The Mitchell Street development is back, now with affordable units

The ACC Commission is on the verge of approving a large student apartment complex on Mitchell Street, close to downtown and UGA campus, which will include at least 8 affordable units.

This development has gone through several iterations over the years. In 2017, commissioners approved plans for a 10-story condominium tower which would be marketed primarily to seniors. Commissioners hoped the development would increase age diversity in the downtown area, but despite their approval, the condos were never built. 

Last year, another developer proposed a different plan for the lot, this time for apartments that would be marketed primarily to students. That plan also fell through. Now they’re trying yet again with a new design.

A 10 story apartment complex
The proposed design for a 10-story apartment complex at 155 Mitchell Street.

The current proposal is for another 10 story building that would include 381 bedrooms in 163 units that would be marketed to students. In their report to planning commissioners, ACC staff worried that this and similar developments may “create an overconcentration of student housing that could transform Downtown into a fragile monoculture.”

In 2017, the ACC Planning Commission voted 6-1 to reject the proposed 10-story development, but this time around they unanimously recommended approval of this somewhat similar project. What changed?

Despite explicitly being intended for students, there are several reasons why the ACC Commission is likely to approve the current design. For example, this project is the first to take advantage of the voluntary inclusionary zoning ordinance passed earlier this year. This means that 16 units (10% of the total) will be reserved for someone making 80% of the area median income, or 8 units (5% of the total) will be guaranteed affordable for someone making 60% of the area median income.

Commissioner Melissa Link
Commissioner Melissa Link

Commissioner Melissa Link, who was one of three ACC Commissioners who voted against the 2017 project, told APN that she’s “not overjoyed” about this one either. Even so, she says she intends to support the new design when it comes up for a vote on November 1.

The affordable units are a big factor for Link, but she also feels the new design is more aesthetically-pleasing. “They’ve made an effort to step up the design a little bit,” Link said, noting the current proposal’s mansard roof. They’ve also reduced the parking lot to only 189 spaces, about one for every two bedrooms. That’s fewer than in the 2017 proposal, which had 290 parking spaces. Link feels that this should help to alleviate any traffic concerns that nearby residents may have.

“I’m hoping some of these kids will leave their cars at home and take advantage of being just a couple blocks from campus and downtown,” Link said.

The reduction in parking was made possible by the inclusionary zoning ordinance, which allows for a 20% reduction in parking for new developments if they are located within 1,500 feet of an Athens Transit bus stop.

Despite the risk of creating a “fragile monoculture” of student apartment complexes, the commission appears ready to approve this development because of the expected increase in the student population in coming years.

The University of Georgia has only built one dormitory since 2014, but continues to admit more students every year. If apartments for them are not built, these students would compete for homes with permanent residents which might boost already high rents even higher.

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Should we use eminent domain to complete the Firefly Trail?

The commission is also considering whether the local government should be allowed to use eminent domain to complete a section of the Firefly Trail going to Winterville. Eminent domain is the right of governments to purchase property for public use even against the will of a private landowner. 

The commission approved the Firefly Trail’s currently planned route last year in a 6-4 vote. The route was controversial because some residents along the proposed path were hesitant about giving up portions of their backyards.

Since then, ACC staff have purchased 27 of the 66 parcels that they need before beginning construction, and they will continue urging the remaining landowners to sell voluntarily. That means use of eminent domain may not be needed, but ACC staff are asking for permission to use it just in case some landowners refuse to sell.

A few of these landowners came to a recent commission meeting to argue that use of eminent domain was not appropriate in this case, since the Firefly Trail would be used primarily for recreation.

“I’m not against the Firefly Trail,” said one homeowner. “But this is recreation, this is not transportation. Using eminent domain is just wrong for this section of the trail. May your decisions, to vote whether yes or no, sit well on your conscience.”

Commissioners Patrick Davenport and Allison Wright are likely to vote against allowing eminent domain, but other commissioners seem to support the idea as long as it is legally permissible and the homeowners are fairly compensated.

“This is a project that we’re well into and that we need to see through,” said Commissioner Jesse Houle.

Commissioners Mike Hamby and Carol Myers called on ACC staff to work with homeowners individually to help make the process of selling parts of their backyard less painful. They questioned whether they could use eminent domain for an entirely recreational project, but Myers also emphasized that the Firefly Trail would be used for transportation purposes as well.

Commissioner Carol Myers
Commissioner Carol Myers

“I’m on the Firefly Trail a lot,” Myers said.” A lot of people use it for recreation. But I use it most of the time to get from the eastside down here to this meeting, for example. I know I’m using it for transportation, but where is that line?”

ACC Attorney Judd Drake will examine the legal requirements for the use of eminent domain and report back to commissioners before they vote next month.

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