Contested projects back on track
By: Brad Aaron

Two controversial in-town commercial projects, each of them considered dormant at one time or another, have been revived and are again headed for approval or rejection by Athens-Clarke County commissioners.

A public-private partnership to build an on-site Classic Center hotel is now on the fast track, Paul Cramer told commissioners last week. Cramer, executive director of the downtown convention facility, made the announcement at an August 10 mayor and commission work session, months after local hotelier Lewis Shropshire backed out of a deal to begin building his own hotel across the street from the Classic Center.

In a debate that raged for much of last year, Shropshire and the Classic Center Authority were at odds over whether a hotel connected to and controlled by the center-backed with $29 million in commission-approved government bonds-would be a boon to the Athens economy or a bust for other privately-owned hotel facilities.

Shropshire's Motel Enterprises has held on to property at the corner of Thomas and Washington streets for years, waiting for what it deemed the right time to build a new hotel. The firm did not announce definite plans until January of 2003, when the Classic Center Authority forced its hand by moving ahead with the on-site hotel proposal.

Cramer and other Classic Center officials have contended that a connected hotel would better serve their clientele, would bring more convention business to Athens and thus more revenue for all. But late last year the two parties called a truce, and in exchange for a promise that the Classic Center Authority would not build a competing hotel in the near future, Shropshire pledged to begin construction by the end of May. With the deadline fast approaching, however, Shropshire broke the contract. Citing problems with "financing, appraisals, architectural plans, contractor price increases, and various other issues," Shropshire said construction would be delayed by "at least two to three months."

Two and a half months later, there was Cramer on August 10, informing the commission that the Classic Center Authority was again working on its own feasibility study for a connected on-site hotel, to be completed by early September. In the meantime, Cramer said, the authority will be seeking a development firm, and intends to choose one by early October.

Architectural and financial plans should then be ready within 60 days, in time for a December 7 commission vote, Cramer said.

Commissioners, some of whom have openly exhibited exasperation over the feud between Cramer and Shropshire, asked no questions about the latest LoDo hotel overture. At deadline the mayor and commission were scheduled to discuss the Classic Center plan at their August 19 agenda setting session.

True to form, Shropshire sent a letter to the mayor and commission early this week, this time announcing a September construction start date.

Meanwhile, after two false starts, a new medical office complex proposed for 1140 Prince Avenue is back in the pipeline, with developers apparently shooting for a December commission vote.

Atlanta firm Taylor & Mathis had wanted to build an 85,000 square foot, four story office and retail building across from Athens Regional Medical Center, along with a two story parking deck. Many who live near the site have opposed the plan, citing its size and potential impact on area traffic. Some are also against the rezoning of residential property for commercial use, which would be required to build the project as proposed.

Those critical of the development were gearing up for a March 4 planning commission decision. But with ACC planners recommending that the project be tabled because Taylor & Mathis had not provided all the necessary documents to the county, the developers withdrew the proposal.

Also in March, Andrew M. Taylor, president of Taylor & Mathis, sent a letter to ACC Planning Director Brad Griffin displaying indignation toward planning staff and disdain for neighborhood residents who had questioned the project ["Would-be Prince developer condemns 'hood 'naysayers,'" Mar. 18]. The letter-which Taylor copied to planning commissioners, Mayor Heidi Davison and county commissioners-expressed resentment at being required to produce scaled drawings of his firm's proposed building, and dismissed concern over the visual impact of the proposed parking deck as "ill-founded." Taylor also characterized the proposal's incompatibility with the county's comprehensive land use plan as unimportant.

The 1140 Prince project was scheduled to come before planning commissioners again in May, but was again withdrawn by Taylor & Mathis. It resurfaced in July, when Andrew Taylor and his firm's representatives met with residents in the ACC Planning Department auditorium.

The latest incarnation of the project decreases the size of the building from 86,000 to 72,000 square feet, reducing its above-ground height to give it the appearance of a three story structure. Much of the square footage would be cut from planned retail space, dropping it from 13,900 to 5,800 square feet. A planned retail drive-thru window is not included in the new proposal, and a privacy fence has been added to the northwest corner of the development to separate it from the adjacent neighborhood. The new proposal would require the rezoning of one residential tract, rather than the original two.

Little has changed regarding the two story parking deck planned for the rear of the project. Though the number of parking spaces has dropped from 364 to 322, the deck would still feature access to and from Nacoochee Avenue, doing little to assuage fears that 1140 Prince will bring cut-through traffic to the Normaltown and Boulevard neighborhoods.

Construction of the parking deck would necessitate the demolition of the Prince Rondavel apartment building, one of a dwindling number of in-town Athens low-income housing developments.

Commenting on the latest version of the 1140 Prince plan, some residents praised it as an improvement over previous renditions. But others reiterated problems with the appearance of the building, once referred to as that of "a big, post-modern plain box." Several asked that red brick, rather than white stucco-like material, be used to make the facade more compatible with the Navy School and other nearby commercial buildings.

Other recurring concerns include landscaping, size, and the aforementioned rezoning of residential property for commercial use.

Some suggestions were a bit more fanciful, including two for a community pool.

The 1140 Prince project is scheduled to come before the ACC Planning Commission on September 2 for preliminary review. Planning commissioners will take public comment at that time, but will not issue their recommendation to the county commission until at least November. Assuming the project continues along its current cycle, the county commission will vote on it on December 7.

Elevation drawings of 1140 Prince are online at historicboulevard.com.

With reporting by Elizabeth Little.

20AUG04 Athens Weekly News