Assuming you’ve all finished Fire and Fury by now, here’s a suggestion on what to read next: the Athens-Clarke County comprehensive plan.
A document that’s mandated by the state once every decade, the comp plan is chock full of data about Athens and ideas for solving the city’s problems, based on thousands of comments collected through the Envision Athens process. It’s available on athensclarkecounty.com, but you’ll have to act fast. The one and only public hearing on the draft plan is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7 at the Dougherty Street government building. That may not leave you enough time to read the 100-page report (not counting all the appendices and supporting documents), so here are some of the highlights.
Let’s start with the economy. Athens has seen a decline in manufacturing jobs, although that’s still the fourth-largest sector in the local economy, and an increase in health-care jobs. Manufacturing growth is limited by the small amount of commercial and industrial land available, as well as lack of interstate access. The unemployment rate is just 4.5 percent, but 36.7 percent of Athens residents live in poverty (28.4 percent, not counting college students), which is the fourth-highest rate in Georgia. About 40 percent of children live in poverty, and the number who receive SNAP benefits (food stamps) is up.
Overall, there are 60,000 jobs in Athens but less than 40,000 workers. Forty thousand people commute from surrounding counties, while 18,000 Athens residents work in a different county. Part of the reason so many people who work in Athens don’t live in Athens may be home prices. Single-family construction has dropped in Athens but increased in surrounding counties. “Workforce housing is desperately needed as home sale prices are beyond the ability of a median family to afford,” the draft says. So is housing for seniors, with a 0 percent vacancy rate in senior-oriented developments. Retirees are the fastest-growing age group and single-person households are up as well, while the number of families with children is falling.
Schools are another factor, although the comp plan points out that education is improving, with more residents who have at least an associate’s degree and fewer who dropped out of high school.
The comp plan proposes to attack poverty through job training, better collaboration among nonprofits and improving access to services. Removing legal and bureaucratic barriers to businesses will create more and better-paying jobs, as will promoting Athens’ music scene and marketing the city to tourists.
Concerning land use, many of the proposed policies focus on creating a downtown with fewer vehicles and more open space—for example, by reducing the number of parking spaces developers are required to provide. The comp plan also calls for easing the requirement for first-floor commercial space in residential buildings (much of which remains vacant in newer developments), a zoning overlay for Firefly Trail and other greenways, a “contingency plan” for Georgia Square Mall (perhaps a movie studio or senior housing), an industrial park off Atlanta Highway, enticements for groceries downtown and in other food deserts, and a lower-density multi-family zone to buffer neighborhoods from heavy commercial.
Other recommendations include redeveloping Atlanta Highway as a tech corridor, developing the “river district” between downtown and the North Oconee, improving the “gateways” into town and incentives for environmentally sustainable construction. Much of this could be accomplished through special tax districts (such as Tax Allocation Districts, where additional revenue from new development is plowed back into infrastructure, or Community Improvement Districts, where businesses agree to tax themselves) or by the county government buying available tracts and flipping them to developers.
In the housing section, the comp plan recommends a variety of strategies to make housing more affordable: reducing the minimum square footage (currently 1,000 for single-family homes); redeveloping run-down apartment complexes into mixed-income developments (a la Columbia Brookside, formerly the Pauldoe housing project off Hawthorne Avenue); allowing accessory dwellings like in-law suites; and spending money to preserve and upgrade housing stock in the urban core. Since 60 percent of Athens households are renters, there’s also a need for non-student rental housing, education on tenants’ rights and landlords’ responsibilities, and a process for fixing up nuisance properties. Not to mention basic infrastructure like sidewalks.
Of course, development can harm the environment, and the comp plan includes numerous strategies for protecting nature (including a goal of preserving 20 percent of the county as greenspace), as well as for arts and culture and other topics.
A future land-use map is a major component of the comp plan. It’s not zoning, but it does serve as a guide for what might be built where 20 years from now. This time around, other than consolidating some categories, officials opted not to change much—Envision Athens wrapped up late, which did not leave enough time to give the land-use map the attention it deserves, ACC planner Gavin Hassemer said, but he expects it to be revisited over the next couple years. “Even those parcels that changed, they were more corrections, if you will,” he said.
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