City DopeNews

Commission Delays Vote on Downtown Historic District

The Athens-Clarke County Commission delayed their decision on a new historic district for the western end of downtown by up to six months after former ACC Attorney Bill Berryman threatened them, his old employer, with a lawsuit. He was recently hired by First United Methodist Church, which is located in the middle of the area in question and strongly opposes a new historic district there. Berryman informed the commission in a letter written Dec. 2 that the proposed district would violate First United Methodist’s “free exercise of religion” and would cause “irreparable harm” to the church.

First United Methodist Church is not the only property owner that opposes the historic district, but naysayers were vastly outnumbered by Athens residents who spoke in favor of the change at the commission meeting on Dec. 3. Former commissioner George Maxwell gave a powerful speech, pleading with commissioners to protect the historic African American business district known as the Hot Corner. Tommy Valentine, executive director of Historic Athens, also spoke in favor, supporting a compromise proposal reached between commissioners Melissa Link and Mike Hamby. This compromise restricted the proposed local historic district to only those properties contained in the federally recognized historic district, removing several properties west of Pulaski Street and north of Dougherty Street from the proposed local district.

The commission generally seemed to favor the idea of a new historic district for downtown, with Commissioner Mariah Parker and Link in particular urging its passage. Nevertheless, commissioners voted unanimously to delay the decision. Even as she voted to delay, Parker seemed dissatisfied, saying the hold may give time for “further misinformation to be spread.” Valentine, on the other hand, was more optimistic, telling Flagpole that he welcomes “the opportunity for more discussion of the benefits for property owners and for the community more broadly.” Valentine will use the coming months for community outreach to dispel some ideas he feels are misconceptions, such as the notion that property values would decline if the new district becomes a reality. Once informed, he hopes that some who now oppose historic designation may become proponents.

Next, the commission finally kicked off the “prosperity package” by approving $800,000 to reinvigorate a program called Neighborhood Leaders. This is a community organizing effort that has been run by Family Connection-Communities in Schools for over a decade and was funded by the federal government during the Obama administration. The commission also approved $200,000 to hire two grant specialists, meaning they’ve spent $1 million to date of the $4 million budgeted for fiscal 2020.

How will they spend the remaining $3 million? In the midst of deep uncertainty surrounding the prosperity package, Broderick Flanigan has come forward with an idea. Flanigan, a local artist and activist, advocated for a local “baby bonds” initiative at this meeting, similar to the national program proposed by Sen. Cory Booker and economist Derrick Hamilton. The idea is that every child would receive a savings bond at birth, to be held in trust by a local bank or nonprofit, such as the East Athens Development Corporation. The bond could be used to help pay for things like tuition, starting a business or for a down payment on a home after the child turns 18. In this way, children would get a kickstart in the process of wealth creation, potentially providing a “hand up” out of poverty.

Flanigan’s proposal has been well-researched by his team, which includes the racial justice task force of Oconee Street United Methodist Church and the Georgia Institute for Transitional Justice, but there’s a catch: It may be illegal under state law. ACC Attorney Judd Drake warned that it may violate the gratuities clause of the Georgia Constitution, which says that money can’t be directly granted to individuals or institutions. Flanigan feels that it may be possible to navigate around this restriction, seeing as programs like the HOPE Scholarship already exist and are constitutionally permissible. Parker instructed Drake to research the gratuities clause more carefully and to report back with a legal opinion on the matter. This will take time, so for now, it’s back to the drawing board for the prosperity package. Commissioners will have a retreat this month to discuss various proposals.

The commission also selected a preliminary design for the proposed roundabout at Hancock Avenue and Broad Street at this meeting. They chose option 6 with option 2 as a backup, either of which could be tweaked by engineers as they continue through the process. (Option 6 would reroute The Plaza to connect it directly to the roundabout, whereas option 2 would reroute it to connect to Hancock Avenue.) Option 6 in particular was rated positively in terms of safety as well as traffic throughput, and was chosen despite some concerns that it would require taking down part of the tree canopy and piping a nearby stream. Some residents living close to the area also raised concerns about traffic speeding down Hancock and objected that the physically larger option 6 may take away parts of their property. The final vote was 6-3 in favor, with Commissioner Patrick Davenport, Link and Parker voting no.