City DopeNews

How Should Athens Grow Over the Next 20 Years?

The previous future land use plan led the explosion of student apartment buildings downtown over the past 15 years. Credit: Lee Shearer/file

This fall Athens-Clarke County planners will be asking for public input on a new future land use map—a document that will guide the way Athens grows and develops for decades to come.

The last future land use plan, completed in 2001, “was used as a tool by this body and by community leaders to take some really bold steps,” senior planner Bruce Lonnee told county commissioners at an Aug. 10 work session. At that time, residents were most concerned about sprawl, protecting greenspace and reducing dependency on cars, he said. So the resulting document created a “green belt” of rural land instead of future subdivisions on the outskirts of the county, and funneled development inside the Loop by allowing more density in an area where the infrastructure could support it—especially downtown. The plan also encouraged mixed-use development, reduced parking requirements, and led to the creation of Athens’ first stream buffers, tree ordinance, complete streets ordinance, sidewalk-building requirements and architectural standards.  

While progressive for its time, that plan is now more than 20 years old, and could be considered outdated in some ways. For example, much civic debate in Athens over the past few years has revolved around rising housing costs. So-called “missing middle” housing—like accessory dwellings (“granny flats” or “in-law suites”), duplexes and small apartment buildings—has been proposed as a way to alleviate that. Long a part of the pre-car urban fabric, those types of development are no longer allowed in single-family zones. But many cities are starting to loosen their zoning codes to boost density or even getting rid of single-family zoning altogether.

“We don’t know all the issues we’re going to hear from the community, but we’re pretty sure we’re going to hear these three,” Lonnee said: affordable housing, infrastructure and urban design. Some ideas that might be considered include the aforementioned missing middle housing, expanding affordable housing incentives, incentives to redeveloping aging apartment complexes, allowing more density in areas without sewer through the use of lift stations and shared septic tanks, extending the current 100-foot cap on building heights, eliminating parking mandates, limiting the size of commercial developments, more detailed architectural requirements and alternatives to historic districts.

Some, if not most, of those ideas are bound to be controversial. But with Athens growing at a steady 1% annually, it’s likely to add about 30,000 people over the next 20 years—maybe more, if UGA enrollment shoots past 50,000 as expected. If housing construction doesn’t keep up, housing will only get more expensive for everyone. But density is a tough sell politically because people rarely welcome it in their own neighborhoods.

“There’s no doubt we’re going to have to have a conversation about density,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “We’re a growing community, and we’ve got to put people somewhere. But we’ve seen the negative effect of that when it’s all concentrated in one area.”

Planners emphasized that nothing is being proposed until they go through the public input process, which will involve online surveys, town hall meetings, tabling at community events and walks through affected neighborhoods. No dates have been set. After that, planners will work to convert that public input into a lot-by-lot map, then into new policies, ordinances and zoning changes. The entire process will take about two years.

One challenge is that it’s difficult for people to translate colored blocks on a map into what development will look like on the ground. “This whole process is not intuitive to the average person,” ACC Manager Blaine Williams said.

Another challenge is attracting input from diverse groups of residents—the folks who pack meetings on development usually skew whiter and always skew older than the general population, and they’re usually mad about something specific. “How do we engage more than the people who come out at the last minute out of fear and protection?” Commissioner Carol Myers asked, mentioning renters and residents under 40.

That’s especially important because the land use plan is meant to last for 20 years, so younger people will be the ones who have to live with its effects. And it won’t just determine whether a duplex is built next door or a grocery store opens down the street—by dictating where growth happens, it will also influence things like school attendance zones and what types of jobs are available for graduates. The future is being decided now.