An ambitious plan to redevelop vast swaths of North and East Athens was introduced by Mayor Kelly Girtz last week to mixed reviews from Athens-Clarke County commissioners.
The plan would create two tax allocation districts, one along mainly industrial portions of Barber Street and Newton Bridge Road, and the other a primarily commercial corridor extending from the eastern edge of downtown up North Avenue and Danielsville Road. Both areas, according to a report by Dan McRae, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in TADs, have a high unemployment rate, substandard infrastructure and large numbers of blighted or vacant properties.
TADs, also known as tax increment financing, are a tool to encourage redevelopment by plowing tax collections from development back into the district in the form of infrastructure. A baseline is set, and as development raises property values, additional property tax revenue above that amount is reinvested in the district for a certain number of years. The extra money can go toward anything from water and sewer lines to roads, bike lanes and sidewalks, street lighting or amenities like parks, as long as it’s spent within the TAD. Those amenities can be built in advance by issuing bonds, then repaying them with revenue from the TAD.
TADS have been discussed in Athens for years—they were first floated by former Mayor Heidi Davison, and the concept was approved by voters in a 2008 referendum—but these would be the first two ever implemented locally. However, they’re a commonly used tool in other parts of Georgia and the country.
The “River District” TAD extends far beyond what was originally known as the River District, between downtown and the North Oconee River, including roughly 400 acres north of Dougherty Street, east of Thomas Street and along North Avenue and Danielsville Road to Hull Road, taking in a number of run-down shopping centers. It would use upcoming downtown developments like the second phase of the student apartment complex The Mark and a hotel and senior living facility associated with the proposed Classic Center arena as an “ignition” to spark development along the North Avenue corridor, Girtz said. The Newton Bridge Road TAD, consisting of 1,654 acres between the ACC water plant and Holland Youth Sports Complex, would use the General Time and Southern Mill mixed use developments in a similar fashion.
“If the development is going to happen regardless, why don’t we just take the money and spend it anywhere in the county we want?” Commissioner Mike Hamby said.
The TADs would leverage development that’s already happening, Commissioner Tim Denson said. “Let’s push the benefit to extend beyond those isolated islands,” Girtz said.
Commissioner Andy Herod questioned the choice of locations for the TADs. “There are a lot of areas where we need to encourage redevelopment,” Herod said. “The Lexington Road corridor is one. I’d imagine the area around the mall is another.” But they don’t have the “green sprouts” of known development that will fuel other development, Girtz said.
Overall, the two TADs would raise an estimated $400 million over 20 years. Girtz is proposing to split that revenue evenly among affordable housing, transportation, job creation, public spaces and youth development. Specific uses could include bike paths and trails, bus shelters, parking decks, small business grants, parks, tree planting and early learning facilities in areas that sorely need them. “I see this as a great way to harness that interest in redevelopment and spread the love a little bit,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.
But that’s only if the Clarke County Board of Education also approves the TADs. The school district could potentially lose out on some property tax revenue, but would likely see an increase in sales tax revenue. Board members did not offer much of a response when county Manager Blaine Williams and McRae briefed them on TADs earlier this month. Williams said he has since met with Superintendent Demond Means and board President LaKeisha Gantt, and the board will talk about TADs again at its Nov. 7 work session.
The commission has to move quickly because tax assessments are finalized Jan. 1. Girtz is pushing for a vote Nov. 5. The commission will also discuss the TADs and take public comment at a called meeting at 6 p.m. Oct. 29 at City Hall.
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