The backyard at Jason Chinh's house isn't much to speak of—it's walled in by a hill with a glimpse of the low-slung Armstrong & Dobbs warehouses at the top. But the view isn't why he moved to the rental cottage on Wilkerson Street, a narrow residential lane connecting Oconee and East Broad streets. Instead, it's his neighbors and the quick walk to downtown that's kept him in the neighborhood for the past five years. But with a large mixed-use development proposed at his back door, he's now worried his tight-knit neighborhood will change.
"It's nice and it's quiet," said Chinh, 30. "It's very safe… Nothing bad happens. The worst you get is a bunch of drunk kids coming home."
Chinh's house, which he rents, is one of about a dozen rental cottages on the short connector street—just about all that's left of the historic Potterytown neighborhood, which is quickly being walled in between large commercial and residential developments. And, even these small homes have the potential to be developed into offices, restaurants or shops, all allowed under the Commercial-Downtown zoning designation covering the neighborhood.
Now, with Selig Enterprises' mixed-use development in the works behind his house, as well as Athens Place, a proposed 44-unit student apartment complex across East Broad Street, property owners are wondering: Are we next?
Angus Moeller, who purchased the home Chinh rents more than a decade ago, said commercial zoning was what drew him to the property.
"I thought it would be a good investment," he said, noting that the only interest in his property he's received recently was associated with the Blue Heron river district project, a public/private initiative to develop the area that was abandoned when Selig entered the picture.
Now, he says, he's not sure how a mixed-use development behind his property might affect property values or his ability to attract good tenants.
"That's a good question—I think potentially, in the beginning, it will affect rent," he said, adding that he's curious to see how the Selig development will pan out. "With my house, I'm going to be open to see what's going on there."
But across the street, it's a different story.
There, where properties line the North Oconee River, the cottages and a small self-storage business are all on a FEMA-designated floodplain. Add to that a 100-foot river buffer set by Athens-Clarke County, and you have a lot of limits on how those properties can be developed.
"Over the years, we've had two or three different developers come down and look at it and draw up plans and show us what they had in mind," said Mary Mingledorff, whose late husband purchased the properties decades ago. "Then FEMA came along and did their 100-year flood plan, and they decided that whole side of the street was underwater." The FEMA map and the 100-foot river buffer designated by the county more than a decade ago drastically changed what could be done with the properties along the river.
The bottom line: no commercial development, no parking lots, and if the houses are torn down, they must be rebuilt on their original footprints.
"The downtown [zoning] allows the highest buildings in the county—100 feet tall, 100 percent lot coverage—but the environmental area restricts the properties between Wilkerson Street and the river," said Rick Cowick, a senior ACC planner. "Commercial would not be allowed in the river buffer. In the floodplain, we can't issue new buildings… except for additions to current buildings."
"Years and years ago, we had an attorney who had an office downtown, at the end of Broad Street," Mingledorff said. "One day, he said, 'Look out this window. That's your stuff down there. Do you realize that's in-town property? They're not making any more of that anymore. You're sitting on a goldmine.'
"Well, until FEMA came along."
One of the things about the Armstrong & Dobbs development that worries Chinh is traffic on the narrow street. Parked cars often line one side, giving it the appearance of a one-way street, and drivers using Wilkerson as a cut-through often race past them.
Proposed plans for Selig's mixed-use development call for an entrance/exit to a parking garage on Wilkerson Street, said company Vice President Jo Ann Chitty. David Clark, director of ACC's Transportation and Public Works Department, said there are no restrictions to a parking garage on a residential street, as long as the street is 20 feet wide—and that's the minimum required of all new streets.
But because Wilkerson Street has been around for decades, it's not consistently 20 feet wide, he said. "It's about 20 feet—it's not consistent all the way," he said. "There's places where it's wider than 20 feet and places where it's narrower." But that 20-foot requirement would be enforced specifically along the section of street fronting any new development, he added.
All this adds up to one conclusion for Chinh: as commercial development approaches, he'll probably have to move.
"I hang out here. In the summer, it's my birthday, and we have a barbecue, and it's a community," he said. "Being forced to move out of your place, and it's not your landlord doing it, doesn't make you feel good."