Photo Credit: Austin Steele/file
The demolition of the house at 398 Milledge Circle galvanized neighbors to seek a historic district last year.
Twenty-eight Milledge Circle homeowners support a controversial historic district that’s up for a vote July 3, with 18 opposed, three undecided and seven who didn’t respond to a survey, according to a study of the proposed historic district. Commissioners Allison Wright and Mike Hamby have put forward a change to the proposal that could reduce opposition further, at least marginally.
Under the commission-defined option, structures in the district built before 1949, rather than 1964, would be protected. That would match up the local historic district with the National Register of Historic Places, Wright explained at the June 21 agenda-setting meeting.
It would also mean four additional buildings would be considered “nonconforming,” meaning they don’t add any historical value to the district, and so it would be easier for the property owners to alter or demolish those buildings. One of them is a duplex belonging to the politically connected real-estate agent Jamie Boswell. His son, Jay Boswell, read a letter from his father to commissioners in which the elder Boswell said that, while he opposes the historic district, he prefers the commission-defined option because it would allow him to build his dream home on the property.
Although the district appears likely to pass easily, Mayor Nancy Denson weighed in anyway:
“To my knowledge, I was the first elected official in Athens to publicly support historic districts,” she said. The city ordinance allowing for the creation of historic districts passed in 1984, shortly after she left the city council to run for tax commissioner.
“I still support preservation efforts in Athens-Clarke County, but I’m concerned about a process that supports imposing restrictions on the use and enjoyment of property owners’ rights without their consent,” Denson said. “I don’t remember the kind of owner divide we’ve had on designations proposed anytime before compared to the ones that we have for the designations that are recommended tonight.”
Denson said that ACC should require at least 65 percent of property owners to approve before creating a historic district. When including non-responses, the rate of approval is 50 percent on Milledge Circle and 33 percent on nearby Castalia Avenue.
Denson loves historic districts so much that she considered vetoing the equally contentious Buena Vista historic district in 2013 and refused to put an extension of the Hancock Avenue demolition moratorium on the agenda in May (requiring commissioners to override her), in addition to announcing that she will vote “no” on the Five Points district in the unlikely event that she is called upon to break a tie.
The issue is likely to come up again at some point, albeit with a new mayor, Kelly Girtz. The state Historic Preservation Division recommended that ACC consider expanding the district into surrounding areas that have equal historical significance as relatively untouched examples of early 20th Century middle-class development.
Senior Development Proposed on Epps Bridge
For those who remember the debate last year involving a condo tower for retirees on Mitchell Street near downtown, the commission entered sort of a bizarro world when talking last week about a senior living development proposed for Epps Bridge Parkway just south of Timothy Road, on land owned by Chestnut Grove Baptist Church.
The 31-acre development—intended for those 55 and older—would include 84 homes and amenities such as a clubhouse, pool, tennis courts, trails, gardens and a park. It would require a rezoning from RS-25 (a little over half-acre lots) to the much denser RS-8 designation, prompting complaints from neighbors at a planning commission meeting last month about traffic and concerns that it won’t fit in with the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as the mass grading the development would require. The planning commission recommended denial by a 6-2 vote.
“I feel like this is Groundhog Day for me,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said. “We’ve had a lot of interest in areas off Epps Bridge Road.”
Hamby criticized the project for how much dirt would have to be moved around and questioned why a rezoning is necessary when the developer could build 43 houses by right. The rezoning, he emphasized, is separate from the question of senior housing. “The senior development has nothing to do with the rezoning at all,” he said. “We have to keep that in mind, because the senior development, we have no control over… whether somebody 55 or older is living in the house.” And at $300,000, the houses won’t be affordable, Hamby said.
On the other hand, a 2016 workforce housing study and this year’s Envision Athens process both identified housing for retirees as a serious need in Athens. “There have been so many, many, many [people] reaching out and saying, ‘This is what we need,’” Commissioner Diane Bell said. “The price, the setting, the location is what they’re asking for.”
Commissioner Melissa Link—who opposed the increase in density and the $300,000 price point of the Mitchell Street tower—reversed course. Epps Bridge is a place where she supports more density, “there’s a real need for that upper-middle-class price point,” she said. The grading plan is “really good,” with green streets, sidewalk trees, green space and double-filtered stormwater, Link added.
Girtz praised the addition of a second access point to Epps Bridge. Athens will have to have a “modest increase in density,” especially in its inner-ring postwar suburbs, to accommodate growth and protect the green belt—especially with retirees flocking here from other parts of the country because of Athens’ inclusion on so many “best places to retire” lists.
“Even though $300,000 seems like a lot of money to me, I know the reality from friends of mine who are in their 60s and 70s is that often they’ve moved here from Boston or Atlanta or the West Coast, and they’ve sold their homes for two or three or four times in value and paid cash for a home here,” Girtz said.
Girtz, for the record, argued for an affordable component to the Mitchell Street development, while Hamby voted in favor of it.
Also up for a vote July 3 is a 10,000-seat amphitheater off Commerce Road near the Loop. The plan has been adjusted to address concerns about traffic on Boley Drive, overflow parking and noise. Girtz called the plans much improved from a previous version submitted in November. “I’m excited about it as a prospect for our local economy and our music industry here in Athens,” he said. But Link and Commissioner Jerry NeSmith raised questions about stormwater management, which will be addressed further along in the engineering process, according to Planning Director Brad Griffin.