With nearly 10,000 apartment bedrooms completed, under construction or proposed in Athens over the past two years, Athens-Clarke County officials are reluctant to let the building boom continue. That especially applies to student housing, although developments that promise to be affordable for working-class residents are having an easier time.
In 2017, the commission approved a controversial condominium project at 155 Mitchell St., near downtown and the UGA campus, on a parcel that has long been eyed by developers. That eight-story tower won approval mainly because of a promise that it would be made up of owner-occupied condos for seniors. But now, the original developer has agreed to flip it to a company that specializes in student housing, pending zoning approval.
“I feel like this was a bait-and-switch,” Commissioner Melissa Link said at the Jan. 19 agenda-setting meeting. “If this proposal had been student housing three years ago, it would have been shot down in a heartbeat.”
Five of the seven commissioners who voted in favor of the original proposal are gone now, though, so this new iteration will face a tougher climb. Not only has the use changed, but the latest version is denser, with 23 additional units and less commercial space. The planning commission voted 5-4 to recommend denial.
“They have concerns with increasing the number of units and decreasing commercial [space]—just the overall increasing trends they’re seeing with a lot of multifamily right now,” Planning Director Brad Griffin said.
The planning commission also voted unanimously to deny a rezoning for a proposed 501-apartment development on Lexington Road. But the developer has agreed to make concessions, said Commissioner Mariah Parker, who represents the area.
Officials looked more favorably on two other multifamily proposals. One—on Highway 29 near the growing commercial node around the “Space Kroger”—consists of 280 mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments advertised as workforce housing. The other includes 87 one- and two-bedroom apartments (nine below market rate), as well as kiosks for startup businesses, on Tracy Street, although planners questioned its proximity to industries like the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant.
Parker and Commissioner Carol Myers also raised concerns about extending a five-year contract with Axon, a company that provides police body cameras and electric shock devices popularly known as Tasers. They said they intend to introduce a commission-defined option Feb. 2 limiting the Taser contract to two or three years.
Police officials contended at a Jan. 14 work session that Tasers give officers a non-lethal option to subdue violent suspects, reducing the likelihood of shooting them, but some commissioners hope that criminal justice reforms in the coming years will end the need for Tasers.
“I wouldn’t want to saddle us with more enforcement than is necessary if we are successful in our work in the coming years making those investments that drive down the need for that level of force,” Parker said.
Commissioner Jesse Houle said Tasers keep neither residents nor police safer.
“My concerns about Tasers are threefold: They’re expensive, they’re potentially ineffective… and they may also serve to reinforce or further enable an approach to crisis response that I think relies upon too few first responders with too few resources,” Houle said.
Incidentally, the commission recently approved a $250,000 settlement with Salvador Salazar, a North Carolina man who was shot by police in Athens in 2019 after pulling out a hidden machete and swinging it at an officer. But Salazar’s lawyers argued that police had no reason to approach or question him because a 911 call from his girlfriend mentioned mental illness and homelessness—which are not crimes—and an alleged probation violation that ACCPD did not have an official record of. His lawyers also said in a lawsuit naming responding officer Roger Williams and dispatcher Tori Teets that Williams escalated the situation by pulling his gun when Salazar was attempting to walk away and posed no threat. Salazar suffered severe injuries and will use the settlement to pay his ongoing medical bills, according to his lawyers. Taxpayers are on the hook for $100,000, with the rest covered by ACC’s insurance.
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