An Open letter to ACC Mayor and Commissioners,
I am writing regarding the proposed Selig Development and how important your leadership and decisions are on this and other future developments of our downtown area. Unfortunately, I think the leaders and citizens of Athens frequently suffer from low-self esteem. We hear over and over that, because we are a college town, we have to settle for whatever we get in terms of private investment. That argument (that because we’re a college town we have to “settle” for less) is repeated so often that people who aspire to a greater vision for our community get worn down. I liken it to someone who has been a victim of demeaning comments so long they start to believe them. When that happens, our community suffers by not living up to its highest and best vision of itself.
As unique and important as UGA is to the city, we should remind ourselves from time to time that UGA is not the only “citizen” of our town and students aren’t the only aspect to UGA. The University is much more than students; it’s a whole community of administrators, employees, teachers and other professionals of all kinds who call Athens home. Think how nice it would be for UGA to have a nearby high-end, residential development designed for professionals and retirees where they could walk to work at UGA, walk to town, relax and recreate at the nearby park or utilize the Firefly Trail. Athens needs to be an attractive, appealing town for professors and researchers, as well as students, not to mention those not affiliated directly with UGA. We can achieve a more appealing quality of life, as well as a more robust economy, if we don’t see our town – specifically our downtown – as a one dimensional “college town.” A greater vision would be to see ourselves as a vibrant, diverse, culturally rich, walkable, people-friendly town where a college happens to be located. UGA would also benefit from such a vision.
Another view I think our leaders should consider regarding this proposal is the Rail to Trail (the Firefly Trail) and the Oconee River Greenway – both wonderful amenities but far from complete. Respecting our commitment to the Rail to Trail project, which has been strongly supported by voters in two separate SPLOST referenda, is paramount to maintaining the community’s trust. Dedicated citizen groups and government staff have invested enormous time and energy, in addition to over $12 million, towards realizing the vision for these two projects. How can we gain support for future SPLOST projects when we allow an out-of-town developer to ignore the hard work of our citizens and the countless hours invested by ACC staff? The community’s investment in time and resources far outweighs that of downtown development to date, and every effort should be made to protect those investments. Not only have citizens given years of uncompensated time and energy, but the voters have said yes on more than one occasion to the vision of a greenway and a rail to trail. Therefore, the community has a right to expect its elected leaders to be the champion of those visions that we have paid for with our dollars and our votes. What a shame if we allow our investment to be compromised in the name of “increased private investment” when that investment runs counter to our expressed community vision.
Another argument I hear is that the property on which the Selig development is to be located is not that great, and the river downtown isn’t all that special, so how creative can we expect development there to be? The City of Seoul, Korea turned a river, which had previously been an ugly, crowded and polluted expressway into an inviting, spectacular river/greenway area. If they can do that, we could easily do something as creative and valuable with our downtown river area. Cities all across America are re-investing in their rivers and we should, too. Green space areas are hard to hold onto in downtown areas, but they invariably add immensely to the quality of life and long-term value of a town. Many towns and cities are putting green spaces back into their downtown areas because of hot zones, so our thoughtful planning in this regard would be a very wise investment.
Athens is fortunate to enjoy an abundance of resources that can be leveraged to ensure we are more than just cheap apartments and cookie-cutter strip malls. If we can set our minds on a larger vision that celebrates and enhances, rather than diminishes, our town, which I know we can do, everyone benefits – the developer, UGA, and the community. I know that many times as elected officials, there is only so much you can do, but standing your ground here and pushing for even little improvements can make a big difference down the line as all of these developments add up and contribute to our overall quality of life. I’ve seen our elected officials demand better projects from developers in the past, and I don’t think it’s too late to think that could happen again. Areas with important linkages to downtown, like the A&D parcel and the Prince Avenue corridor, present marvelous opportunities to expand our reputation for being a creative, economically robust and special place to live. We need our leaders, our city employees and our citizens to push for something we can be proud for years to come.
Thank you for your time and your public service to our community.
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