Landmark denied parking deck

The ACC Mayor and Commission held a five-hour meeting last week that covered a range of topics (click the table of contents below to jump to that section):

Landmark / Classic Center parking deck
Hotel / motel tax increase
State legislative requests
Athens Transit stays fare-free for now

Landmark / Classic Center parking deck

Downtown Athens continues to be a hub of development with several large construction projects coming soon. 

For example, the Classic Center is planning a 6,000-seat arena, funded by SPLOST 2020. Landmark Properties is keen on expanding The Mark, their already massive student housing complex on Oconee Street. Lastly, the ACC government may get in on the action downtown with a new judicial center, also funded by SPLOST 2020.

But where will everyone park? In 2019, the three entities mentioned above agreed to build one large parking deck together downtown, but that plan fell through due to differences in construction timelines and concerns about how the costs would be shared, according to Mayor Kelly Girtz.

After this plan fell through, Landmark was left without a parking deck for phase two of The Mark. While they could build a deck on land they already own, such as off Wilkerson and Pottery streets (in an area known as Pottery Town), doing so would reduce the amount of land they have available for student apartments and thus shrink their profit margin.

Trying to find a better situation for themselves, Landmark hatched a plan together with the Athens Downtown Development Authority (ADDA) and the Classic Center to have their cake and eat it, too. They decided to build a deck very close to The Mark, but on public land. This land, across Hickory Street from the multi-modal center, would be given to the ADDA who would in turn lease it to Landmark Properties for 99 years at $150,000 a year. That money would go to the Classic Center to help them finance their new arena.

Sounds great for those two entities at least, but remember — this is public land in a prime location. Commissioners would never agree to give it away for a mere $150,000 a year. Yet, when it came time for a vote, some of the most progressive commissioners, including Commissioners Mariah Parker, Tim Denson and Jesse Houle, voted in favor.

What gives?

The answer to this riddle can possibly be found in Commissioner Denson’s vague allusion to a “community benefit” that could materialize from the plan. Commissioner Houle was more explicit, mentioning a private conversation they had with Landmark “about some of what we’re looking for around affordability, sustainability and child care,” but did not provide specifics.

Commissioner Melissa Link
Commissioner Melissa Link

Whether real or not, Commissioner Melissa Link seemed to dismiss these offers, saying “I understand there are some offers being made by Landmark with regards to funding for affordable housing, but I haven’t been approached. I don’t see any reason why we should be favoring this corporation in a closed-door deal.”

Commissioners Mike Hamby and Carol Myers agreed with Link and pushed for a more transparent, public process. “There needs to be more public involvement in this,” Myers said. 

Houle also had concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the deal struck with Landmark, which has still not been made public, but voted for the proposal after Denson inserted an opt-out clause for the local government. The clause could presumably be used to cancel the deal if Landmark reneged on their part of the secret bargain, whatever that may have been.

Whatever was promised must have been fairly tempting, because it was enough to gain support of the commission’s left bloc.

However, Denson’s amendment wasn’t enough to reassure the majority of the commission. The proposal failed 4-6, with Denson, Houle, Parker and Commissioner Russell Edwards voting yes. After Denson’s proposal failed, the commission agreed 9-1 to cancel the deal completely — Edwards was the only no vote this time.

It seems likely that Landmark will now go ahead with their less profitable plan of building a deck in Pottery Town. Although perhaps not; Link feels that the proposal to build a Pottery Town deck is a bluff and that she’ll see them at the bargaining table again soon, this time in full view of the public. 

Hotel / motel tax increase

Hotel / Motel Tax in Athens
Athens’ hotel / motel tax distribution if approved by the Georgia Legislature.

In a somewhat related agenda item, the commission voted unanimously to request an increase in the hotel / motel tax from 7 to 8%. 

The state government must approve the increase before it goes into effect. Once it does, the local government will receive 16.25%, or 1.2 pennies per dollar; the Classic Center will receive 56.25%, or 4.5 pennies per dollar; and the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau will receive the rest — 27.5% or 2.2 pennies per dollar.

This tax increase will help the Classic Center service the debt they’ll take on while constructing their new arena. For more information, check out the commission’s agenda item on this topic.

State legislative requests

Every year, the mayor and commission sends a list of legislative requests to the state government for things that would be helpful but that the local government doesn’t have the power to do on their own.

In the past, progressive commissioners have used this yearly opportunity to ask for relatively big changes like raising the minimum wage, or expanding Medicaid. This year, the list seems somewhat limited, consisting of only five items (although a sixth was added later by Commissioner Myers, see below). Most notably, it includes a request for a low-income homestead exemption, which would essentially freeze property taxes for those under 150% of the federal poverty level.

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

Other requests include allowing counties to use radar on local streets to help curb speeding and a change to state elections code ensuring that a special election would be held in the case of a deceased candidate who ends up winning their election. It sounds unlikely, but it happened in Athens in 2020, when Jesse Houle lost to deceased Commissioner Jerry NeSmith but ended up winning by default anyway.

The last request, added by Myers during the meeting, was an appeal to let local governments exempt groceries from local sales tax. Groceries are exempt from the state’s portion of the sales tax consumers are charged in Georgia, which amounts to 4%. As of now, local governments don’t have the option to exempt groceries from the other half of the tax, but Myer’s proposal would change that (if acted upon by the state legislature).

Athens Transit stays fare-free for now

Athens Transit will stay fare-free until at least July 1 at a cost of $320,000. Transit ridership is down sharply during the pandemic, but those still riding have a great need for the service.

Athens Transit will remain on a reduced schedule, running less frequently and until 7 pm at the latest for the duration of the pandemic. Routes 23 and 28 are no longer running at all.

Several commissioners, including Parker, Denson and Houle, campaigned on fare-free bus service during their last election and have advocated for transit to remain free at the point of service even after the pandemic. All commissioners supported extending fare-free service until at least July 1.

By the way, if you haven’t heard, Athens Transit has an app that makes it extremely easy to use. Click on the route you’d like to ride and you’ll see your bus on the map, moving in real time. No more waiting at the bus stop! You’ll at least know where it is now, and can plan your trips a little easier.

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