have been made,” said Commissioner Melissa Link. But she criticized the windowless blank wall planned for the rear of the hotel (necessary because the building will be “too close to the property line,” said Robert Small of Piras Development), noting that downtown’s design guidelines are “somewhat inadequate.”

The hotel will be built without any tax subsidy, although tax breaks of as much as $4.4 million had been considered and rejected after a public outcry. Other hotel owners represented by the Athens Area Hotel Association “adamantly and fervently” opposed any tax subsidy at last week’s meeting, and no subsidies will be given, county Manager Alan Reddish said.  Unless developers ask for exemptions from some county requirements, the hotel can be built “by right” without additional public input or commission approval.

Former mayor Gwen O’Looney spoke in favor of the project, which she said she had followed since 2008. The hotel’s developer has been “a good partner from the very beginning,” she said. 

CHARM: Commissioners also affirmed keeping ACC’s new Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (aka the CHARM) at its present location on College Avenue down the hill from downtown, despite Mayor Nancy Denson’s concern that the 15-acre property might be better used for commercial purposes, like an office park. The property abuts Cleveland Avenue and the North Oconee River, and was once the site of the city landfill (from which collectors sometimes dig for old bottles) and incinerator.

The long-planned CHARM, which opened to the public only last week, accepts mattresses, paint, electronics, styrofoam, textiles, carpet and other items to be recycled that cannot be picked up by haulers or left at other drop-off sites. There is a charge of $5 per car load, but a bucket load is free. The property will also be home to the county’s free “swap shop” for paint and household products, the four-county teacher reuse store and BikeAthens and Free IT’s recycling programs for bicycles and computers.

But there is more interest these days in office or industrial sites near downtown, especially from millennials, Denson noted, although “there’s no potential buyer, and it’s not for sale,” she said. Should commissioners rethink future use of the property? “I think it can look better than having a CHARM facility there,” said Commissioner Mike Hamby. But under environmental regulations, nothing except parking can be built on the old landfill portion of the property, and there is no obvious place to relocate the CHARM, Reddish said. And unlike some local governments that develop industrial parks, “we haven’t been in the business of selling property to industrial prospects,” Commissioner Jared Bailey noted.

No formal votes are taken at work sessions, but commissioners seemed to agree that the CHARM could always be moved if necessary, and that a systematic inventory of county-owned sites might be a good idea.

Commission Goals: Checking off previously set “goals and objectives” with an eye to setting upcoming budget priorities, several commissioners were interested in passing a local ordinance to discourage use of plastic bags and foam food containers, and in finding a way to force owners to clean up overgrown lots. “That’s one of the things we get the most complaints on,” said Commissioner Harry Sims.

Goals are on track or better with regard to reductions in landfill waste (as much as a 60 percent reduction by 2018, Reddish said) and water use (already down by 25 percent since the drought in 2007).  

Also discussed: better benefits for longtime county employees who are now moving elsewhere for better pay, while being replaced by younger people “who don’t have the work ethic,” Sims said.