City DopeNews

Commission Approves New Student Housing Tower Downtown

A rendering of the proposed building at 155 Mitchell St.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission unanimously approved a new student housing development near downtown—the first time a developer has taken advantage of a new program that incentivizes building affordable housing.

The project at 155 Mitchell Street has undergone several iterations since an initial proposal in 2006, from gameday units to condos for seniors. The most recent proposal will cater to college students, although ACC planners noted that the studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom layouts could be attractive to others, compared to the usual four- and five-bedroom student apartments. Overall, the 10-story building will include 163 units with 381 bedrooms, in addition to ground-floor commercial space and rooftop amenities.

Commissioner Allison Wright, who represents the area, said she’s “thrilled” by the latest version of the development, calling it much improved. 

A report prepared by county staffers outlined the pluses and minuses of the development. On one hand, concentrating student housing near downtown and campus prevents sprawl and reduces the burden on infrastructure. But it also risks creating a “fragile monoculture” and may result in a downtown that’s not welcoming to non-students.

Commissioners reluctantly approved a plan for condos aimed at seniors in 2017 because they believed it would diversify downtown, Commissioner Melissa Link said. But she noted that the current plan includes eight units that will be affordable for tenants who make 60% of the area median income or less, giving students who couldn’t otherwise afford it an opportunity to live downtown. “There is some diversity,” Link said. “I’m grateful for the changes in design.”

The inclusionary zoning ordinance allows higher-density development and fewer parking spaces than required by law. In exchange, developers agree to set aside a certain percentage of units as affordable. In this case, the development will include just 189 parking spaces, half of what would ordinarily be required.

“This is the perfect location for this,” Commissioner Carol Myers said. “If a reduction in parking doesn’t work here, it won’t work anywhere.” Students can also save money by not having a car, she added.

The commission also unanimously approved a 90-townhouse development off Jennings Mill Road, an area formerly zoned industrial but which has become increasingly residential because the Georgia Department of Transportation never built a planned Loop 10 flyover. Commissioners Jesse Houle and Russell Edwards argued that the denser style of development, as opposed to single-family homes on large lots, will help ACC deliver services and preserve the “green belt” of undeveloped and agricultural land around the outskirts of the county.

Such housing would become more common in Athens if ACC adopts a “missing middle” policy allowing accessory dwellings, duplexes, townhouses and small apartment buildings in single-family zones. But according to a planning department work plan, planners are too busy updating the state-required comprehensive plan and future land use map to get around to it until mid-2024. That was unacceptable to Commissioner Tim Denson, who persuaded his colleagues to bump up discussions on accessory dwellings—often called granny flats or in-law suites—as well as talks on regulating short-term rentals like Airbnbs. The work schedule passed 7–2, with Wright and Commissioner Ovita Thornton opposed.

Timothy Road residents are excited about a future shared-use path because it’s too far away from any destinations to walk, but biking would be an option if the road were safe, former commission candidate Allen Jones said. “There is a bike outline painted on the road, but I’m not sure whether that’s a sharrow or if that’s left over from an accident investigation,” he said.

But the commission unanimously voted to hold for a month a proposal to prioritize shared-use paths along Timothy Road and Mitchell Bridge Road among numerous other options for dedicated sales-tax funding. Commissioner Mike Hamby said he supports the multi-use option but wanted more time to communicate with his constituents. Houle agreed, and also had questions about future funding and cooperation with GDOT. But because the multi-use path could take 15 years to complete, maybe it would make more sense to build a cheaper, quicker sidewalk, Denson said. 

After 20 years, the Firefly Trail is coming along more quickly and is now about halfway complete. A few homeowners in the Winterville area, though, have been reluctant to sell ACC the right-of-way to come through their yards, and the commission voted 5–4 to approve a resolution authorizing eminent domain in those cases.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport asked to hold the issue for 30 days. “The residents just feel like they need more time to breathe on this issue,” he said. He was joined by Thornton, Wright and Hamby.

But Edwards said that the resolution is needed to push negotiations forward. “We have some property owners… who have simply said, ‘No, no way, no how. Until you show us a resolution, get off my property,’” he said. Edwards, Denson, Link, Houle and Commissioner Carol Myers voted in favor of it.

The resolution does not mean that the county government will immediately start seizing property, but allows for appraisals to begin. Any vote on actually using eminent domain would come at a later date if negotiations with the holdouts continue to break down.