A decades-long series of zoning decisions and business deals means that Potterytown will soon become Parkingtown.
Tucked in between eastern downtown’s behemoth student apartment complexes and the North Oconee River, part of the neighborhood of single-family homes dating back more than 100 years is meeting the wrecking ball as student-housing developer Landmark Properties prepares to build a parking deck for a new phase of its nearby development, The Mark.
While the neighborhood’s fate was probably sealed in 2000—when Athens-Clarke County officials, driven by environmentalists’ concerns about sprawl, upped the density allowed downtown and expanded its boundaries—the final straw was a recent ACC Commission vote to pull out of a previously approved partnership with Landmark to build a parking deck near the Multimodal Center to serve both The Mark and a new Classic Center arena. Instead, both parties will go it alone, and the second phase of The Mark will have its own deck between Pottery and Wilkerson streets on property Landmark has been amassing for the past six years.
The vote was fueled in part by questions about who would take on risk associated with construction costs, in addition to commissioners’ distrust of Landmark and resistance to assisting with any additional student housing development downtown.
“The days of building standalone parking decks—you don’t see them anymore,” said Commissioner Mike Hamby, who compared it to the “worst movie ever,” Wonder Woman 1984.
“I’m fine with them building in Potterytown by right,” Commissioner Melissa Link said at the Jan. 6 meeting. “If this government had any consideration for Potterytown, it would have rezoned [Potterytown] when the downtown master plan went through.”
That downtown master plan, overseen by former UGA College of Environment and Design professor Jack Crowley nearly a decade ago, called for less intensive redevelopment of Potterytown. So did a 2008 charette another urban planning professor, Pratt Cassity, conducted at the old Jittery Joe’s Roasting Co. building on East Broad Street that Landmark later tore down. But no action was ever taken to protect the neighborhood.
“What I keep going back to is how we got Landmark in the first place,” said Commissioner Jesse Houle, urging colleagues to work with the developer instead of rejecting the deal. Community opposition contributed to scuttling an Atlanta-based Selig Enterprises project that would have included a Walmart, so Landmark stepped in and built The Mark at the former Armstrong & Dobbs lumber yard instead.
With The Mark underway, Landmark began buying up houses on the block between Wilkerson and Pottery streets, most notably one belonging to Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood and his wife, Rebecca, who have since moved to Portland. They became involved in a public spat with Landmark CEO Wes Rogers in December 2015, when their friend, fellow musician Laura Carter, asked for an extension to move the Hoods’ house to the Orange Twin compound in Northeast Athens, which Rogers denied. Tax records show that companies controlled by Landmark paid a combined $2.2 million for the Hoods’ property and surrounding parcels owned by trustees of Peggy T. Williams totaling a little less than an acre, consolidating them in October 2020. The Hoods’ former home will be moved to a nearby site, according to Mayor Kelly Girtz.
The deal to partner with Landmark on the deck would have brought in $150,000 a year to help construct a 6,000-seat arena, which will be funded partially with sales tax revenue and partially with private dollars. A senior living facility and a hotel are also planned to generate more funding. Now, ACC will move forward with a smaller parking deck near the Multimodal Center and look to lease part of the property to another developer, Girtz said.
“We worked diligently to offer Athens-Clarke County officials a mutually beneficial concept that would deliver much needed affordable housing, a direct investment in the Classic Center Arena, additional student housing, and new and vital infrastructure improvements in Potterytown,” Rogers told Flagpole. “The community benefits we offered up approached nearly $50 million. Unfortunately, however, that concept was not accepted by the county commission. As a result, we will need to immediately begin development of a parking deck in Potterytown to meet construction timelines and accommodate future residents of Phase II at The Mark.
“Although we are disappointed that the commission did not want to move forward with our proposed ideas, we remain committed to being good corporate neighbors and working in good faith with local officials to explore mutually beneficial paths forward on future development plans.”
In January, Commissioner Tim Denson proposed adding an opt-out to the contract to create more leverage for negotiating affordable housing and a child-care center as part of the deal, as well as force Landmark to contribute property tax to the Athens Downtown Development Authority. But the commission voted 9-1 to back out of finalizing the deal. Commissioner Russell Edwards was the lone “no” vote. He said his constituents are in favor of the arena, and he felt obligated to move forward.
While one block of Potterytown’s fate is sealed, that underscores the need for a citywide assessment of historic resources that can be compared to the county zoning map so they can be protected proactively, said Tommy Valentine, executive director of the preservation nonprofit Historic Athens. Other, similar mill towns like Whitehall on the Eastside are also facing development pressure, he said, and Athens hasn’t done a comprehensive assessment in 30 years. Historic Athens is in preliminary talks with CED and interested commissioners on an update, he added.
“As Athens becomes denser, we’re going to see that pressure play out elsewhere,” Valentine said. “What tends to happen is, by the time we realize a place like that is in peril, it’s too late or our attention is elsewhere.”
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