Athens,GA. Residents Fight To Avoid Wal-Mart Urban Sprawl
In early November, Sprawl-Busters received this call for help from a resident in Georgia:
"I live in Athens, Geoergia, where there are 2 Wal-Marts now. They are proposing building a third anchor store 1 block from downtown Athens, which would destroy all of the local businesses there. These little stores are what make Athens a great town. Our Mayor Nancy Denson is all for it; she was quoted recently as saying, "Some might call Wal-Mart's foreign suppliers sweatshops -- but they're putting food on the table for Third World workers."
By early December, residents were actively organizing to keep this proposed Wal-Mart from happening. A second resident sent Sprawl-Busters this message:
"An Atlanta-based development company by the name of Selig Enterprises has a contract on a parcel of land in our downtown area is planning an $80 million project which will include 200,000 sq ft of "higher end" retail and restaurant space, office space, 220 "high end" apartments, 1100 underground parking spaces in 2 partially underground parking decks and a pedestrian plaza, all anchored by and including what else but a 100,000 sq ft Wal-Mart!
They are saying they have vested rights due to the fact that they have spent $250-500K. Our local government is saying that they have the appropriate zoning and couldn't stop it if they wanted to. I have reason to believe that our mayor Nancy Denson doesn't want to, and I've been told that she has even signed a confidentiality agreement months ago. She then squashed a proposal from our Economic Development Foundation to have a city owned River District on the same parcel of land as well as adjoining land in our downtown area leading up to the already suffering Oconee River. We also keep hearing over and over that this is a 'done deal' which of course we realize is what the people that are for this development want us to hear. I am horrified by a Wal-Mart going into our downtown -- especially since we can currently drive 3 miles in one direction and 5 miles in another to the 2 already existing Wal-Marts in our town. Our town is known world wide for the music that comes out of here and we have many tourists coming to our town each year because of its music scene."
On January 9th, an independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia, Red & Black, carried a story indicating that People for a Better Athens had presented the city council with more than 17,000 signatures from Athens residents petitioning against a proposed downtown Wal-Mart. Selig Enterprises is seeking to build the store on land owned by a closed building supply company.
Athens attorney Russell Edwards has been a point person for the opposition. Edwards has been urging local officials to consider the economic downside of constructing a third Wal-Mart in this city. "We can see places that will be affected most, places like Faulkner's hardware, that would be right up the street from Wal-Mart, would immediately go out of business."
At the Jan. 3 city council meeting, one resident noted: "Even if it wasn't a Walmart, the layout of the design is pretty ridiculous, the way they have it positioned on the waterfront is a total waste of really beautiful land." The tract of land in question stretches from the downtown area to the North Oconee River. Opponents have indicated that they want this valuable parcel put under "interim control," a mechanism that allows the city council to put a moratorium on new development on a given area until the more appropriate zoning plan could be put into place.
But a spokesperson for the developer told city officials that there is no building size cap in Athens, only "stylization requirements" for developments. But opponents remain firm that a smaller development is what they will fight for."What we want," Attorney Edwards said, "is for the private retailer to scale down the size of their development," he said. "The only way to ensure that would happen is to make a legal framework to ensure that the developer would scale down that development."
The Wal-Mart planned for the new site is less than half the size of the 200,000 s.f. existing Wal-Mart superstores in Athens. But the Selig proposal would also be a Wal-Mart superstore, with a full-line grocery department. Selig tried to argue that their proposed retailer would not be a direct competitor to downtown merchants. But any grocery stores or general retailers will clearly lose market share if this store opens. The developer states that it does not have a firm tenant to lease the space -- but admitted: "It will likely be a Wal-Mart. But we don't have a lease with them so I can't confirm that yet."
The Selig Wal-Mart is currently in limbo, because two county commissioners imposed a three month hold on demolition of the closed building supply store, due to a law that allows them to re-evaluate plans which will demolish historic buildings. Selig has tried to mollify the loss of this historic property by asserting that it will re-use some of the existing building materials -- but the proposed Wal-Mart would certainly not be one of them. Wal-Marts have been described by architects as a form of 'low commitment landscape,' a building that has a lifespan of not much more than two decades.
Athens Mayor Nancy Denson is saying publicly that her hands are tied. She told Red & Black, "That's what's sad to me is that the people that are coming there are asking us to stop something that there's not a legal mechanism by which to stop it." But the Mayor notes that she wants the project to happen anyway: "And I wouldn't like to stop it if we could. The private investors have a right to enjoy the value of their property when they get ready to sell it. I think it's wrong to block them to reduce the value of their property by holding it up."
The Mayor views the project as a private land deal that does not involve local government at all. "I think it would be wrong, even if we could find a legal loophole to do it," the Mayor told the newspaper. "To go in and change the rules on those people after the fact and basically you'd be taking value away from the property." The Mayor says the property would be devalued if it were rezoned to disallow large buildings. "The zoning where that property is, there's no size restriction on what they're allowed to build. That property is not a historic district, which a lot of people I think are mistakenly assuming that it is."
For the time being, Selig hopes to have its proposal ready to present to the city over the next several months. Nothing has happened yet regarding the demolition of the existing building, but with the Mayor pushing hard for the project, its clear the developer does not have to worry about city government trying to throw up roadblocks.
What you can do: Athens, Georgia, which was chartered in 1806, was named after the Greek city of learning, and likes to present itself as the cultural heart of Georgia. Clarke County has a population of roughly 117,000 people, of which nearly 34,000 a University of Georgia students.
Athens-Clarke County has a unified government that is run by a Mayor and ten commissioners. In 2009, Athens was designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of a "Dozen Distinctive Destinations," and in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine rated Athens as the #1 College Music Scene that Rocks." In 1975, the city created by statute a Downtown Athens Development Authority for the purpose of the redevelopment of the downtown. So the protection of the downtown as a classic district, and a draw for tourism has been in place for more than three decades.
According to the zoning ordinance in Athens, the purpose of land use control is for "improving Athens-Clarke County's appearance; lessening congestion in the streets; furthering traffic safety... preventing the overcrowding of land; avoiding both undue concentration of population and urban sprawl."
It's hard to fathom how a plan of this magnitude at this local serves to lessen traffic congestion and avoid urban sprawl. A big box store in a downtown district is, by definition, an incompatible oxymoron. The zoning code has design standards that require commercial buildings to face the street, have parking to the rear of the building, and other design issues meant to discourage large buildings with unbroken facades.
Readers are urged to email Athens Mayor Nancy Denson at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Denson,
One of the fundamental purposes of zoning in Athens is to avoid urban sprawl. A retail store that is the size of one and half football fields makes no sense in a classic downtown area. Inviting Wal-Mart to the city is like inviting a cannibal to dinner. It will not result in new jobs or tax revenues, because most of what Wal-Mart sells will come from the sales of existing merchants in town.
You have already received petitions from over 10% of the population in Athens opposed to a big box store. You can use your existing zoning ordinance to mitigate the traffic impacts of this store by reducing its scale. You need to have an indendent traffic study conducted for the Selig proposal, and then seek to reduce scale to reduce the traffic-related adverse impact.
So far, you have a taken a very hands off approach to urban sprawl in your community. If you want to promote the city's attractions to tourists, I doubt you will put high on your list the fact that Athens would have three Wal-Mart superstores within a few miles of each other.
Do not let Athens become saturated with urban sprawl while you look the other way. You have the power to ask Selig for a downtown plan that have no anchor larger than 30,000 s.f. If you don't ask, you don't get."