The Athens-Clarke County Commission got its first look last week at a master plan for the northern edge of downtown. The North Athens Project will essentially create six new downtown blocks north of Dougherty Street and west of College Avenue.
Approved by voters as part of SPLOST 2020, the project will include 715–875 apartment units, 1,050 parking spaces and 49,000–69,000 square feet of commercial space fronting College and Lumpkin streets. The development will be funded in part by $39 million in local sales-tax revenue earmarked for affordable housing, as well as by federal tax credits. One-third of the units will be public housing where low-income tenants pay no more than 30% of their income, one-third will be below-market subsidized housing and one-third will be market rate. Overall, the project will double the amount of affordable housing currently available at Bethel Midtown Village—a dilapidated 60-year-old apartment complex on the property—and at the nearby public housing complex at College and Hoyt Street, both of which will be demolished.
“I know this is going to be a shock to a lot of folks when this goes up,” Commissioner Melissa Link said at the Feb. 9 work session. “This is a huge, huge portion of downtown and a massive increase in density, but it is very much geared toward affordable housing, low income as well as median income.”
The master plan calls for recreating the downtown street grid that was destroyed when Bethel was built as part of urban renewal in the 1960s, replacing that isolated, fenced-in community with one that’s integrated into the broader area. The plan includes connections to the Pulaski Creek Greenway, to a proposed art walk on Jackson Street that would lead to the Lyndon House and to a public park that doubles as a stormwater facility, according to a presentation by Christina Davis of Columbia Residential, a private developer that’s a partner in the project.
The development will be built in phases so that most residents should be able to remain in their homes during construction, although some may have to be shuffled around between buildings, Athens Housing Authority Executive Director Rick Parker told commissioners. Federal law requires that all Bethel residents have the right to live in the new development at the same rent they’re currently paying, Parker said.
The project may also include a new, larger Athens Neighborhood Health Center. Eventually, Denney Tower—seniors public housing on Dougherty Street—may be redeveloped. ACC is also planning on selling its Dougherty Street building, now housing the planning department, once a new judicial center is finished and city government offices move into the existing courthouse. That property will most likely become a “daytime use” to balance out downtown’s nightlife activity, ACC Manager Blaine Williams said.
Commissioners generally reacted favorably to the plan, and they’re set to approve it and several related intergovernmental agreements on Mar. 2.There was less consensus on potentially rerouting the Firefly Trail just outside of Winterville. Some residents have objected to the trail running along the abandoned railbed past or through their property due to privacy concerns, so commissioners are considering rerouting part of the trail along Moores Grove Road. However, that would involve going through front yards and driveways, and it would expose pedestrians and cyclists to car collisions on a high-speed road. Public opinion mainly favors keeping the trail on the railbed—most of the 248 citizens who commented favored that option, as did the Athens in Motion Commission (an advisory body on transportation) and the Firefly Trail User Group. The nonprofit Firefly Trail, Inc., though, supports putting that stretch of the trail on the north side of Moores Grove.
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