With ProtectDowntownAthens.com live since the beginning of February, we’ve received a lot of feedback and are grateful that our site has had the intended effect of encouraging informed discussion. These FAQ’s are intended to clarify a few points.
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Demolition by the current owner may happen before Selig has purchased the property, submitted plans, demonstrated compliance with design guidelines or submitted a traffic study. As of Friday, February 17, no Demolition Permit application had been submitted.
By way of background: in 2011, Jamie Boswell, acting as agent for A&D Inc., requested a Demolition Review from ACC Planning for the structures on the A&D site. Commissioners Girtz and Kinman placed a 90 day hold on this process. The 90 day hold expired on Tuesday, February 14. According to ACC Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee, paperwork for the Demolition Review process was issued to Mr. Boswell by the ACC Planning Department on Wednesday, February 15, 2012.
It is important to understand that even if a Demolition Permit is issued, and the current owner begins to demolish buildings on the site, this does not mean that the Selig proposal is any closer to being a “done deal.”
To reduce the argument to being for or against a downtown grocery suggests a disagreement that doesn’t exist. It is possible to include a grocery store in a development that addresses design, traffic and infrastructure issues and that complements our existing downtown businesses and the publicly funded amenities along the North Oconee River. Our community should realize that while this property has been vacant for several years, our economy has been stagnant since 2007 and the Selig proposal is not the only option out there.
With so much public comment focused on Walmart, it’s easy to overlook the overall project design. Walmart is but one factor in considering whether the proposal as a whole is a net positive for Athens. For some, the fact that Walmart is the most likely tenant for the proposed development is the best thing about it; for others it is the only reason to fight it. We do not subscribe to either of these extremes. A 94,000 sq ft building in an internally oriented downtown development with 1,150 parking spaces merits scrutiny, regardless of the identity of the anchor tenant.
As a community, it is important to consider whether this proposal will create more jobs than it displaces, how the jobs compare to existing jobs, and whether commitment to this strategy of development is compatible with the long term vision for our local economy. This is a conversation our community needs to have.
In any case, job creation can occur without flawed design.
As for property taxes, Selig’s was one of multiple bids on the property and their current proposal is one of many potential uses for the property. The A&D property will be developed, and when it is, we can expect an increase in property tax revenue. This should not preclude a discussion of the design issues of this or any other proposal. In terms of sales taxes, our question is whether this development will simply shift sales to another location rather than increasing overall demand, therefore having a minimal effect on overall sales taxes collected.
While some may not suffer direct competition with Walmart and the other “15-20 retail spaces and restaurants,” many longtime downtown and neighborhood businesses will be directly affected. With the diversion of foot traffic necessary to sustain a 200,000 sq ft development, and the attendant increase in auto congestion making it more difficult to get downtown, how could this not affect existing downtown businesses?
There were other bids on this property, it will be redeveloped, and there are alternatives to this design. Selig based their offer for the property (and therefore set the “cost”) on this specific proposal. If the development plan they require to recoup that investment is not compatible with infrastructure and established design guidelines, they offered too much for the land. We don’t have to live with bad design because a developer overestimated what could be done within guidelines on the parcel.
The oft repeated suggestion that Selig’s proposal meets zoning requirements and attendant design guidelines is contributing to a fundamental misunderstanding of the status of this proposal. No plans have been submitted to the ACC Planning Department, and nothing has been approved.
While the uses proposed are permitted under current zoning and there is no regulatory issue with regard to the square footage of any of the components, as with any development, the devil is in the details. The details in this case are that the zoning requirements also mandate compliance with design standards, demonstration that sufficient infrastructure exists to support the development, and provision for planned transportation corridors. Whether these requirements have been met cannot be evaluated until plans and a traffic impact analysis are submitted for review by county staff.
To be clear, our concern is not about whether this development is “pretty.” The design qualities we are discussing are not things like the color of the brick or the amount of architectural details. Instead, we are concerned with core principles of urban design, including legibility, permeability, and visual appropriateness. These characteristics describe how the built environment affects the lives we lead and the significance we assign to the spaces and places that comprise our community. These are also the qualities that distinguish Athens, GA from Anytown, USA.
What Selig proposes is in many ways a purely functional solution, aiming to satisfy the ‘necessary activity’ of providing easy access to groceries. Selig is hiding the internal orientation and the ‘out of scale’ problem of the anchor tenant and parking garage by emphasizing the “prettiness” of green screens and architectural do-dads.
With good design it’s not what you are looking at that matters most, rather it’s how and what the development allows you to look at. This proposal allows us to look at the backs of buildings, parking garages and green screens as opposed to providing a true interaction with the surrounding environment.
Again, this is not a matter of prioritizing groceries over aesthetics or vice-versa – it’s about prioritizing good design.
The Chicopee Dudley neighborhood is diverse and our canvassing efforts include a representative sample of residents. New Grove Baptist Church is located in Winterville, and the local NAACP chapter is not primarily comprised of neighborhood members, and, while adding important points to the discussion, do not speak directly to our canvassing efforts.
The broader suggestion that has been attributed to the input from these two associations is that this development is supported by “the black community” and opposed by “the white community.” There is not a single race-based perspective and this characterization is divisive and unnecessary.
This is far greater than the number of spaces required by zoning codes, which exempt downtown developments from required on-site parking for most uses, specifically to foster a dense, fine grain urban area with a mix of pedestrian-supported uses. The local government’s investments in public parking decks have been made to support this type of environment.
The auto-intensive design proposed is a product of the big box business model, and not an inevitable outcome of a quality redevelopment proposal. Yes, any new development will generate additional trips to and from the site, but not all trips are the same. A better design that is not dependent upon suburban parking demand assumptions will generate a larger share of bike, transit, and pedestrian trips, modes that support the vitality of the entire downtown community.
One steep stairway entrance from the future Rail Trail to a parking deck drive within the development, as provided for in the current plan, is not adequate interaction with $23 million of public investment in the Greenway and Rail-Trail. The plan provides a token point of access and a lost opportunity for the creation of synergy between public and private investments.
As we’ve pointed out, based on renderings shown thus far, there will likely be an opportunity for public input on this development proposal. We are trying to contribute to a conversation about the future of Athens by introducing reliable information to the public realm as it becomes available. This proposal is far from a “done deal” and will affect Athens for generations to come. As such, it deserves detailed examination and informed public discussion.