Story last updated at 9:39 PM on Jan. 30, 2005
Forum: Unless developers respect plans, they'll find resistance on Prince

Read in ABH (online athens)

By Tony Eubanks

I read with interest the Jan. 23 editorial regarding the withdrawal of the proposed medical office at 1140 Prince Avenue. If one were just becoming familiar with this saga, the editorial could be read as lamenting the potential loss of economic investment by firms such as Taylor & Mathis due to overzealous "protectionism" or an unwillingness to compromise by neighborhood activists. I would like to address that misconception before it can gain any momentum, or as Barney Fife would say, "Nip it!"

While it is true there must be a balance between economic development and neighborhood protection, this one was not even close. To begin with, it takes more than one participant to work together.

Neighborhood representatives were always available to meet with developers with the explicitly stated understanding the developers would call us. Indicative of the entire process, and despite enlisting the services of design professionals to represent our interests, we have yet to hear from developers since hastily arranged meetings the week before the scheduled Dec. 7 vote of the Athens-Clarke County Commission. Our neighborhood learned of the withdrawal upon being contacted by an Athens Banner-Herald reporter, and we have yet to see a copy of the letter announcing the withdrawal. Hear, hear to an open and effective communication process.

With regard to the year-long process, let's look at the record. The developers were asking to rezone residential property to commercial use - a process that demands public participation. Over the course of 2004, through various iterations which were always presented to, not developed with, surrounding neighborhoods, the developers sank the building to hide one floor, eliminated 12,000 square feet (8,000 of which was retail space that might have served the neighborhood, as opposed to the professed "regional" use of the proposed medical offices) and two curb cuts.

Each time the developers presented these alterations, the size issue was always explicitly recognized as a major stumbling block. At their November meeting, where the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission voted 7-2 to recommend that the county commission deny the rezoning request for 1140 Prince, planning commission Chairman Paul Dellaria noted that for the fourth time in front of that body, the developers had failed to address the central issue: size.

The Banner-Herald weighed in on the size issue in a Nov. 22 editorial that read, in part, "Certainly, the size of the proposed office building is, or should be, of great concern to the commission. It is, in fact, out of scale with the surrounding area, and a decision to grant the rezoning carries with it the very real possibility of setting a precedent that could see the corridor, now largely a mix of street-level shops, restaurants, offices and other uses, become a canyon-like stretch of office buildings for at least some of its length."

As for the argument that only a building of this size would be economically feasible, the developers set the tone with the price offered for the land. Commissioner Tom Chasteen noted in a conversation that this appeared to be a classic case of land prices dictating design, which he recognized as the wrong way to ensure livable planning and growth.

During this time, the neighborhoods and other interested parties, including representatives of Athens Regional Medical Center and the Taylor & Mathis development team, formed Community Approach to Planning Prince Avenue. CAPPA was not formed to oppose 1140 Prince - indeed, 1140 Prince was specifically excluded from the process in the hope that we could keep CAPPA politically neutral - but to educate ourselves as to what type of design, mix of uses and aesthetic would best serve the varied needs of those whose lives are intertwined with this multipurpose corridor.

Judging from the Nov. 22 editorial and the political debate of the last election, our efforts were successful in generating informed debate, which was CAPPA's primary mission.

Through the past year, our methods, if not our position, were widely praised as positive and instructive. We recognize that Prince Avenue will undergo substantial changes in the near future and we welcome that change. However, if developers want to come in with an attitude of "This is what we're going to do and this is how we are going to do it, zoning and land use plan be damned," they will meet with organized resistance every time. On the other hand, developers who recognize and balance the needs of the entire community while ensuring that development incorporates people, not just dollars and cents, will be welcomed with open arms.

• Eubanks chairs the Historic Boulevard Neighborhood Association and is co-chair of CAPPA.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Monday, January 31, 2005