Story last updated at 12:51 AM on Feb. 6, 2005

Development Debate
What to do with Prince Avenue now

By Don Nelson

In abandoned plan for a Prince Avenue medical office might have given Athens a black eye in development circles, but advocates of protecting residential neighborhoods view it as a badge of honor. At issue, though, is how the community moves forward after the controversial rezoning episode, which could affect economic growth here, particularly around Athens Regional Medical Center on Prince Avenue.

In January, Atlanta development company Taylor & Mathis, anticipating denial of a rezoning request necessary for its project, withdrew its plans for a four-story, 75,000-plus-square-foot medical office building on three acres of land at 1140 Prince Ave. near the corner of Nacoochee Avenue and across from ARMC. The developer could build a smaller building on two lots fronting Prince Avenue, but needed to rezone two other pieces of land abutting Nacoochee to build the larger project, which it argued was essential for economic viability of the project.

Residents from around the area objected to the massive size of a building so close to neighborhood houses and to the traffic volume such a facility would bring to the streets around it.

The medical zone

One issue both supporters and opponents of the project agree upon: the property was right for medical offices.

"There's a need for medical offices in proximity to the hospital," said Jack Drew, president and CEO of ARMC.

"People in the neighborhood benefit from being close to a very, very good medical hospital like ARMC. I think it is the logical place to put medical facilities," said Dr. Van Morris, a neurologist who lives in the nearby Boulevard neighborhood and owns medical buildings on Prince Avenue and Baxter Street.

Morris, however, also points out that the Taylor & Mathis proposal was too large and poorly conceived.

From an economic development sense, the Prince Avenue corridor represents an essential location for doctors, said Tom Little, a principal with Resource Medical Development Group, which built Resource Medical on Oglethorpe Avenue at the Perimeter.

David Lynn, an ACC District 5 commissioner who opposed the Taylor & Mathis project because of its size, said he still hoped some type of medical facility - something smaller in scale - would be built across from ARMC.

Controversy over the proposed development spawned Community Approach to Planning Prince Avenue (CAPPA), an effort to bring together all parties interested in Prince Avenue's growth and to develop a consensus on how development should proceed there.

Tony Eubanks, organizer of CAPPA, said a medical related development makes sense for the property across from ARMC. "That's one of the things we said the entire time," Eubanks recalled. "You can put medical in there but give other uses as well."

A scarcity of land tracts inside Athens Perimeter and large enough to accommodate larger medical office complexes has inflated real estate prices and require taller buildings, contend developers and physicians.

"The amount of land (Taylor & Mathis had) was not a great (amount) and there's a huge expense on parking; you have to build up," said Dr. Mark Vrana, an Athens oncologist.

Andrew Taylor, president of Taylor & Mathis, said the price for the land his company was considering was close to $2 million, and the company probably would have invested a total of about $13 million on the project.

Taylor & Mathis planned a three-story building facing Prince, a four-level structure behind that and a two-level parking deck with one floor below street level.

"Fundamentally, if you're paying that kind of money for that size tract, in order for the project to be financially feasible, you have to develop for high density," Taylor said. "Land prices really dictate what density is economically feasible."

Even outside the Perimeter, locating developable land for less than $100,000 an acre is difficult. "Right now it's hard to find land for office space," said Vrana, partner in a medical office development on Jefferson Road outside the Athens Perimeter. "Inside the by-pass there is very little land for a reasonably sized office."

Vrana's group decided to develop offices outside the perimeter just north of Kathwood Drive, because they wanted a parcel of land greater than one acre and at an affordable price. The medical campus includes several doctors' practices and eventually will comprise more than 100,000 square feet of office space in several two-story buildings on three acres of land.

Athens attorney Mike Morris, representing Taylor & Mathis, wrote in a newspaper commentary that the abandoned plans represented a lost opportunity for the community. His sentiments are shared by others interested in seeing Athens' medical community grow and who think the incident hurt Athens.

"I do agree with Mr. (Mike) Morris somewhat in that with the amount of publicity this particular project has generated this makes it appear that things are maybe more difficult in Athens than they actually are," said Drew Page, executive director of the Athens-Clarke Economic Development Foundation.

Vrana said Athens has a reputation of being difficult for builders, though he said his project on Jefferson Road went well as a planned development.

"Athens has a lot of stringent zoning and probably appropriate zoning," he said.

Resource Medical's Little said Taylor & Mathis' withdrawal in expectation that the Athens-Clarke County Commission was going to deny the Prince Avenue rezoning sends a negative message to businesses in Clarke County.

