Editor’s note: This article was co-written with Jennifer Grimes.
The Selig development’s enormous scale, bland appearance and corporate use ignored many people’s goals and desires for downtown Athens. The inability of city officials to slow or prevent approval of the plan was both shocking and enlightening. Now that Selig has officially pulled out, we have a great opportunity to figure out exactly what we want in this part of downtown and what changes need to occur to get it.
The development’s overwhelming focus on luxury student housing was a major complaint by many, but student housing likely provides the least financial risk for residential developers. A downtown site caters to two major demands of students: proximity to campus and proximity to bars and restaurants. Downtown is a natural fit for students, but a more awkward fit for people in other stages of life. Until this changes, student housing will likely be the primary focus of residential developers.
To make downtown a truly livable place for a wider variety of people, it needs to offer far more everyday amenities. The frontrunner in this category is clearly a grocery store. Not a co-op, not an expensive organic marketplace, but a basic neighborhood grocery store that caters to most people’s needs and wants. General retail is also needed. The boutique shops that comprise most of downtown retail beyond food and drink are wonderful stores but are of limited use. Downtown needs affordable options for basic goods to attract a wider variety of residents. Unfortunately, most new developments must charge high rents, which means larger national brands are the most likely new tenants. We may have to deal with this in order to make downtown more versatile.
Even if we can’t dictate the exact businesses that will comprise a future site development, we can address some zoning standards to potentially improve the size and aesthetics of any future development. This part of downtown is zoned Commercial-Downtown (C-D) and is located outside of the Downtown Historic District. While the C-D zone has some basic design standards, they are nowhere near as detailed as the historic district’s. Perhaps annexing this part of downtown into the historic district would solve many of the aesthetic issues many people had with the Selig development. However, considering the restrictive nature of these standards, such potentially onerous requirements on the land could possibly dissuade future investment.
A major criticism of the Selig project was that it didn’t conform to the scale of the rest of downtown Athens. One way to prevent this problem from occurring in the future would be to revise residential density downwards. Currently, 200 bedrooms per acre are allowed in C-D zones. This is roughly eight times as dense as any other commercial zone.
It’s important to note that this density is perfectly fine if residents aren’t reliant on the automobile, but many downtowners and future downtowners are or will be reliant to some degree on a car for transportation. The zoning code recognizes this and requires off-street parking for residential units. Until we create a more versatile downtown where residents can do most of their errands by bike or foot or create a more comprehensive, reliable mass transit system, this density dedicates too much land to needed parking and potentially creates localized traffic congestion.
The same concern was voiced regarding commercial density. Unlike other commercial zones, C-D zones have no maximum square footage requirements for retail or convenience stores. Creating a maximum seems like an obvious solution, but perhaps this wasn’t done with the idea that other safeguards, combined with small downtown lots, would ensure conformity in scale and aesthetics.
One such safeguard is the floor area ratio (FAR). The amount of floor space allowed on a lot is directly tied to the area of the lot, ensuring an aesthetically balanced structure. C-D zones have a FAR of five, meaning the total floor space can be five times the area of the lot. This effectively limits the scale of development; when all lots are roughly the same size, it creates conformity without a maximum square footage requirement. However, this doesn’t protect conformity when multiple lots can be combined to create a super lot and, consequentially, a development that seems out of place. A progressive solution may be to use both minimum and maximum lot size requirements.
While changes are necessary to foster desirable growth, we should be cautious not to deter downtown development. Even infill development that doesn’t meet our standards is better than leveling a forest and creating more sprawl. Development will occur. If it’s not in downtown Athens, then it will be on undisturbed land in Oconee County or along some suburban highway. We should make changes to create better infill development, but we should be careful not to be too restrictive in our solutions.
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