Major development planned for Prince

Courtesy of: Athens Weekly News

By: Brad Aaron

Is it a brash commercial encroachment into the historic Boulevard neighborhood or a logical progression in Prince Avenue development?

TWO COMMERCIAL PROPERTIES on Prince, along with low-income apartments, could be replaced by a new office tower. Over the coming weeks, and possibly months, that question will be at the heart of the debate over the potential construction of a new Prince Avenue office building—a building that would be among the largest of its kind in Athens.

A group calling itself Prince Nacoochee, LLC wants to build a four story mixed-use development fronting Prince Avenue, replacing two existing commercial buildings across from Athens Regional Medical Center. At 86,890 square feet, the planned structure would outsize downtown’s Bank of America building. Plans call for 71,988 square feet of office space, and 14,902 square feet allotted for retail use.

According to the proposal, the office space would be intended for medical providers and “other general professional offices.” The bottom floor would be designed to accommodate a chain pharmacy with a drive-thru window.

Plans also include a two story, 345-space parking deck behind the building, with an entrance off Nacoochee Avenue. The complex would generate an estimated 1,753 car trips per day.

The development would require the rezoning of four tracts, two of which are currently zoned for residential use. On January 8, planning commissioners reviewing the project heard from county planning staff, the developers and Boulevard residents.

Athens-Clarke Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee told the planning commission that the proposed development is consistent with the land use plan. However, he noted that staff has not received scaled drawings of the building or parking deck as they would relate to surrounding structures. Lonnee related staff concern about the visual impact of the development, and the parking deck in particular, on surrounding homes.

Physical scale is of major importance to area residents, along with the impact of the additional car trips.

“We always expected buffering and traffic and all of those things to be of utmost importance in any kind of development,” says Carol Holmes, who lives on Boulevard, “as opposed to reducing buffers [and] stretching the size of the property, et cetera.”

The petitioners have asked that the required buffer around the development be reduced by half—from 20 feet to 10 feet—with no privacy fencing. They also want to more than double the square footage normally permitted for office space, from 30,000 to 71,988.

“That’s a very huge building to be shoehorned on such a small lot,” Holmes says, “and I feel like that’s kind of what they’re doing.”

While Holmes has for years expected redevelopment of the two Prince commercial tracts, she has “real problems” with extending that development to the north, into the residential properties bordering Nacoochee. It’s a battle residents along the Prince corridor have fought for years, culminating most recently in the 1999 struggle to protect homes from seizure and demolition at the hands of ARMC.

The casualty this time around could be Prince Rondavel apartments, a former hotel that now houses 33 low-income families, which would also be razed for the proposed office tower. Though virtually ignored by planning commissioners, the prospect of losing more affordable housing units was addressed by citizens at the January 8 meeting. Boulevard resident Melissa Link, for one, suggested developers turn an eye toward replacing nearby fast food blight instead.

For their part, the developers see the plan as an improvement over existing conditions. Abe Abouhamdan, speaking for project design firm Jordan, Jones & Goulding (JJ&G), told planning commissioners the proposal represents the future of Prince Avenue. Not only will the project create jobs and add to the tax base, Abouhamdan said, its commercial shops and offices will serve surrounding neighborhoods well.

Further, the proposed building height is permitted under county ordinances, and the parking deck will not rise as high as the Prince Rondavel building does now, Abouhamdan said.

As for displacing those who live on the property, the JJ&G rezoning request offers a somewhat Machiavellian perspective.

“The proposed development reduces the need and demand to public facilities such as schools and utilities,” the report reads, “by eliminating the existing multi-family development…”

15JAN04 Athens Weekly News