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Planning Commission Throws Monkey Wrench Into Varsity Redevelopment Deal

The Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission voted last week to table a proposed zoning change on the West Broad Street block where the owners of The Varsity are planning a massive redevelopment project, putting in doubt the neighborhood protections a group of county commissioners had negotiated with the Gordy family, as well as the fate of several historic homes along Reese Street.

Planning commissioners said they felt like they didn’t have enough information to vote and wanted to wait for an upcoming study from UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government to take a broader look at the neighborhood. “This is a very important area close to downtown, and I don’t know why we’re just looking at this one block,” Planning Commissioner Alice Kinman said.

Some neighborhood residents also showed up to ask questions—which county commissioners weren’t allowed to address, given the format and rules of the meeting. “My main concern is there are questions that appear to be unanswered,” Planning Commissioner Maxine Easom said.

ACC Commissioner Jerry NeSmith urged the planning commission to send the zoning overlay district on to the county commission. They’ll handle public input, he said, but right now time is of the essence because a demolition moratorium on the property has expired. (Commissioner Melissa Link had urged them to extend it for six months in July, but Commissioner Mike Hamby convinced a majority of colleagues to approve a shorter extension.)

“We’ve been negotiating with the owners on this plan,” NeSmith said. “We get something, he gets something. The owner can demolish those homes right now, tomorrow. Then the whole [deal] goes away.

“The reason we’re not looking at a broader area is because we’re trying to solve a specific problem with this specific development,” he said.

Planning Director Brad Griffin said NeSmith is “absolutely correct” about the timing, and adding residential density in-town is something the community has been talking about for a long time.

The Gordys began acquiring properties around The Varsity early last year, cutting down trees and tearing down commercial buildings along Broad Street in preparation for redevelopment (rumored at the time to be a Publix, but that was never confirmed). Currently, most of the seven-acre property bordered by Broad, Milledge Avenue, Reese and Chase Street is zoned commercial-general, which allows big-box stores and hotels up to six stories tall, like the new Best Western tower across the street.

The overlay district would limit development to three stories on Milledge and two stories on residential Reese, with no retail curb cuts allowed on Reese. It also requires buildings to be set back from the street, parking to be hidden and buffers between commercial uses and single-family homes. In addition, three houses—including the historic Mack-Burney House, built by former slaves and later the home of educator Annie Burney—will be turned over to the ACC government for affordable housing, rather than being torn down.

“The main concern was to maintain that single-family residential character,” ACC Commissioner Melissa Link said.

In a bizarre discussion that included several back-and-forths between commissioners and planning commissioners, planning commissioners resisted the notion that they should rubber-stamp the proposal and send it on to the county commission. “I like the project. I want it to happen,” Planning Commissioner Hank Joiner said. “But I feel like I’ve been threatened by the mayor and commission tonight, and I hate that.”

The situation was unusual because, even though the planning commission is an advisory board appointed by the mayor, all zoning changes have to go through it first before they get to the ACC Commission. In this case, ACC commissioners were not just the final decision-makers, but essentially the applicants asking for the change. There were also questions about how much anyone could talk about the negotiations because they involve a potential real-estate transaction, a topic usually discussed only in secret. In the end, the planning commission voted 6–2 to table the overlay district—pushing the ACC Commission’s final vote into January at the earliest.

NeSmith said after the Nov. 1 meeting that he is hopeful the delay won’t scuttle the deal. “We have to back to the owners and convince them to wait,” he said. “I’ve been told by [Commissioner Kelly Girtz, who also participated in the negotiations] that that won’t be a problem.”

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