City DopeNews

Can Athens Save the Varsity Magnolia Trees?

Athens gonna Athens. Cicada Rhythm plays a set underneath the old magnolias on the former Varsity property. Credit: Blake Aued

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition to save the old magnolia trees on the former Varsity property, and local musicians and other demonstrators have been gathering regularly on the corner of Milledge and Broad to promote their preservation. But is there any way to protect them, other than relying on the kindness of Atlanta developer Jeff Fuqua, who recently purchased the land for $8.5 million?

Athens-Clarke County has a relatively weak tree ordinance that doesn’t provide much protection for existing trees, instead focusing mainly on requiring replacement trees. It’s unknown what Fuqua Development’s plans are for the magnolias. They’re marked with ribbons, which some have interpreted as marking them for removal. The trees aren’t shown in preliminary drawings of the mixed-use development planned for the property, but those plans aren’t detailed blueprints.

A zoning overlay district passed in 2019 requires buildings to be set back 15 feet from Milledge Avenue, a buffer zone that includes some of the magnolias. However, the overlay zone ordinance makes no mention of the trees.

“That was a nonstarter in the negotiations” with the Gordy family, which owns the Varsity chain, according to Commissioner Melissa Link, who spearheaded the overlay zone on a tight timeline in 2018, when the Gordys were buying up houses around the restaurant and threatening to demolish them. Link said her primary concern was protecting the residential neighborhood on Reese Street behind the property, and she was facing opposition from then-Mayor Nancy Denson, among others. “If people want to direct their ire, they can direct it at the Gordy family, and you can quote me on that,” Link said.

Rumors have circulated that the trees are protected by some sort of covenant put into place when the Hodgson family sold the property to the Gordys in the early 1960s, but if such an agreement exists, it must have been a handshake deal.

“In my research on this point, I have not been able to find a recorded covenant or other legally binding condition that calls for the magnolia trees to be conserved,” ACC Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee told Flagpole in an email. “There are several reliable local sources that have recalled a very public understanding that Dean Tate helped orchestrate at the time of the Varsity’s construction regarding the importance of the magnolia trees and the retention of those trees during the original site design for The Varsity’s move to that location, but no one has provided our office with anything that offers ongoing protection for those trees.”

According to Lonnee, the plans as submitted so far meet all of the zoning requirements, so Fuqua can build the development by right without public input or commission approval.

How long will the trees survive, even if they don’t meet their end via bulldozer? The petition, started by Cicada Rhythm guitarist Dave Kirslis, claims they date back to the 19th century. They’re at least old enough for William Tate, the legendary UGA dean of students, to remark on them in his Strolls Around Athens. That means they may be at the end of their lifespan, anyway. The typical magnolia tree lives to be 80-120 years old.