"I think you'll see businesses going to other places," Little said. "(The Taylor & Mathis project) would have been competition for me, but it would have been the right thing to do.

Jack Crowley, dean of the University of Georgia's College of Environment and Design, and someone who has extensive experience with development projects, agreed that if hospitals and medical services can't expand their service base, developers and doctors might begin looking to other counties for sites.

If that trend develops it would hurt Athens economic future, Crowley said.

"Probably one of the principal pieces of Athens' future, besides UGA, is regional medical services for Northeast Georgia," he said.

Indeed, medical services, buoyed largely by ARMC and St. Mary's Hospital, serves as one of two major economic life forces for Athens. (They provide an economic impact of more than $800 million, based on Georgia Hospital Association studies.)

Little estimated that half a million people from Northeast Georgia come to Athens for medical attention.

"Two industries that are strong and viable now are education and medicine," said Drew. "To not be strong in support of those doesn't make sense."

Normaltown businessman and property owner Hugh Logan, owner of Normal Hardware and a former county commissioner, agrees. "Education and medicine are our two big economic engines we have here," he said. "When you become regional you have to expand, and Prince is definitely one of the arteries to that expansion."

ARMC's expansion plans over the years have generated plenty of controversy and confrontation with neighboring residents, though one of its newest buildings was developed in cooperation with the community.

Drew said the 122,000-square-foot Medical Services Building, which opened off King Avenue in 2002, was the successful result of a process that sought input from neighbors.

"It is very beneficial for a health care facility to have a viable neighborhood around it that is safe and flourishing," he explained. "Anytime you go into a residential neighborhood you need to be sensitive to what their needs are."

On the other hand, Drew noted, neighbors need to understand the economic principles that come into play in developments.

"You've got to give and take and develop an understanding on both sides," he said.

Learning that lesson of communication will be essential to future growth in the health care industry here contends Crowley.

"You have to have all parties together long before developing a plan," Crowley emphasized. "You need to produce a medical center plan and build it from the ground up with people buying into it from day one."

Crowley said he's been involved with a number of projects such as the Taylor & Mathis development, and said listening to the concerns of the other parties and using their ideas is fundamental to a developer's success.

"If you don't listen and you blow off anyone ... even if it's a misperception, it'll kill you in a second," Crowley stated.

Eubanks and Lynn both contend that Taylor & Mathis did not indicate any interest in neighborhood concerns. "Their attitude was, 'trust us, we know what's best,' " Lynn said. "That's not going to work in that area."

Residential neighborhoods benefit from good medical offices and centers such as ARMC, but the medical centers in turn have to act as good neighbors, Dr. Morris stated. "Part of being a good neighbor, is you have to (develop) something decent there and act like friends," he said.

The road ahead

The question now is whether the Taylor & Mathis decision will slow development growth of medical offices in Clarke County. Vrana and Little contend the need for medical offices will continue to drive new development. Little already is considering another project such as Resource Medical.

Whether or not the property Taylor & Mathis wanted will host medical offices is another question.

Physicians such as OBGYNs and doctors who work in trauma have a strong need to be close to the hospital, Vrana said, and ARMC's Drew wants to see across the street a "high-grade," large medical office complex that will serve his hospital's future needs.

The hospital itself might use the land, said Crowley, who thinks someone will develop the spot, even if it's not developed to its highest and best use.

Lynn agrees. "I think it will be developed; no one is under the allusion that it will stay the way it is for much longer," said Lynn, who added that a real estate professional had represented a grocery store developer with interest in the site.

The location also would be attractive for an overnight lodging facility, Logan contends.

"I've always thought a small motel and restaurant close to the hospital (across from ARMC) would be in the best interest of the community," said Logan.

Whatever happens, Dr. Morris hopes development along Prince Avenue follows design elements outlined by CAPPA's cooperative process with property owners, businesses and residents.

"If we screw up Prince Avenue we screw up the grandest street in Athens," he said.

Putting it in perspective

The medical office complex Atlanta developer Taylor & Mathis had proposed for a three-acre tract of land bordered by Prince and Nacoochee avenues would have encompassed between 75,000 and 80,000 square feet. The project called for a three-story building fronting Prince Avenue, a four-story structure behind that and a two-story parking facility with one of those levels below grade.

To provide some perspective of scale on a medical center of that size, here are other health care centers to consider:

• Athens Regional Medical Center's Medical Services Building off King Avenue - 122,000 square feet

• Prince Avenue Medical Building, 1270 Prince Avenue - 55,778 square feet

• Resource Medical, Oglethorpe Avenue at Athens Perimeter - 100,000 square feet

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, February 6, 2005