’Hoods, developers on uneasy terms

Courtesy of: Athens Weekly News

By: Brad Aaron

Developers looking to build a massive medical office complex on Prince Avenue appear to have granted all the concessions they’re willing to make. If so, they could be headed for a classic City Hall showdown with Boulevard and Cobbham residents who remain skeptical of the project.

WOULD-BE DEVELOPERS of 1140 Prince Avenue
continue to maintain that their project would be a
boon to the ARMC area.

Developer group Prince Nacoochee, LLC has proposed a four story, 86,890 square foot mixed-use office complex at 1140 Prince Avenue, replacing two existing commercial buildings across from Athens Regional Medical Center. Plans call for office space on the upper floors and retail space at ground level, including a chain pharmacy with a drive-through window.

The development would require the rezoning of four tracts, two of which are currently zoned for residential use. On one of those lots now stands Prince Rondavel Apartments, with 33 units of low-income housing. If development plans are approved, those apartments would be demolished and replaced by a two story, 345-space parking deck, with access to and from Nacoochee Avenue.

On January 28, the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation hosted a meeting between the developers and residents. Speaking for project design firm Jordan, Jones & Goulding, Abe Abouhamdan stressed compromises in the plan. The proposed building size has been reduced by 2,200 square feet, Abouhamdan said, and the planned parking deck—which would see an estimated 1,753 car trips per day—will not allow left-hand exits onto Nacoochee, instead directing outbound traffic away from Boulevard toward Prince Avenue. Abouhamdan noted that the proposed deck height has been reduced by three feet, putting the top floor below Nacoochee street level. He also touted the project’s landscaping buffer between the development and nearby homes.

Despite the additional car trips to and from the complex, Abouhamdan claimed the development would make the area more pedestrian-friendly with crosswalks, push-button pedestrian signals and center islands for Prince Avenue.

Many who’d gathered in Firehall No. 2, however, were not convinced. They questioned Abouhamdan and his colleagues about unresolved issues such as the development’s heavy reliance on auto traffic; the displacement of Prince Rondavel residents; the rezoning of neighborhood residential property for commercial use; and, above all, the sheer size of the project, which is considered to be out of scale for the area.

The meeting grew tense at times, with Abouhamdan insisting the development would be an improvement over existing conditions. More than once he reverted to citing chapter and verse from the “bad” developer handbook, invoking “property rights” and essentially telling residents that if they didn’t like the plan in front of them, things could be much worse.

Some took exception to that tactic. One resident, Rosemarie Goodrum, said the developers should have factored the value of community goodwill into their plans.

However, though it wasn’t mentioned during the meeting, developers had already begun circulating a color flier promoting the yet-to-be-approved project.

Smith Wilson is generally considered a “good” developer, due to his historically sensitive projects like The Bottleworks. Wilson attended the January 28 meeting, and likes the Prince proposal.

“If we’re going to keep green spaces, we need to densify in the urban areas,” he says.

Wilson doesn’t think Prince Avenue would experience a noticeable increase in traffic from the development, and believes the Boulevard neighborhood would actually see a reduction in cut-throughs.

“It’s not my style [architecturally],” Wilson says, “but I don’t think it will be a detriment to the neighborhood at all.”

Philip Juras, for one, disagrees. Juras lives in an area that was once a hotspot in the battle against commercial encroachment into the Boulevard neighborhood, a battle that ended with a medical office park replacing four homes on Dubose Avenue.

“It’s a hospital expansion,” Juras says of the 1140 Prince proposal. “To me that’s the worst part because it sets a precedent. I know it’s not a good thing to live next to an office.”

05FEB04 Athens Weekly News