Commission rejects Prince plan
By: Brad Aaron

Athens-Clarke County planning commissioners, Prince Avenue-area residents and neighborhood groups have a unified message for would-be developers of a medical office complex across from Athens Regional Medical Center.

It’s still too big.

Nearly a year ago, Atlanta firm Taylor & Mathis submitted plans for an 85,000 square foot, four story office and retail building across from ARMC, along with a two story parking deck. Many who live near the site have opposed the project, 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.

After months of delay by Taylor & Mathis, the latest version of the proposal made it to planning commissioners for a November 4 vote. Their decision, which serves as a recommendation to the mayor and county commission, was 7-2 against the project.

The main reason: despite alterations, including the removal of an entire story, the plan still requires a 236 percent increase in allowed density. Planning commissioners and residents who filled the planning department auditorium also doubted the claim that the 76,600-square foot complex would exist to serve the surrounding neighborhood, as present zoning prescribes.

“In my mind this clearly is not a C-N [commercial-neighborhood] use,” said Planning Commissioner Jerry NeSmith. “This is an Athens Regional Medical use.”

Likening the proposal to asking for a 236 percent raise in his salary at UGA, commissioner Scott Weinberg said the development should be two-thirds smaller. Taylor & Mathis has “no right to impose upon the neighborhood,” he said.

But not everyone agreed. Planning Commissioner Gene Sapp said the developers had worked “awfully hard” to accommodate the wishes of county staff, the planning commission and the public.

“I feel like we sit here and tell people how they can use their property and how they can’t,” Sapp said.

Before the vote, local attorney Mike Morris spoke on behalf of Taylor & Mathis, noting changes to the proposed project. Aside from the reduction of one story - from four to three - renderings of the exterior of the building, once a modern-esque beige box, now show a brick-colored facade and larger windows. Morris said the new design is compatible with nearby structures, and that the footprint of 1140 Prince would be comparable to that of the Georgia Power building just down the street.

“If I thought for one second this project would have an adverse effect on Boulevard, I would not be up here,” Morris said.

Speaking for the Historic Boulevard Neighborhood Association, Tony Eubanks - who is business manager for Athens Weekly News - said the developers had not approached the neighborhood since August, and that residents became aware of the most recent proposal just two days before the planning commission meeting.

Eubanks said Taylor & Mathis have done the “bare minimum” of what has been asked, and that the planned reduction in building size came mostly at the expense of retail space, thereby reducing the development’s usefulness to its neighbors. The project as proposed offers “absolutely nothing positive” for surrounding neighborhoods, Eubanks said.

Jan Neubauer, who lives on Boulevard, repeated the concern that the complex would stimulate cut-through traffic in residential areas from the Loop 10 perimeter. Another Boulevard resident, Mary Porter, repeated the charge that developers did their required traffic count during spring break. Project designer Abe Abouhamdan denied that claim.

Melissa Link, of Hiawassee Avenue, was one of two speakers who reminded planning commissioners that the parking deck would require the demolition of Prince Rondavel Apartments, one of in-town Athens’ few remaining low-income housing options.

Link also described the proposed complex as “236 percent too big,” a sentiment echoed even by planning commissioners - like Weinberg and Hank Joiner - who agreed with the project concept, but not the execution.

Ultimately just two planning commissioners, Sapp and Herb Gilmore, voted in favor of the Taylor & Mathis proposal. It now goes to the mayor and commission for a scheduled December 7 vote.

Barring further delay, December could bring an end to a nearly year-long battle for residents critical of the development. The planning commission was originally set to issue its recommendation last March. But with ACC planning staff recommending that the project be tabled because Taylor & Mathis had not provided all necessary documents to the county, the developers withdrew the proposal.

Also in March, Andrew M. Taylor, president of Taylor & Mathis, sent a letter to 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 the proposed building. Taylor characterized the proposal’s incompatibility with the county’s comprehensive land use plan as unimportant.

Taylor’s letter also contained a strange and disparaging remark about owners of compact cars.

“As developers,” wrote Taylor, “we are not big fans of compact parking spaces; we dislike them almost as much as the people that have to park in them.”

The 1140 Prince project was scheduled to come before planning commissioners again in May, but was again withdrawn by Taylor & Mathis.


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