On Oconee Street, across from Nuci’s Space and St. Mary’s steeple, a line of empty warehouses sat behind a chain link fence. These vacant buildings formerly made up the Armstrong & Dobbs supply company, a business that operated from 1951 to 2008 on the edge of downtown.
Now, they’ve been demolished and the grounds cleared away.
On this property, The Mark, a luxury student high-rise from Landmark Properties, will open in 2016. It will hold 928 bedrooms, plus 38,400 square feet worth of retail space.
This complex is one of many luxury student high-rises that have been constructed in and around downtown.
The Standard, also developed by Landmark Properties, holds 610 bedrooms. Georgia Heights, set to open in the fall, will hold 292. 909 Broad has 383 beds; another complex set to be built on Dougherty Street will hold 210.
From The Standard’s opening in 2014 to The Mark’s completion in 2016, well over 2,000 beds will have been added to downtown.
The immediate result of this will be more students and retail business in downtown. What that means for the future of downtown and its surrounding areas is much less clear, and the community remains divided.
Too little, too late?
Melissa Link worries about downtown.
Link, the Athens-Clarke County district three commissioner, said that she is concerned that if downtown and its surrounding areas see rising living costs, lower income families and workers will be pushed outward as those costs spread through the market. However, many of them still work in downtown, which means that they will also see an increase in travel costs.
A room in a four bedroom unit at Georgia Heights costs $750 a month. That price includes utilities except for electricity. A room at The Eclipse on Broad on the first through fourth floors costs $645, including electricity up to $100. Between inflation and increased prices, the median rent in Athens has gone from $540 in 2000 to $774 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Link sees this as part of a trend of gentrification across the country as many younger, more affluent people desire a downtown living experience, driving up the cost of living.
“Poverty is moving to the suburbs,” Link said.
Link sees getting students closer to campus as positive, but feels uncontrolled growth of student housing will result in more than just oversaturation. She has noticed that many older student housing complexes built in the early ‘2000s and ‘90s are losing student interest.
If these older complexes cannot compete with the luxury high-rises for students, then it is unlikely that they will fill with families, given that they are set up individually by room, with large bedrooms and small common areas.
And once they begin to lose money with no demographic shift possible, Link said she thinks they may become dilapidated.
“There’s no motivation to keep them up,” Link said.
Cord Sibilisky, a University graduate of 2004 and real estate agent, is also concerned about oversaturation. He manages a property downtown and two properties near Prince Avenue.
While his rental pricing has not been affected by the nearby high-rises, he sees changes coming for the real estate market, especially when The Mark opens.
“My guess is that there’s gonna be lot of competition within the downtown area for students,” Sibilisky said.
He believes that the complexes will all start with similarly high prices, but saturation will then in turn force some of them to drive their prices down.
The first locations to feel that hit will most likely be luxury complexes that aren’t in walking distance to campus and downtown.
“How do you compete?” Sibilisky said. “Do you increase amenities or do you decrease the price? I don’t know.”
While Sibilisky sees a trend in which students are more willing lately to pay higher prices for accommodations and location, he also feels that there has been a similar pattern throughout the years, though much less divided.
“When I was in school, people always had two mindsets: they either wanted to be near downtown or be farther but have a house or a townhouse and grill out on their porch and maybe have a garden,” Sibilisky said.
Sibilisky believes the saturation of student housing could eventually lead to lower prices for students after the initial spike in luxury prices.
On the other hand, Sibilisky noted, landlords might just decrease the number and quality of included amenities.
Link would like a moratorium on student housing development to avoid creating this bubble.
“UGA is not increasing enrollment; Athens’ population is not increasing massively,” Link said. “Unless we get hardcore economic development, there’s no need for an increase.”
Link has also fought for inclusionary zoning as a possible solution. This ordinance places a certain share of construction aside for lower income and affordable housing.
In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home of The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the city has mandated that any new development with five or more units must make 15 percent of their housing affordable, or 10 percent if the development is within the town’s center. Affordable housing is defined by the city as costing 30 percent of a family’s income or less.
