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Athens Rising

“Protect Downtown Athens†has emerged as the latest group to start a website and a public discussion of Selig’s downtown Walmart project, opening a more thorough analysis of the development. In particular, they’ve effectively questioned the Selig narrative about the inevitability of the project. Selig’s claims about compliance with code, in particular, are something the group has shed much-needed light on.

So, how exactly does the project measure up to Athens-Clarke County’s downtown design standards? Let’s take a look at a few pieces of the code, and see how they fit with Selig’s published drawings. (You can read the county ordinances on your own here.)

A few issues crop up immediately when we look at the Downtown Design Standards (found in Section 9-10-6) and compare those to Selig’s published renderings:

“Any structured parking shall have leasable and occupiable commercial or residential uses between the property line and parking at street level. These other uses shall extend a minimum of 70 percent of the linear street frontage of the structure.â€

Adding up the frontage represented in Selig’s Wilkerson and Oconee Street elevations, the big Walmart box, screened by a sliver of office space, only hits about 40 percent.

“The primary public entrance of a building shall face a street and be directly linked to a public sidewalk. It shall be positioned no more than five feet above the finished grade at the front of the building.â€

It’s arguable that the internal circulation of the Selig shopping center, while it may be street-like, isn’t actually a street, and mainly serves as a drive that is the entrance to its parking facilities. As presented, it certainly isn’t a public right-of-way, and it’d be interesting if Selig asked the county to pay to maintain it as one. It is where the primary entrance is, though, and so here again, Selig fails to comply with code.

“A minimum percentage of any wall facing a public street shall be transparent glassâ€â€”in the case of the river area, 30 percent on the ground floor and 20 percent for the upper floors.

There’s no glass whatsoever on the Wilkerson Street side of Selig’s anchor building; just blank walls and parking bays. On the upper level which will contain the retail space itself, there are no openings or architectural detailing of any kind.

Of course, Selig could try to accomplish its project without meeting the letter of the law through a process of alternative compliance, but only if “the request would result in public benefits greater than any negative impacts.†That would be a hard thing to claim, though, given its potentially extreme impacts on traffic—as well as on local small businesses, with so many studies demonstrating that Walmart actually brings a net loss of jobs to communities.

And, although GDOT-controlled Oconee Street has gotten much of the attention with regard to traffic impacts, the project will still have to be evaluated for its effects on locally controlled streets Wilkerson and East Broad. The traffic the development would push onto those two-lane streets will be the subject of another level of local review—beyond the design guidelines—that we should pay attention to. If it’s determined that those corridors can’t handle the projected traffic loads this project would bring, it may be another angle the community can use when looking for a compromise with Selig.

All this is on top of the absence of planning for Hickory Street’s required right-of-way through the site, as we covered last week. That street extension was on the 2005 version of the Transportation Corridor Concept Plan, which confirms the longstanding community priority it represents. The revised version of the Corridor Concept Plan from 2010 reaffirmed the requirements from the old map and added some new ones—including a Greenway spur not just along but through the A&D site.

Part of the former Athens Beltline, and historically linking the Georgia Railroad and Central of Georgia Railroad tracks at grade, the corridor would now link important bikeways. The Firefly rail-to-trail would feed directly into campus via this spur, providing a safe bike route from the Eastside and a park-and-ride into one of the most heavily trafficked areas in the county. It also would link the city’s rail-to-trail and Greenway networks with rail-with-trail multi-use paths along East Campus Road. As we noted last week, removal of any corridors from that map would require Mayor and Commission approval. With the Multi-Modal Transportation Center, the Jackson Street bus mall and five different major Greenway routes converging in the vicinity of this site, we just can’t afford to allow Selig to cut any corners on connectivity.

This is a site that doesn’t just have to handle one of these transportation modes, but will need to be a hub for all of them in order to be effective. Allowing Selig to throw in a plaza and some stairs as a substitute for meaningful connectivity would be setting the community up for problems down the road. Commissioners, when and if this comes before them, need to stand by what they committed to previously, rather than allowing projections of new jobs and tax revenues, which are not as cut-and-dried as they’re claimed to be, to woo them into shortsightedness. We need a well-scaled grid of streets that can handle not just cars but transit, too, and we need a well-connected bikeway network. If Selig were to follow the letter of the law and put these required corridors in place, it would likely result in the sort of well-scaled development that the community has been asking for. However, they’ve chosen to pretend those laws don’t exist, and we can’t be expected just to follow along.

The bottom line is that Selig has misrepresented the facts surrounding this project consistently, and those we should trust to vet their claims, both in the press and in our local government, have so far been all too willing or eager to let those inaccuracies stand. Our existing regulations pertaining to transportation, zoning and development consistently demonstrate the importance we’ve placed on getting development in this part of town right. We’ve got to get this one right.