By Mary Porter
The medical office building proposed for 1140 Prince Ave. is a domino that could transform that area of Prince Avenue and Normaltown into an enormous medical office park.
None of the many unified neighbors in the adjoining or nearby Boulevard, Cobbham, King or Oglethorpe districts have ever said 1140 Prince Ave. is an inappropriate site for medical offices. What we did object to was the colossal size of the plan on the relatively small size of the lot. In fact, neighborhood representatives contacted Taylor Mathis, the developers, and were willing to consider supporting an even larger project with a block-size plan for the area, if that plan included mixed-use development with a residential component. The developers did not want to work with us. Why?
The 1140 Prince proposal is not an isolated project. If we allow rezoning of residential property and a huge megalith to be built on this little bit of land, the precedent is set, and other properties will follow suit. Consider a whole canyon of huge office complexes stretching down Prince. Taylor Mathis has already investigated buying other property on the 1100 block of Prince Avenue. Last fall, they acquired a contract on the back half of the SunTrust property on the 1000 block. The current commercial zoning of the SunTrust lot would allow Taylor Mathis to erect a building in excess of 110,000 square feet. Still, they zealously pursued the rezoning for the 1140 Prince Ave. project, which they are now retooling after withdrawing their rezoning request.
The plan for this area is, I fear, an enormous medical office park. The developers did make some concessions in the original proposal for the 1140 Prince Ave. project, but did not address the primary issue, the overwhelming size. A reduction of less than 12 percent (mostly in retail space) was not much of a reduction on a project already more that 236 percent of the allowable size. Media reports indicated developers had shaved a floor off the building, but what they actually did was "sink" the building, keeping four floors and retaining the planned 76,600 square feet.
The project, as originally proposed, would create tremendous traffic congestion at the intersection of Prince and Nacoochee avenues, where three drive-through restaurants and two nearby roads spill erratic traffic in a perilously close five-lane space. It is dangerous to navigate this area now - imagine adding the traffic that an office building at 1140 Prince Ave. alone would add to the mix. Ambulances navigate through this mess, too.
There are many appropriate locations for medical offices, and considerable current expansion at other sites. If there truly is an additional need for a different type of large medical facility, a location next to the Perimeter, still convenient to Athens Regional Medical Center, will keep the traffic from further congesting on our already compromised in-town streets. This is just good urban planning.
Hospitals are beginning to use "hospitalists," doctors that are based in the hospital. In the very near future, primary doctors are not going to visit patients in the hospital, hospitalists will. So there is no essential need for the proposed medical office building.
A new building, by itself, may shift jobs, but it doesn't create them. And there is still vacant medical office space in Athens. These offices are owned by Athens businesspeople, who will lose substantial revenue to an Atlanta company if 1140 Prince Ave. is developed as a medical office complex.
Doctors can find work, access to the latest technology and offices in the vicinity of hospitals almost anywhere. None of that will lure them to a city. If we want to attract doctors (or any quality professional) to this community, we need to provide a great quality of life. People come to Athens because we have a vibrant, diverse and interesting environment with lots of great places to walk, bike, eat and play, including Normaltown and the vision the citizens' group Community Approach to Planning Prince Avenue has for the corridor. This is what makes Athens unique, and it's what will draw physicians to our community and create jobs.
Certainly we have a great medical community here, both allopathic and holistic. This is a clean industry and we should promote it. We should also promote what Athens has that other places do not - our wealth of music, performance and visual arts. Tourism is big bucks, too. We could be like Santa Fe, Asheville, or Nashville. Or we could be like Snellville. It's our choice.
Porter is an artist who has taught at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia. She has lived in the Boulevard neighborhood for 20 years.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Saturday, January 15, 2005