Chapel Hill enacted the policy in 2011, and Link is looking into seeing how effective the ordinance has been. According to a 2010 Athens-Clarke County housing survey, 61.44 percent of renters put more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
However, Link said that the time for a fix may also have passed.
“I’m really afraid we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” Link said.
Less vs. more
J. Wesley Rogers, the president and CEO of Landmark Properties, disagrees.
Rogers said that his properties will actually combat gentrification. He said that students will navigate to downtown spaces built specifically for them instead of living in houses originally occupied by families.
“Lower income residents won’t have to compete with student housing,” Rogers said.
Rogers feels confident that The Mark will fill up once completed, saying that housing in downtown is already at 100 percent occupancy.
“You always worry if the market can bring the amount of support, but based on our numbers, we feel very good about being able to fill out The Mark,” Rogers said.
Following construction of The Mark, Landmark has no immediate plans to build more housing in downtown. He thinks other companies will slow down construction as well.
“Given the lack of availability of land, I don’t think you’re going to see more of these high-rises,” Rogers said.
However, Landmark will be expanding in other college towns across the nation. The company is building around colleges from St. Louis University to Appalachian State to The University of Florida. These projects range from houses to high-rises similar to The Standard and The Mark.
Rogers has grown up and lived throughout Athens. He graduated from Athens Academy and attended UGA as an undergraduate and an MBA student. He said that he feels the new high-rises and chains they bring to downtown will help, not hurt, the character of the city he’s spent most of his life.
“We’re going to bring more national and local retail to downtown,” Rogers said.
Theo Hilton, frontman of Athens band Nana Grizol, also grew up in Athens. The musician said that he sees the high-rises and chains as a drastic difference from the small businesses and atmosphere he knew growing up.
“I remember when I was 17 and there used to be the Hotel Oracle, [later called] the X-Ray Cafe, and there was this weird storefront that sold candy and used books and used clothes and art,” Hilton said. “And, to me, places like that made Athens a special and cool place.”
The places that made up the music scene when Hilton was growing up have become more scarce and contained as downtown grows.
“I used to see old, dingy pizza joints that would let us have DIY shows,” Hilton said. “Record stores have closed their doors.”
As downtown rents becomes more expensive and retail more commercial, he has noticed many Athens creatives spread out to south Athens and other neighborhoods further from downtown. However, Hilton, who is pursuing a master’s in urban studies, said that he is aware of the role artists play in drawing more affluent interest to lower income areas in the first place.
“I think it’s hard for a lot of indie rock scenes and punk scenes. There’s a lot of questions about privilege and race,” Hilton said. “lt raises a lot of questions. You’re disrupting a community that’s been there for so long, and you’re generating interest in property value.”
To avoid further gentrification in Athens, Hilton encouraged artists moving into older and more lower income neighborhoods to be aware of the process of gentrification and to look for ways to aid the pre-existing community.
“I would advocate for a consciousness on the people who do live there and really seriously fight on behalf of those people,” Hilton said.
A shifting demographic
Jack Crowley is a professor in the College of Environment and Design at the University and designer of the proposed downtown master plan, which would overhaul downtown’s structure and transportation.
He believes that the increased population of students could indeed convince investors and companies to bring amenities to downtown, such as higher end chains and, eventually, a grocery store.
“The true urban experience is walking downtown with a bag over your shoulder with two days worth of food in it,” Crowley said.
When more of these amenities have been built, Crowley said he thinks that the next round of housing complexes in downtown will then be higher end multi-family units.
“I think that if students fill up downtown and down to the river, then I think you’ll see it [higher end multi-family housing] come to the west side,” Crowley said.
As amenities such as grocery stores are in place, and downtown begins to resemble more of an urban shopping environment, Crowley believes there may be an influx of another group: the retired. Condos, similar in a way to luxury student housing, may grow around downtown, targeting an older demographic with recreation and high end amenities.
Crowley also said that the city should put money raised through the developments to keep artists and creatives working in downtown, not just retail chains.
Part of the downtown master plan encourages publically subsidized artist spaces, much like incubators. Crowley cited Greenville, South Carolina, as an example, having drawn artists with space along the Reedy River.
