Neighbors get actively involved with resident-driven outreach efforts to encourage dialogue about a major new development at their doorsteps.
The location of Selig Enterprises’ proposed mixed-use development in the Downtown River District has obvious implications for the rest of downtown Athens.
Though it has been less talked about in our community’s dialogue, the Armstrong & Dobbs site also shares a physical boundary with the diverse in-town neighborhoods of East Athens.
This close proximity means that residents of East Athens, including the Chicopee-Dudley neighborhood, will be greatly impacted (for better or for worse) by any development of such a large scale. Compatibility issues and quality of life concerns are known to arise when large-scale commercial projects are developed adjacent to residential zones.
Why Does Neighborhood Opinion Matter?
- East Athens residents are a captive audience and potential customer base for any new retail in the Athens River District, especially a much-needed neighborhood grocery option. Getting neighborhood buy-in makes economic sense.
- Three of the five vehicle access points for the Selig development will funnel traffic into the neighborhood’s network of streets, where cut-through traffic, speeding, and minimal sidewalks already present significant challenges to safety and quality of life.
- East Athens residents are among the most frequent multi-modal users of East Broad and Oak/Oconee Streets. Increased auto congestion on these corridors is a concern for those who walk, bike, and bus to and from East Athens. (Not to mention the larger community’s collective concerns about auto-traffic).
- East Athens residents comprise a major user group of Dudley Park and the Greenway—two natural resources that Selig’s proposed development could significantly detract from.
- The visual impact of the proposed development will be considerable, as East Athens residents will literally look at the proposed development every day from their kitchen windows, front porches, and other vantage points on almost every street in the neighborhood.
- The adjacent Oconee River corridor acts as a sound-amplifier that will project noise from construction and regular site activities throughout the neighborhood.
- For decades, East Athens residents and stakeholders have invested and organized in the area to build community and improve quality of life.
Between early December 2011 and early January 2012, nine Athens residents—including 6 Chicopee-Dudley homeowners—provided approximately 55 volunteer hours of outreach throughout East Athens neighborhoods.
Like previous neighborhood engagement efforts, this resident-driven outreach was approached as an open-ended inquiry. Initial canvassing outcomes were published in an Op-Ed in the Athens Banner-Herald on Dec. 11, 2011.
As of January 15, 2012, canvassers had direct contact with 150 individuals representing the diversity of East Athens: 61 (40.7%) respondents were minority and 89 (59.3%) were Caucasian. These demographics are a close parallel to Athens-Clarke County as a whole.
Residents’ comments were grouped into three categories, according to theme:
- Concerned about some aspect of the Selig project as proposed.
- Unsure about the Selig project or no opinion.
- Supports the Selig project as proposed.
Themes In Resident Comments
East Athens residents offered varying opinions and levels of concern about the Selig Enterprises Proposal, but the vast majority (81.33%) opposed some element of the project. Several themes arose.
Many of the twenty-one people in the ‘Yellow’ category were not aware about the proposed development before they were approached by canvassers, so they had yet to form an opinion. Other ‘Yellow’ respondents knew quite a bit about the project and either had mixed feelings or wanted to learn more before deciding.
Several people expressed no interest in the project at all; in two cases these individuals explained that the development did not concern them because they were about to move out of the area.
Several major themes emerged in the comments from the 122 people in the ‘Red’ category. Although two people stated that they do not want to see any new development at the site “because it’s too much” or “we don’t need it,” the vast majority were in favor of a new development, provided their other concerns could be addressed. In particular, most residents explained that they would like to have a neighborhood grocery store on the site.
- Scale and design (too many square feet; too tall; poor fit with the Greenway, Dudley Park, and the rest of downtown; fails to exploit the features of the site)
- Traffic (closely linked to scale and design concerns)
- Tenant mix (concerns about business practices of ‘big-box’ retailers; duplication of other nearby big-box stores; will there be something for everyone, or just the students?)
- Neighborhood quality-of-life (traffic and safety; light, noise, and air pollution; late-night hours of operation and maintenance, etc.)
- Concern for existing locally-owned businesses and character of downtown (displacement of Jittery Joe’s, competition for local stores)
- Historic preservation
- Environmental concerns
- Quality of/availability of new jobs for neighborhood residents
Opportunities for Neighborhood Buy-In
By virtue of its location, the proposed Selig development will stand as a gateway to the East Athens neighborhoods—not just an entrance to downtown.
Neighborhood sentiment about the project is varied, but the vast majority of residents surveyed are excited about a mixed-use development, provided it addresses their concerns with goodness-of-fit, design, scale, etc. The project developers have numerous opportunities to capture the support of local residents as key stakeholders:
- Regardless of what gets built on the site, an array of quality-of-life concerns will arise during and after the build-out. Meet with neighborhood residents: proactive, ongoing engagement with the neighborhood will demonstrate a commitment to identifying and addressing the evolving good-neighbor concerns that will be unique to this project. The developers can pre-empt compatibility concerns by implementing a variety of known tools, design solutions, lease agreements, etc.
- Project planners can discourage traffic cut-throughon surrounding neighborhood streets by:
- providing effective connectivity for auto-traffic on, around, and through the new development;
- building in scale with the adjacent neighborhoods and downtown, and within the capacity of local roads.
- Provide multiple points of access to the site for local consumers who are more likely to travel by foot and bike. Attend to the safety of multi-modal users in site design considerations.
- Improve upon existing site features, amenities, and public investments that residents already use (and enjoy) intensively: recreational, green space, historical, transportation, viewshed, etc.
- Pursue a tenant mix (including a neighborhood grocery store) that will benefit the diverse cross-section of local neighborhood residents.
- Encourage retailers to recruit locally for job applicants.