Debate regarding whether to approve a new high-rise in downtown Athens was at the forefront of this week’s Athens Mayor and Commission Meeting.
For approximately three hours total, the commission heard opinions regarding a proposition to make the vacant 1.6 acres of land on Mitchell Street a condominium for retirees.
“The project that is being proposed tonight is about change,” said Carl Nichols, an Athens resident and president of Nichols Land and Investment Company.
Nichols said the proposed project is designed to “balance the population in downtown Athens” and will consist of 123 condominium units that will be offered for sale to individuals looking to retire in Athens.
“Retirees bring a wealth of experience for volunteering, for mentoring and for being a positive and stable influence on the younger generation,” Nichols said.
Following his points, approximately 25 members of the Athens community spoke out against the proposition.
Speakers ranged from University of Georgia students and professors to downtown Athens business owners to Athens for Everyone members, who took turns voicing concerns of sustainability, affordable housing and poverty in Athens-Clarke County in reference to this project.
“The questions is where is the plan for low-income housing and for affordable housing,” said Athens resident and UGA religion professor Robert Foster.
Foster discussed the idea of revitalizing an entire community, specifically through a focus on affordable housing, rather than luxury housing for individuals who may not be living in Athens already.
“The developers provided no legally binding documents guaranteeing a percentage of the units in the building would be made available to lower-income or work-force residents in our city,” said John Fortuin, the president of a local homeowner’s association in the Kenny Ridge Community. “This needs to be a component of all major developments in our city.”
Abigail West, a UGA student, echoed the points of many other speakers when she described the proposition as a “critical sustainability issue.”
“It’s a project that’s going to remove a small strip of forest, it’s a project that’s going to be built on top of a stream,” West said. “It’s also raising housing costs and doing little to support the community.”
Immediately following the comments from the public about the proposition, the commission voted 7-3 to support the proposition and allow the planning to continue for the building of the high-rise building on Mitchell Street.
In addition to discussing the proposed high-rise, the commission also heard opinions on a proposition by Williams & Associates to rezone the area around Kirkwood Drive and Timothy Road to build a stand-alone commercial bank.
Many residents spoke out against this idea, which led to a 6- 4 vote to deny the zoning request to build a bank in that area.
Several of the residents who spoke about the negative aspects of the bank did so by explaining that they originally purchased their homes in that area for the purpose of living in a suburban area, not another crowded street in Athens.
Phillip Burns, a Kirkwood Drive resident, spoke about the flooding problems he already faces surrounding his home and mentioned other rezoning requests that could come to light if this notion were to pass.
Kenneth Wood, another resident of the area, reminisced on his time spent growing up in the area but said he was tired of seeing businesses go to Oconee County “when we need the tax money here.”
The commissioners spoke at length about their duty of representing the people of the community fairly and in a way to be conscious of their feelings regarding the possibility of a business being built right outside their home.
“You know how it is when you represent people and you care about their property, it is emotional and I don’t want to discount that,” said District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby. “We want to make sure we do this the right way.”