A rezoning that will pave the way for redeveloping The Varsity and surrounding property is on the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission’s Thursday, Nov. 1 agenda.
With the threat of an oversized development and the destruction of several historic houses on Reese Street looming, commissioners Melissa Link, Kelly Girtz, Allison Wright and Jerry NeSmith brokered a deal with the Gordy family that they say will save the houses and protect the surrounding neighborhood.
Most of the property on the block bordered by Broad Street, Milledge Avenue, Chase Street and Reese Street is currently zoned commercial-general, which allows big-box stores and buildings up to six stories tall, similar to the new Best Western tower across the street. The overlay district Link and other commissioners are proposing would limit buildings to two stories along Reese and three stories along Milledge, with a maximum of 350 apartment bedrooms. That’s more than a developer could build under the current zoning and a concession to the Gordy family.
Another provision would limit bathrooms to two per apartment unit, eliminating the typical four-bedroom, four-bath configuration of student-oriented apartments.
“I’m sure students will be living there, but hopefully this will open it up to families and working folks,” Link said. “And hopefully it will keep the price down—those bathrooms are expensive to install—and curb some water use, too.”
The zoning overlay would also require new buildings to be set back 15 feet from the street and create a 20-foot buffer behind the houses on Reese Street. Those houses—including the Burney House, a historical landmark built by former slaves and later the home of local educator Annie Burney—would be turned over to Athens-Clarke County and used as affordable housing. (One homeowner on the block still has not sold to the Gordys.) Parking must be mostly hidden, and mortuaries, self-storage, kennels, auto sales and auto repair uses would be prohibited.
“They came to us with the upper hand because the zoning was already pretty intense, and they could have bulldozed the Burney House at any minute,” Link said. “I think we got the best possible deal.”
The Gordys, who own The Varsity chain, began buying up land around the fast-food restaurant in early 2017, cut down several magnolia trees and filed for demolition permits to tear down the Reese Street houses. Link placed a 90-day hold on the demolitions while the commission passed a partial demolition moratorium in the neighborhood that expires in December.
Link said she isn’t aware of any specific plans for the property. “My feeling is they want to shop it around and have some guidelines, so whoever buys it knows what to expect,” she said.
If the planning commission makes a recommendation Nov. 1, the county commission will discuss the overlay zone at its Nov. 20 meeting and could vote as early as Dec. 4. The public can comment at all three meetings, since the county commission recently changed its rules to allow public comment on zoning items at agenda-setting meetings.
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