On June 6 the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission unanimously approved the massive downtown Selig project. Though the development will no longer feature a Walmart, it will still contain a Walmarts-worth of commercial space (102,000 sq. feet), almost 1,000 bedrooms, and close to 1,500 parking spaces. The project clearly diverges from the style and atmosphere of the surrounding downtown area. The sheer amount of parking spaces will likely inundate the area with automobile traffic and cause problems for the downtown street network. Based on the architectural renderings of the project it looks less like the surrounding downtown buildings and more like a new generic suburban development. This, however, is where the negative aspects of the project end.
The Selig project is great just because it is happening downtown. Today the new movie theatre on Epps Bridge Road opened, the first of several big box stores that will open as part of that forest-clearing, sprawled out development. This is the competition for downtown Athens. No development downtown means more development elsewhere. The Selig project is building on unused property that is already located in a developed area – no forests to clear and no sprawl. Certainly we need to revise the zoning code to address a number of issues including parking and lot size, but creating too much regulation and too many hurdles will only push developers into the surrounding areas. Ideally we should be working as a region, but regional planning makes too much sense for Georgia to seriously pursue.
Though the scope of the project is an issue, with the tremendous amount of parking and large commercial spaces, it does do a pretty good job of seamlessly blending in with the street network and providing good, walkable options. The sidewalks will be fronted by buildings, not parking lots and the rear of the project will front the Firefly trail. This means pedestrians can easily interact with the buildings and walk from shop to shop without having to deal with cars quickly pulling in and out of parking lots. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly better than something else we could have received.
The initial proposal featured a Walmart and this, unsurprisingly, caused outrage among local business owners and residents. Even without the Walmart, many do not like the idea of big national retailers invading downtown. I too love the idea of keeping downtown Athens full of local and unique businesses, but the reality is that downtown Athens needs the services of big national retailers. Downtown has always needed a grocery store – this is the predominant reason why it is difficult to live downtown without a car. Considering the new residential units being added and the passing of a Georgia law that allows local governments to lift a ban on the retail sale of beer and liquor near college campuses, the development should feature a grocery store. Though this is not necessarily what will happen, Selig stated in April that they were interested in bringing a grocery store downtown.
Downtown needs stores that cater to more than just specific, unique interests. We need to keep the unique stores we have, but people need a place to go to buy a $10 blue shirt, a can opener, and some headphones. Except for Horton’s, which probably provides expensive versions of those items, there is no place to get everyday necessities (one store that offers a few necessities doesn’t seem like a recipe for a good economy). The truth is that most stores downtown would not directly compete with the services of national retailers. I don’t go to Jackson Street Books to look for a specific book – I know they won’t have anything I am actually looking to buy. I go there because it’s fun to peruse the aisles and find something interesting that isn’t too expensive. A large retailer doesn’t offer this experience. I go to Agora for the same reasons, sans the expensive part. When looking for a gift, I rarely ask myself if I should go to Agora or Bed, Bath, and Beyond. They offer completely different products and experiences. Restaurants may suffer a more significant impact, but major competition already occurs as almost everything downtown is either a restaurant or a bar.
In the end, the Selig development is not perfect, but it can positively affect downtown Athens. It redevelops an unused piece of downtown, provides a walkable experience, and potentially injects the services needed to make downtown a reasonable place to live without a car.