The Athens Housing Authority and private developer Columbia Residential are getting ready to demolish a portion of Bethel Homes to make way for a public-private affordable housing complex.
Columbia Residential and the AHA briefed Athens-Clarke County commissioners on the demolition at a work session last week. It will be done in phases, starting with the northwestern portion of the property just north of downtown. About 30 residents currently living there will be moved into different apartments onsite or into public housing elsewhere, with all expenses paid by the AHA. Children whose families move will be allowed to stay in their school while work is underway, and all residents will be able to return to the new development while paying the same rent.
“The sentiment we [heard] was that a lot of folks are ready for change,” said Christina Davis of Columbia Residential. Residents “have been involved,” Commissioner Ovita Thornton said, “but there is still some edginess.”
That’s because Athens has a history of taking Black people’s homes dating back to the Lyndon Johnson administration’s urban renewal programs in the 1960s. Bethel itself was built on top of a neighborhood called The Bottom as part of a project that extended to the federal building in what used to be the Lickskillet neighborhood off Dougherty Street. Around the same time, UGA razed the Linnentown neighborhood off Baxter Street to make way for dormitories.
Linnentown has recently gained attention because former residents successfully won acknowledgment and a promise of reparations from the ACC government, although UGA has declined to participate in the effort. Last week, the Linnentown Project’s Hattie Thomas Whitehead wrote to UGA President Jere Morehead questioning his silence and demanding that UGA “give back to us our land.” Morehead responded by saying the former City of Athens bears responsibility and offering to include Linnentown in an oral history project. While Morehead is technically correct that the city used eminent domain to seize the property, it did so at UGA’s request.
The Bethel redevelopment, however, promises to be different. ACC will invest $39 million in infrastructure, such as stormwater improvements and restoring the street grid lost when Bethel was built by realigning Lumpkin, Hull and Hoyt streets. Federal tax credits will fund additional affordable housing on the site. The project area includes Bethel’s 190 units—purchased by the AHA from Atlanta property management company H.J. Russell, which had let them fall into disrepair—as well as 32 AHA units off College Avenue. The new development will triple the density and double the number of affordable units, with one-third public housing, one-third subsidized and one-third market rate.
Incidentally, Girtz announced after the July 20 meeting that the mayor’s office will partner with preservation nonprofit Historic Athens to digitize records related to urban renewal. “While we can’t turn back the hands of time and return these lost neighborhoods to existence, present and future Athenians should know about these places and the impacts on displaced residents and their heirs,” Girtz said in a news release.
In other business, the commission looked favorably on a request from businesses around the intersection of Prince Avenue and Pope Street to close the block of Pope south of Prince to traffic, creating an outdoor dining area similar to the one on Newton Street between The Grit and Taziki’s. “This seems like a no-brainer to me,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “My only question is, why did it take so long?”
Daily Groceries Co-op requested the change in January, during the height of the pandemic’s second wave, but did not come before the commission until last week. Commissioners said they’d like to see an expedited process for such requests. The item was placed on the consent agenda for the Aug. 3 voting meeting, meaning it is likely to pass unanimously.
Also put on consent was a change to the county’s sidewalk cafe ordinance. The revision would allow businesses that sell food but are not restaurants—such as a chocolatier or donut shop—to lease sidewalk space for an outdoor cafe, Girtz said.
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