Athens-Clarke County officials are considering ditching a ban on parking in front of stores on the city’s suburban commercial corridors to spur more development, especially on Atlanta Highway and Lexington Road.
Both corridors are widely considered eyesores, and in an effort to make new commercial development more attractive and pedestrian-friendly, for the past 15 years ACC has required parking to be on the side or back of the building. But with big-box stores and chains opting to locate (or relocate) in Oconee County—and ACC Commissioner Jerry NeSmith beating the drum to try to out-Oconee Oconee—officials are considering lifting the front-parking ban.
“In my personal opinion, we’re suffering from 20 years of a no-growth policy,” developer Carl Nichols told ACC planning commissioners last week. “We’ve got to get rid of that. We’ve got to get people coming back to Athens.”
Chain stores and restaurants have a one-size-fits-all model and don’t want to change it to meet ACC codes, Nichols said. Not only that, but seeing parking in front draws in drivers, and customers find it more convenient, he added. Nichols and real estate agent Charlie Upchurch cited a couple of big-box stores that opted not to build on Lexington Road, as well as CVS, which complied with the law by adding a hallway to the outside of its newer Athens stores rather than move the front doors. The new shopping center on Highway 72 had no choice but to turn its back on the street. “It’s burdensome on the developer to have to build these buildings the way we’re asking them to build them,” Upchurch said.
An Urban Land Institute report on revitalizing Atlanta Highway doesn’t mention the front-parking ban as an impediment. A similar report on Lexington Road recommends allowing two rows of parking in front. Planning commissioners seemed open to that idea, as long as it came with some requirement for landscaping and connectivity, such as sidewalks and access roads.
The parking rules can’t be too onerous, though. Upchurch and Nichols’ code critiques ignore the fact that development is happening along Athens’ commercial corridors nonetheless—just look at the pharmacies and dollar stores and giant Krogers popping up on every corner. Does the community really want any development we can get our hands on? Should we resign ourselves to having to drive everywhere, or do we want to continue the (unfortunately, agonizingly slow) process of encouraging walkability bit by bit and fixing the mistakes of the past? Athenians have often said that we don’t want Athens to turn into Snellville. Is that still the case?
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