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Open Dialogue or Closed Doors?

Selig Enterprises, the Atlanta developer proposing a contentious mixed-use development on Oconee Street in downtown Athens, has refused to meet in an open public forum to talk about its plans.

But it’s more than willing to share its details with small, select groups of community members. Those groups have included local pastors and politicians, businesspeople and board members from neighborhood-based organizations, and have ranged in size from seven or eight attendees to a dozen or more. At many of the meetings, Selig representatives—often Scott Selig, vice president of acquisitions and development, and Jo Ann Chitty, senior vice president—came with a PowerPoint presentation and addressed specific topics relevant to the group gathered before them.

But according to Athens residents who attended the meetings, the focus was different at each one, and sometimes, it appears, the answers to certain questions were inconsistent from meeting to meeting. Some attendees left the meetings with information that wasn’t entirely correct, according to their recollections of meeting details.

Chitty said the small gatherings, held in late January and into February, were simply opportunities to meet with concerned residents and local leaders. “We do that so we can actually have a dialogue with people,” she said, “because we wanted to hear what people had to say.”

But the formats of the meetings and the carefully selected nature of the groups bothered Athens Area Habitat for Humanity Director Spencer Frye, who attended one of the meetings. Frye is a Democratic primary challenger to State Representative Keith Heard, who has publicly supported the project.

“What bothers me about a lot of this stuff is what they’re saying to get the project moving forward [in] the community,” he said, “and there’s no accountability for that. Is it a good business strategy? Yes. Is it right? No, I don’t think it’s right. There’s no accountability for anything they say.”

Paying to Park?

In addition to its “anchor” space, which according to Selig representatives’ public statements and published plans will be a 94,000-square-foot big-box retail store, likely a Walmart, the development also includes residential units atop retail and restaurant space, as well as a 1,150-space parking deck. Chitty told Flagpole the design calls for between 200 and 230 apartments. At the meeting Frye attended, Selig representatives told those in attendance that 180 of 200 apartments would be “single family,” and that tenants wouldn’t be allowed to park in the parking garage on UGA football gamedays. At another meeting that included representatives of the East Athens Development Corporation, Selig said 70 percent of the apartments would be one-bedroom and 30 percent would be two-bedroom, rented at “market rates.”

Frye said he was told that anyone who parked in the deck on non-gamedays would get one hour of free parking before they were charged. “They didn’t really define a clear plan for any sort of voucher system for shopping,” said Frye, who said the meeting he attended included a handful of others active in local politics, including his fellow 2010 ACC mayoral candidate Charlie Maddox and former state representative and one-time Georgia Democratic Party Chair Jane Kidd. “They said they would have ‘parking ambassadors’… What happens to all the people of East Athens when all of a sudden they’re forced to pay to shop at this downtown grocery store? They’re not going to go there. And by then, it will be too late.”

Winston Heard, executive director of the East Athens Development Corporation, said Selig representatives told his group in January that there would be “controlled parking” on gamedays, with time limits on parking on other days. “They may have two-hour parking and they would have… a validation, or vouchers… Now, interestingly enough, that’s why they said there would be a fee, so students couldn’t just park there and walk to campus.”

Chitty said the developer was not yet involved in parking lot issues, and wasn’t ready to commit to a paid parking model. “That’s going to be an operational issue and we’re not there yet in our planning,” she said. “We just talked about how other retail centers have worked, and that’s something we’re considering.” But, she said AAA Parking, a Selig subsidiary that operates more than 200 for-profit parking facilities nationwide, will probably manage the development’s two parking decks, one beneath the anchor space and one serving the other tenants of the complex. “That’s the likely thing that will happen,” she said. “A lot of that depends on the tenants.” She would not speculate on what tenants Selig is seeking to fill out the development.

She also said she wasn’t aware of another Walmart with paid parking, although she cited the Publix at Atlantic Station in Atlanta, where the store gives vouchers to shoppers to reimburse them after paying for parking.

Along with the multi-story parking deck beneath the anchor, some have expressed concerns to Selig about traffic on Oconee and other surrounding streets, but the results of a traffic study, which Selig has to submit to local and state transportation officials as part of the permitting process for the development, have not been released months after it was ordered. At a meeting attended by Alvin Sheats, executive director of the Hancock Community Development Corporation and a former Athens-Clarke County commissioner, Selig representatives said the study was “being done, but nobody wanted to elaborate on it.” Rosa Thurmond, an East Athens Development Corporation board member, also left the meeting she attended with unanswered questions about the study.

Chitty said the traffic study is still in progress. “We’re still in the design and planning phase. We’re getting close on it, but we have to have the design pretty much complete before the traffic study is finalized.”

Traffic on Oconee Street is one issue that gnaws at Bob Sleppy, who deals with it every day—and sees it out his window—from his office across the street from the proposed development at Nuçi’s Space, the local nonprofit musicians’ resource center where Sleppy serves as executive director.

Sleppy and several other Athens residents hosted an early-January meeting with Selig representatives, attended by about 40 community members, to express their mounting concerns about the project. The overcrowded Oconee Street, he said, was near the top of the list.

“I can almost tell time [by] how traffic is backed up. It’s a daily occurrence to see traffic backed up from the Loop to downtown at the end of the day,” he said. “You can’t put 1,200 parking spaces there and say you’re not encouraging vehicle traffic… Oconee Street is already over its capacity, so without a solid plan on how to address that, in my opinion, it’s unacceptable.”

