Photo Credit: Austin Steele/file
The historic Burney-Mack House on Reese Street is under threat now that a demolition moratorium in the area has expired with no zoning protections put into place.
The Hancock Corridor between Milledge Avenue and Broad Street is vulnerable to development again after the Athens-Clarke County Commission, lacking a quorum, allowed a demolition moratorium to expire last week.
The commission passed the moratorium last year in response to concerns about rumors that the owners of The Varsity were planning a massive development on the block where the fast-food restaurant sits. An extension would have bought more time for ACC to hire an outside consultant to come in, meet with residents and devise a plan—a proposal that’s up for a vote June 5.
“This neighborhood faces imminent threat,” Commissioner Melissa Link said at the May 15 agenda-setting meeting. “When the demolition [moratorium] expires tomorrow, the bulldozers will roll right in.”
Only seven commissioners attended the meeting—Harry Sims resigned in March, Jared Bailey was attending an out-of-town conference, and Mike Hamby was ill. But by the time the agenda-setting meeting ended and a special called meeting to extend the moratorium started, Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson had left to attend her child’s graduation. The remaining six commissioners had no choice but to reschedule the vote for June 5 and adjourn.
The commission declared the moratorium to create time to develop a plan to tweak the neighborhood’s zoning to protect it from out-of-scale development. (Although it’s a single-family neighborhood, much of it is zoned commercial or multifamily.) But little progress has been made. Several people who live in or just outside the moratorium zone offered to lead a neighborhood planning effort, but that never happened, according to Link. Then, she got the UGA College of Environment and Design involved, but they later pulled out without giving any official explanation, she said, although she heard that it was because the project was too politically controversial.
Noting that Mayor Nancy Denson refused to put the extension on the agenda, forcing her to gather signatures from five other commissioners to put it up for a vote, Link said she sees a conspiracy. “This has all been carefully orchestrated,” Link said. “I feel like the fix is in for this neighborhood, and it has been from the beginning.”
However, Jennifer Lewis, interim director of the UGA Center for Community Design and Preservation, said that former director Pratt Cassity had been working with Link, but he retired in February, and CED Dean Daniel Nadenicek wrote to Link expressing interest in working on “community projects of all types.” Hamby blamed Link for the snafu—she could have gotten county planning staff involved sooner or scheduled the moratorium extension vote for an earlier meeting, he said. Link, though, said she couldn't get a sixth commissioner to force the extension onto the agenda until the day before the meeting.
Meanwhile, residents remain concerned about how speculators are changing their neighborhood from primarily African-American long-term homeowners to student rentals. “Our people are being forced out of their homes because they’re being offered what appears to be a good price for their property, but it’s not being explained to them what they’re gaining and what they’re losing,” Rita Cornelius told commissioners.
And an extension of a demolition moratorium on parts of Milledge Circle and Castilla Avenue—which, for some reason, expires three weeks later than the Hancock moratorium despite being passed at the same time—is on the June 5 agenda and appears to set to pass, with a vote on a historic district coming potentially as soon as July.