Story last updated at 12:59 AM on Dec. 9, 2004

Prince plan waits, but it may be dead
Medical development's prognosis not promising

By Allison Floyd

Attorney Mike Morris has argued for months that the property across Prince Avenue from Athens Regional Medical Center is the ideal place for a medical office building.

But, Morris admitted Tuesday night, math doesn't appear to be on his side.

And, rather than watch Athens-Clarke County commissioners shoot down their proposal for a 75,000-square-foot medical office building, Morris' clients agreed Tuesday night to wait a month and let a new county commission decide their rezoning request.

Morris represents developers of the controversial 1140 Prince Avenue project, a proposed medical office building that commissioners tabled until January, when the commission - including two new members - will vote on a rezoning application.

"I've never been accused of being very smart, but I can count to 10," Morris said as commissioners one at a time logged their impressions of the project.

The close vote may not be so close in January, when one of the project's supporters - Cardee Kilpatrick - is replaced by Elton Dodson, who said Wednesday that he would have voted against the project as planners presented it late Tuesday night.

Project supporters and neighborhood opponents have discussed, debated and deliberated the project designs for more than a year.

Over the months, engineer Abe Abouhamdan removed two entrances to the property, shaved a floor from the original four-story design and added landscaping.

Those changes don't satisfy neighbors, who point out that the building will draw 2,800 cars a day, is still too big for the area and will displace 33-unit Prince Rondavel Apartments, a low-income apartment building that houses mostly Hispanic workers.

County commissioners disagree about whether to rezone more than two acres of residential property so that developers can build the three-story building they've proposed.

Five county commissioners said they oppose the rezoning for various reasons. The neighborhood opposes the size of the building. The project doesn't conform to the zoning class that calls for pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood businesses. A recently drawn plan for Prince Avenue foresees smaller buildings that match the scale of other Normaltown buildings.

Other commissioners - including States McCarter, Kilpatrick and Charles Carter - said medical offices are important to the overall community and that they would vote to allow the project.

In order to pass, at least six commissioners or five commissioners and Mayor Heidi Davison must vote to approve the rezoning application.

While Davison didn't speak during the debate over the medical office project, she said later that she was prepared to vote and has "expressed concerns about the project" to the developer.

Facing denial of their application, developers agreed to delay a month and meet with neighborhood opponents again, though a year's worth of wrangling hasn't settled the basic controversy: the size of the building.

A smaller building isn't economically viable, Morris said, and his clients don't have any formal alternative to the current design.

"There's no harm in taking a step back and seeing if we can see some common ground," he said.

Some commissioners and planners said they doubt the month's delay will change the outcome, but said they are willing to try.

"At this point they are going to have to go back to step one and look at a different approach to it," said Planning Director Brad Griffin. "It's really all in their court right now."

"I'd love to be proven wrong," said Commissioner David Lynn, "but I can't see what design can be accomplished in 40 days that includes Christmas and New Year's. It will not be easy."

When commissioners take up the project again next month - probably with recommended changes by the developer and nearby Boulevard neighborhood - two new commissioners will sit at the table.

While John Barrow will give up his seat to Alice Kinman, the two share similar ideas about zoning and neighborhood planning.

Dodson, on the other hand, may swing the vote, especially if the developer doesn't alter designs to better conform with a recent community-drawn plan for Prince Avenue.

"Both sides sort of like the idea of well-designed, nicely-built office buildings in that area," Dodson said Wednesday. "But there's no way I could have voted for the proposal as it was last night."

But, Dodson added, he never expected to be asked for his opinion.

"I expected this to be resolved Tuesday night or Wednesday morning," he said. "It's kind of a shock to learn that this is one of the first issues I'll deal with as a commissioner."

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Thursday, December 9, 2004