Proposed new development regulations for Prince Avenue could bar the large medical buildings which are now allowed, and that worries local developers and the Chamber of Commerce. “With the arrival of the university’s new Health Sciences Campus, as well as the continued expansion of Athens Regional Medical Center, the stakes right now are higher than they’ve ever been” for Prince Avenue, said Ryan Brinson of the chamber’s executive committee. He addressed the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission last Tuesday before they accepted the Prince Avenue Corridor Study, which suggests capping the size of medical buildings (just as other types of office buildings are already capped, currently at 10,000 square feet). “The unintended consequences of this cap,” Brinson said, “could be driving more of this development not only outside the perimeter, but maybe into the greenbelt, and maybe into neighboring counties.”
There is currently no cap on the size of medical buildings; and no specific size limit has been proposed, but ACC Planner Bruce Lonnee told Flagpole that one way to implement the report’s recommendationsâ€”assuming ACC commissioners eventually do soâ€”would be to raise the present 10,000-square-foot cap on office sizes, while applying the same cap to medical offices as well. Many existing buildings along Prince are far larger than 10,000 feet, medical office developer Ed Nichols told commissioners last week; the Medical Center at Chase street is 48,000 square feet, he said.
The biggest concern of neighbors like Tony Eubanksâ€”who fought a proposal in 2002 to build another large medical complex on Princeâ€”is additional traffic. “Once you get inside Milledge, Prince Avenue is a neighborhood street,” Eubanks told Flagpole. The Prince Avenue Corridor Study is “a step in the right direction,” he said, and large medical offices should be built “out next to the perimeter. That’s where the traffic belongs.” That is happening already; a sprawling cancer treatment center with five acres of floor space will soon join the existing Medical Specialty Office Park just outside the Loop.
It is a measure of Prince Avenue’s potential for controversy that Mayor Nancy Denson and several ACC commissioners emphasized (as had citizens on the ACC Planning Commission) that “accepting” the corridor study doesn’t enact any specific changes. A Planning Department study of zoning changes along Prince (including the medical office size caps) could take up to a year and would include public input, but such a study hasn’t even been scheduled. Meanwhile, an application is moving forward to build a four-story, 42,000-foot medical facility (plus parking garage) at the former location of Allen’s Bar and Grill in Normaltown.
The Prince corridor study also suggests creating “a detailed master streetscape plan along all segments of Prince Avenue” that would include midblock crosswalks and bike lanes, and possible “lane configuration changes”â€”i.e., reduction from four to three lanes east of Milledge Avenue in order to accommodate bicycle lanes. Three-laning Prince (or any other street, for that matter) has always raised controversyâ€”but it might become moot if a new one-cent sales tax for transportation projects is approved by voters in July. That 10-year tax would fund, among other projects, a second connection from Loop 10 to Atlanta Highway, widening Tallassee Road and Winterville Road (with sidewalks and bike lanes along both), synchronizing stoplights, and adding bike lanes to Prince Avenue’s entire length not by reconfiguring lanes, but by actually widening the street. North Avenue and Lexington Road would also have bicycle lanes added.
Speaking for BikeAthens, Amy Johnson raised a related question to commissioners: if the T-SPLOST referendum is successful, will the local government have enough input into how those projects are designed? All the projects will be designed by the Georgia Department of Transportation, which tends to build roads “for sprawl” and for fast through-traffic, she said, and not with pedestrians or bicyclists in mind.
“That’s the way it is set up right now,” ACC Transportation and Public Works Director David Clark told Flagpole. But “GDOT has been very clear that the local governments and public works staff [are] going to be very involved in the design,” he said. “I think we’re going to be able to steer the design process a lot.” Clark’s bigger concern, he said, is whether GDOT “is set up to manage 70 projects” in the 12-county Northeast Georgia region.
Meanwhile, efforts to replace the College Station Road river bridges, in progress since 1994, are inching forward. The current bridges, Clark said, are “structurally sound, but functionally obsolete” because they are not wide enough to accommodate bicycle lanes or sidewalks; the new one will. ACC will arrange to acquire the needed land for the new, wider bridge from the University of Georgia; GDOT will pay all costs. Construction will begin next year and finish in summer of 2015.
Also soon underway: a $303,000 pedestrian bridge at the far end of Lake Chapman at Sandy Creek Park. The bridge will cross Sandy Creek, linking the existing hiking trails to form a continuous seven-mile loop around the lake. More than half of the cost will be contributed by an anonymous local citizen; it could be finished in November.
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