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City Talk: Taking development lessons from Athens

If you drive into Athens on Highway 78, you’ll be greeted by The Mark, a massive new apartment development in the final phases of construction at the intersection of East Broad and Oconee streets.

The new building, which will soon house about 1,000 UGA students, seems stark and monolithic – very un-Athens-like.

In the most recent issue of Flagpole Magazine, editor and publisher Pete McCommons had a harsh assessment The Mark and of the way large-scale development is changing the nature of downtown.

“An era of funky charm, of the do-it-yourself local businesses that created the music, club, art and restaurant scenes,” McCommons says, “is beginning to give way to a more homogenized, Atlantarized vision dictated by well-to-do kids who want to enjoy their familiar national chains here until they return to live in Atlanta.”

Here in Savannah, we’ve seen some large new apartment buildings marketed primarily to Savannah College of Art & Design students, but the new units have typically been on the fringes of downtown and SCAD has far fewer students than UGA.

I was struck, however, by how McCommons’ editorial echoes public comments in Savannah about the explosion of hotels and the appearance of more national chains on Broughton Street. The changes in Athens are being driven by developers catering to college students, and we are seeing similar trends here as developers cater to tourists.

That might be an overly simplistic comparison, but Athens’ experience is nevertheless instructive.

McCommons argues that, yes, there is a strong market for additional student housing in the heart of the city, but government policies have distorted the market in ways that incentivize particular types of development.

Here, we have longstanding policies, especially in the zoning ordinance, that have incentivized hotel construction rather than residential construction. And when new apartments have been built or older ones rehabbed, zoning guidelines have led to “luxury” units rather than more affordable ones.

I know some of you would rather eat dirt than think about zoning, so you might have missed the recent news that Savannah City Council approved zoning changes that might spur the construction of apartments in some downtown corridors.

If all goes according to plan, the city will soon be selling a site at Hall and Montgomery streets for a five-story, 75-unit apartment building with parking and a restaurant at street level.

The proposed building sounds like the type of development we want in the downtown area, but it could not have been constructed without the recent changes.

Let’s hope that these latest tweaks to the zoning ordinance will encourage additional residential development and lead to action on a long-delayed zoning overhaul.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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