Letters to the EditorNews

Selig Development Still Isn’t a Done Deal

An open letter to ACC Mayor and Commissioners:

Well here we are – the long anticipated vote on Selig’s proposal for the A&D parcel.

From the outset of this process, despite all the talk, we’ve really not had a community conversation about the redevelopment of the A&D parcel. We were told repeatedly that this development was a done deal. The current iteration can mostly be built-by-right so that the only thing we can talk about are 15 ground level apartments. It’s always been a done deal.

Except it’s still not a done deal.

It’s unfortunate that our community conversation regarding a key piece in the future development of downtown has been stifled by the oft-repeated done deal message or, as is the case now, that the only thing we can discuss is the 15 ground level apartments. That’s a shame and does a disservice to our community because there is much to understand and significant details in play, and we need to have these conversations because many of these details will be in play regardless of whether we have a binding site plan or not. Our community leaders should be encouraging public conversation at every chance. That they haven’t is another in a long line of missed opportunities.

I’m thankful to former commissioner Carl Jordan for bringing the Rail Trail issue to light. We need to listen to him and address his concerns.

In addition to maintaining the vision of the Rail Trail, we should publicly address how our right-of-way will be reconfigured to handle the anticipated increase in traffic. Selig’s traffic study recommends that westbound traffic on Oconee be diverted to Foundry Street (in front of the Flagpole offices) requiring a left turn on Broad for those continuing west on US 78. The only other suggested improvements are the addition of turn lanes into the development. These are auto-oriented afterthoughts, not planning for the vibrant pedestrian-focused future that our downtown deserves.

Will the recently adopted ACC and GDOT Complete Streets policies be considered as the right-of-way undergoes these modifications? If we don’t plan for a comfortable and safe pedestrian and bike environment at this key juncture, how much improvement can we expect in the future? Can we have that discussion?

Selig will need and is working with Planning staff on an easement for their stairway/ramp to the Rail Trail. What will that look like?

Why are these questions pertinent to the Special Use request of 15 ground floor apartments?

First, the residential to commercial balance is an important factor of a development’s transportation impact. ACC recognizes this by allowing reduced parking requirements when off-peak uses are co-located, because car trips are more evenly distributed over the day rather than concentrated at a particular use’s peak hours. Though the number of units covered by the request is relatively small, it still exacerbates imbalance and therefore contributes to negative transportation impacts.

Second, parking. Supply less of it and people will chose different ways of coming and going from the development. Only residential units require parking downtown, at a rate of two spaces per unit of two or more bedrooms. Adding residential on the ground floor adds to required parking and this proposal already supplies nearly twice the amount required by code. Why? This is a student housing development adjacent to the University, yet the parking supply would suggest it is 3 miles out of town with no transit service. If we build our downtown as auto centric, we’ll be stuck with auto centric for years to come.  

Why does ground floor residential require a special use?

Because our community’s comprehensive plan envisions a lively urban environment on commercial corridors: active streetscapes with engaging storefronts = better pedestrian environments = more people walking = the type of community we have repeatedly articulated we want to achieve in planning policies and regulations. In urban commercial areas, ground floor residential units not only create less engaging streets for pedestrians (walk the back side of 909 Broad for a perfect example), but less comfortable units for residents. Good design is instrumental in reducing the impact of traffic noise and fumes and maintaining privacy, and requires careful attention to the right-of-way at those street level residential units. The Special Use permit review is our opportunity to be sure that this development will provide an appropriate streetscape and adequate right-of-way to meet this challenge. The plans submitted only vaguely suggest the intended treatment of this critical area.

In writing this letter I looked back at my introduction when we presented our concerns to Selig representatives on January 9, 2012. That presentation became and my introduction is still relevant today:

We welcome Selig’s investment and sincerely hope that by the end of this process we can welcome Selig as the newest member of our community. By conveying issues we have with this proposal we are simply trying to help Selig understand Athens as we see it…

And though current zoning may allow the uses Selig is proposing, we believe that by working with the community to improve the design Selig will achieve buy-in from the folks in this room and thereby increase the odds of success as well. As a community we have worked for over a decade on the Rail Trail project – with critical funding finally in place for an amenity that speaks to the future of Athens. The Greenway also represents thousands of volunteer hours as well as millions in tax dollars invested – again, a community driven project for the future benefit of all Athenians and her visitors. A successful project is one that builds on the vision for Athens that is years in the making and many years along in building towards a unique, accessible destination for all to enjoy. In short, we would love to buy into a plan that recognizes the past while supporting the long term vision for Athens those in this room have been working long and hard to achieve.

We may be past the buy-in stage but the least we can do, that you can do, in considering this special use request, is to steer the conversation to the details and stand up for our community vision.

Thank you for your time and service to our community.