On the block containing a hallmark of the Athens community, The Varsity, zoning changes have opened up the possibility for redevelopment that could range from demolition of the restaurant to small-scale construction in the surrounding areas.
“There’s nothing to stop them from tearing The Varsity down,” District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link said.
At the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission meeting on Feb. 5, a unanimous vote approved these changes allowing for unspecified overhauls on Milledge Avenue and Chase, Broad and Reese streets.
This decision came after an official recommendation for zoning changes was filed by the ACC Mayor and Commission in December 2018.
Prior to the zone change, the area was designated as “main street business” and “traditional neighborhood” zones. It is now categorized as a “general business” zone. Although there are no official plans, this land could foster many ventures, such as grocery stores, apartments or office spaces.
“There’s nothing to stop them from tearing The Varsity down."
-- Melissa Link, District 3 commissioner
In exchange for the new design standards to better protect the neighborhood, residential density allowed has been increased. However, limits have been put on the types of units and parking requirements that will hopefully attract a diversity of tenants, Link said.
District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said he thinks the zone change is a “good idea.” He said it is likely the Gordy family will rebuild the current restaurant because of its great location, but if they don’t, he wishes for a grocery store.
According to the officially approved ordinance, all restrictions placed on development — such as height and size of any proposed construction — ensure the area remains “visually and functionally compatible with the unique character of the transition area containing commercial, residential and institutional uses.”
Spending millions for a million
The Gordy family, who own The Varsity restaurant chain, has spent $2.7 million in the last three years buying land around the Athens restaurant, which opened in its current location in 1962.
The combined property value of all land owned by the Gordys on The Varsity block is over $1 million, according to the ACC Tax Assessor’s Office. Properties owned by the Gordy family have shifted in value over time, due to changes in land, improvement and accessory value.
In May 2017, the Gordys filed for multiple demolition permits for properties on West Broad and Reese streets. Following those request, Link, who voted alongside NeSmith on Feb. 5, put a 90-day hold on the demolition to explore all options concerning protection of the historic properties.
Respectfully changing the atmosphere
As part of the deal recommended for approval by the ACC Planning Commission in December, the County Commission increased the residential density of the zone so that more than double the number of people can live in that area.
In exchange, the Gordy family agreed to donate four of their houses on Reese Street to the Athens Land Trust for their preservation, NeSmith said.
One of the houses being donated is the Mack-Burney family house on 853 Reese St., part of the area just outside the Cobbham Historic District.
The Mack-Burney house carries particular historic value because the house sheltered two generations of teachers in the early 20th centruy. Heather Benham, the executive director of the Athens Land Trust, has been in contact with leaders in the local black community to discuss the house’s future.
“It got us into a bigger conversation about a lot of historic structures in the [black] community that need to be preserved,” Benham said.
The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement board proposed in December to turn the Mack-Burney House into an African-American cultural and educational facility.
In addition, the Athens Land Trust has made the protection and revitalization of the Hancock Street neighborhoods, located one block away from the historic house, part of its mission.
NeSmith believes the deal struck could pave the way for future deals of similar natures.
“I think that this zoning overlay ... could serve as a good model for the development of the West Broad Street corridor … as a way to develop dense commercial and business development, while at the same time protecting the neighborhood behind it,” NeSmith said.
Sofi Gratas contributed to this story.