For all of this to come together, however, Crowley believes that the student influx must act as a pioneer population.
“You’re not going to get that retail until you get a population that demands that retail,” Crowley said. “Retail does not precede the population. The buyer has to come before the retail.”
With a strong art, music and bar scene, Crowley believes this should not be difficult.
“Athens, given what we are ... if we can’t be highly attractive to millennials, then we’re idiots,” Crowley said.
Chris Leinberger, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an urban policy and planning think-tank, sees what’s happening in Athens across the country. From the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Michigan, colleges have changed the downtown environments around them.
“A great anchor for walkable urbanism is a major research university,” Leinberger said.
Leinberger said that having a strong urban atmosphere nearby can boost recruitment for a university. He said he feels that young adults across the country are beginning to desire more of an urban lifestyle, and this demographic is also the target market for universities.
However, with this living situation available, Leinberger said he believes that a college town will draw more than just students. Graduates may be more likely to remain longer in town, and alumni may move back. An urban environment also can draw more high end business, such as investment banking and tech work.
However, that economic growth should come with a community benefit.
“As this economic vitality happens, there needs to be a conscious affordable housing strategy in place,” Leinberger said.
Like Link, Leinberger said that lower income families and workers will be pushed further out into the suburbs as downtown and its surrounding areas become more affluent. This distance could drive up their cost of living as they have to rely on a car more.
“Athens does need to focus on affordable housing — now,” Leinberger said.
Art, rent and the recession
Andrew Reiger, frontman for local act Elf Power and a member of the Athens art collective Elephant 6, has already seen changes come to the atmosphere of downtown, albeit slowly.
“It’s funny with a place you’ve lived in for a long time, [change] has been more of a gradual thing,” Reiger said. “You don’t notice it all at once.”
Reiger said that he’s watched the construction spread out from downtown.
“I remember when none of that existed at all, each year stretching out a little further on North Avenue,” Reiger said.
In the early to mid ‘90s, Reiger recalled that many bands had cheap spaces above businesses where they lived and rehearsed.
Now, he believes that rising prices may drive artists and musicians further from downtown. Reiger could see artists with a low income being forced to relocate to the outskirts of Athens or even to Winder and Watkinsville should prices continue to rise.
“One of the things that make a place a good place for arts and music is cheap rent,” Reiger said.
Should downtown continue to see rising rents and high end retail, Reiger feels that the downtown cultural scene may be forced to spread out as artists and musicians look elsewhere.
“When we started out, my rent was like $110 a month. I could go on tour and come back without making much money and have a crappy part time job and focus my intentions on making music and making art,” Reiger said. “I think that’s essential, a cheap enough standard of living.”
Sibilisky said that since the Athens housing market has begun to rebound since the recession, properties around town have become more enticing to both consumers and investors, allowing for higher prices.
“It was a beer and ramen noodle diet for a while there,” Sibilisky said.
Sibilisky said that it’s common to have several offers on a reasonably priced property. However, the rebound has also resulted in investors buying up older properties and then tearing them down or renovating them completely.
While this results in more attractive properties, it also raises property value, which can result in families in these areas getting pushed out.
“It depends on the saturation point of Athens, but if Athens keeps growing, then it will continue to push people out,” Sibilisky said. “There’s people who can afford to live in the middle of town, and everyone else gets pushed to the peripheries.”
Areas where Sibilisky has seen this prominently are Vine Street, Hancock Avenue, Dearing Street and between Baxter and Broad Streets.
Changes in downtown can affect the rest of the city over time. The Mark coming to Oconee Street could lead to changes in neighborhoods across Athens, but to what extent and in what ways will be unclear for years to come.
Sibilisky feels that there can be benefits to having more money and students come into downtown, but he said he is concerned that uncontrolled growth may hurt families and workers in Athens.
To control the coming economic growth in a sustainable manner, Sibilisky said that the citizens of Athens have to be involved and think about what they want for the city as a whole.
“There will be a point where downtown can’t grow anymore,” Sibilisky said.