Mixed-Use Details

While it has never been announced that Walmart has formally agreed to be the development’s anchor tenant, Selig representatives spent time at several meetings explaining what jobs a Walmart might bring. “My understanding is, they would still be open to another tenant,” said Sheats, “but Walmart is the only one willing to play ball right now.”

The development also includes space for other stores and restaurants, though. At the meeting he attended Frye said, Selig representatives stated the tenant mix would include upscale clothing stores such as Banana Republic and Aeropostale. Janice Mathis, an attorney and activist who attended a January meeting with Selig at East Friendship Baptist Church, said representatives mentioned some possible tenants, but she said she did not recall specifics. “They showed us the stores and the townhouses that will be on top of those particular shops, and the Walmart building—they did say it was not finalized, as far as Walmart coming,” said Mathis, who attended the meeting as part of Athens Community Agenda, a local civil rights group. “They did name some other stores that [they said] were committed.” Selig has not publicly confirmed any tenants for the development.

Other residents questioned whether the mixed-use development would affect their property taxes. At a February Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission meeting, two residents spoke about increased county revenues from the development possibly reducing property taxes for ACC homeowners. But, Thurmond said her main concern about the proposed development, along with traffic, was whether it would cause her property taxes to go up. “I was interested in whether our property taxes would increase.” she said. In her experience living in Athens, property taxes have a tendency to “scoot up” in areas near major developments. “Their response was that it was a different type of tax, that it would not affect our property tax.”

Sheats said in the “two or three” meetings he attended, Selig representatives “said it should help to relieve pressure on homeowners, which should be a plus.” And while Selig never promised homeowners’ property taxes would go down, he said, “that was my understanding—that… it would decline property taxes.”

In an interview with Flagpole, Chitty declined to comment on what effect the development might have on property taxes. “I’m not the tax assessor,” she said. In meetings with residents, she said, Selig representatives made the same claims about taxes that the company has posted on its website: that the property, an estimated $80 million project, will bring in $1 million in annual property tax revenue according to 2010 mileage rates.

Kirk Dunagan, the county’s chief tax appraiser, said his office hasn’t seen a plan for the proposed development, and that there was no way he could speculate on how it would affect homeowners’ taxes. “It’s too early to even estimate; I really don’t know,” he said, adding that property values vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, though many have fallen in recent years.

A state-mandated moratorium that prevents increased assessments of property values expires this year, but with the legislature in session, Dunagan said, that could still be extended another year. “If we see a property has increased [in value] due to the market, they could see an increase” if the moratorium is allowed to end, he said. “Of course, we aren’t seeing much of that, but someone could legitimately see an increase in their value this year.”

In the neighborhood near the proposed development, Dunagan said, property values have been holding steady. “For the most part, we haven’t seen it really decreasing… that’s one of the few areas where they have some new construction going on,” he said. “If their property values go up because it becomes more marketable, because the property value is going up, any decline in the millage rate will be offset by that.”

ACC Mayor Nancy Denson recently told Flagpole that the county’s share of that revenue—about $400,000, with $600,000 going to the Clarke County School District—wouldn’t be enough to bring down millage rates.

Jobs at What Cost?

Sheats and Heard said in their line of work, their biggest interest in the project was jobs. Both men work to help others in their neighborhoods to find jobs, and a development that would temporarily employ 500 during construction, then bring 300–350 permanent jobs, according to Selig’s estimates, would be a way to help more people out of poverty. “There is an opportunity to do a couple of things,” said Heard. “One, from a job-creation standpoint, and two, from an accessibility standpoint of people in this community to goods and services.”

He cited the small stores in East Athens’ Triangle Plaza, noting that a mother from the nearby Nellie B housing complex would pay half as much for diapers at Walmart as she would by going to the corner store.

In the short term, Heard and Sheats noted the initial construction jobs could go to those in Athens’ poor and minority communities—or not. “There were some questions that arose (about) minority participation in the construction,” said Heard. “That came up in the meeting and I believe the answer to that was there would be a preference to any qualified minority in [hiring for] the project, to make sure there is ample participation. Now, of course, at the end of the day, it’s who is applying. But, that’s a concern of this community because of the chronic poverty.”

Athens has one of the highest poverty rates for a metropolitan area of its size in the nation—39 percent had an income below the poverty level as of 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—yet, its unemployment rate, at 7.3 percent, is well below the national average. “I think that speaks to underemployment,” said Heard. “There may be jobs, [but many are] low-paying jobs that can’t bring somebody out of poverty… These are people who have been in poverty for a long time, so any time a light comes to their tunnel that might be a job or an opportunity for employment, or a better life or better health, you’re going to have people gravitate toward that light.”

Sheats couldn’t recall any details from the meeting he attended about hiring for construction or permanent jobs, but was not optimistic about using local workers for construction. “Any development around here comes from out of town,” he said.

Frye said some of his concerns—including his suggestions that the development could use locally made solar hot water heaters and that it could have better access to the North Oconee Rivers Greenway—were brushed off by Selig representatives at the meeting he attended. But, Chitty said the developer has an entry point planned for the Greenway, and they will encourage the general contractor to buy materials locally. “We definitely want to keep as much money in the community as we can,” she said.

Even so, Frye said the way Selig has tried to sell its plan to Athens residents has been disconcerting. “All these individualized meetings; it’s so much like a small child asking his dad about something, and then getting an answer and going to ask his mom,” he said. “It’s a divide-and-conquer strategy we’ve been doing since we were six years old.”