The letter from local attorney Mike Morris that arrived on Athens-Clarke County Mayor Heidi Davison's desk Wednesday represented two bits of good news.
First, it's good news that Taylor & Mathis, the development company being represented by Morris, has withdrawn - at least temporarily - its rezoning request for 1140 Prince Avenue, where it had planned a medical office building. The good news, though, is not that the request has been withdrawn, but that it has been temporarily withdrawn, with the developers continuing to maintain an active interest in the project.
As Morris wrote in his letter, the property owner and developer "do not want to give up on the project, but we are realistic enough to realize we must go back to square one." Nor should they give up. The tract they are seeking to develop, across Prince Avenue from Athens Regional Medical Center, is a logical spot for a medical office building, and such office space is certainly needed in this community.
Here's what Jack Drew, president of Athens Regional, had to say about the need for a project like the one contemplated by Taylor & Mathis: "There's an inventory of older office space out there that people have been in for a number of years ... and people are looking for newer, modern space, more efficient space."
As Drew also correctly noted, the demand for medical office space is increasing, as existing practices grow. That growth is a function of an increasing population in the area, and the demand for new space is likely to continue, with the Prince Avenue corridor, convenient to both Athens Regional and St. Mary's hospitals, a perfect place for that demand to be met.
It should also be noted that those medical offices will bring a number of jobs to the area. Initially, those jobs will be in construction and related work, but over time, there will be a demand for a number of healthcare professionals and affiliated employees. Both of those circumstances are welcome news in an area that has seen hundreds and hundreds of manufacturing and similar jobs evaporate over the past few years.
The second bit of good news in Morris' letter is its tacit recognition that a motivated group of neighborhood residents can have an effect on how their neighborhood develops. With regard to the medical office building proposed for 1140 Prince, developers and residents of the corridor wrangled for a year over plans for the structure, with residents winning some concessions.
As a result of those discussions, the project engineer revamped the proposal to chop one floor off the 75,000-square-foot facility, bringing it down to three floors. The engineer also removed two proposed entrances to the tract and developed a plan for additional landscaping.
Still, it seems clear that neighborhood residents want more in the way of concessions, particularly with regard to the size of the building, to address their central concern that the building, as proposed, is simply out of scale with the neighborhood. It also seems clear that the Athens-Clarke County Commission, as it will be constituted next year with Elton Dodson replacing Cardee Kilpatrick and Alice Kinman taking the seat vacated by John Barrow, is likely to be inclined to be sympathetic to the concerns of neighborhood residents.
So, the developers and their attorney are likely to face a considerable challenge as they continue to work with neighborhood residents to come up with a plan that will get them the rezoning vote they need from the commission. To their credit, the developers appear willing to "go back to square one," in the words of Morris' letter.
If that means they will eventually have to accept the reality that only a much smaller development will pass muster, we hope they will give some thoughtful consideration to that possibility, to at least begin to address the need for medical office space in the community.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, December 26, 2004