Athens-Clarke residents and planning staff want mall project reworked

The Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission heard public comment Feb. 3 on a proposed development for Georgia Square Mall and the surrounding area.

The 75-acre project includes more than 1,100 homes, retail space, restaurants and a grocery store, according to ABE Consulting, a local firm involved in the proposal.

“We’re trying to create something that’s more like an outdoor lifestyle for small commercial components. But the idea is to have a mixed-use development here that kind of goes full circle: work, live and play,” said Abe Abouhamdan, president of ABE Consulting.

To achieve this, part of the mall including Sears and Macy’s would be demolished. Area Burger King, Zaxby’s and Pep Boys stores would remain.

The developer has estimated that the mall is only 46% occupied and the plan is designed to remove empty areas from the mall while retaining existing tenants.

Following: Big changes proposed for Georgia Square Mall

Construction would take place in eight phases, but no master plan was presented with a timeline of what it would look like. The master plan will be developed following input from the public, planning commission and staff. The earliest a master plan can be presented is April, according to the planning department.

The mall redevelopment is in its early stages and is subject to change as the process continues.

At the Feb. 3 meeting, residents — many from the mall area — weighed in on the proposal. Many have expressed concerns about traffic, saying they fear the development will worsen the already congested traffic situation on the Atlanta Freeway. The other main concern was the desire for more green spaces.

The developer had requested a waiver on the requirements for trees, landscaped areas and bicycle parking. These waivers instructed government staff to allow the project to proceed with less canopy and landscaping than code currently requires.

Staff, however, were not supportive of these waivers, particularly in the high-density residential area, as the plans include four-story apartment buildings. Staff said the developer’s plans also called for more facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Staff do not support tree canopy, landscape, bicycle parking waivers, especially in proposed high density residential areas. We would like to see these treated more like a multi-family home rather than just a commercial type townscape,” said lead planner Rick Cowick. “We would like to see more landscaping, open spaces in these areas. Recreation services mentioned a dog park – that would be nice.

Government staff aren’t the only ones who want more green space. Residents – including many from the Huntington Park neighborhood – said there was a need for parkland or green space in the area rather than apartments and retail businesses.

The nearest park is Ben Burton Park on Mitchell Bridge Road, nearly three miles from Georgia Square.

Several residents also said they wanted the current green space preserved in addition to any new parks being built.

Abouhamdan addressed some of these concerns and shed some light on the developer’s plans. He said the bike parking waiver would be dropped and future plans would include the required minimum number of bike spaces and the landscaping waiver would also be addressed.

He also said there was a possibility of creating a park space behind the mall near a pond, referring to concern to preserve existing green spaces.

“We have room to improve tree cover and so on and some landscaping,” Abouhamdan said.

Another major concern expressed by residents was traffic. Abouhamdan claimed the development would actually help alleviate traffic problems around the Atlanta Freeway, but residents were skeptical.

One said the number of residences on offer would make conditions worse.

“Traffic is already a major concern and it’s a pretty peaceful and serene area behind the mall and the Atlanta freeway is incredibly congested,” Jennifer McCauley said.

Members of the planning commission expressed general support for the development, with Lucy Rowland saying the scheme could be the next ‘downtown’ if done correctly.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to recreate a downtown area, not another current commercial development,” Rowland said.

Planning commissioner Jim Anderson said the plan was not imaginative enough, noting the site could benefit from green space and public plazas, saying not to skimp during the planning process.

A major concern among commission members was that the site should be more walkable rather than car-oriented. Parallels have been drawn with the development of Oconee Connector, described as not being pedestrian-friendly.

A waiver supported by Planning Commissioner Matthew Hall was the minimum parking waiver. Hall noted that he would support a larger parking waiver that would require giving up even more parking spaces as development plans are refined.

Planning commissioners also echoed public comments on the need for more green space and generally considered community direction for development.

“I just think with a little work and a few tweaks here and there, it could be really awesome,” planning commissioner Joey Tucker said.

In response, Abouhamdan said he intended to come back with a plan more in line with what the community wants after hearing feedback from residents and planning commissioners.

“There are some things we will be working on with staff and department heads to see if we can have a win-win plan. … It’s going to cost almost half a billion dollars when it’s done, staggering value even at this point,” he said.

At a future meeting, the planning commission will vote on whether or not to approve the project. If approved, it will be submitted to the Mayor and the Athens-Clarke Commission for final review.

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