Rezoning request for private dorm withdrawn by Episcopal diocese

A series of renderings included in a rezoning request for a South Lumpkin Street project show initial proposals for the proposed Episcopal House as it would appear along along South Lumpkin Street (top), along University Court (middle), and from the intersection of South Lumpkin Street and University Court (bottom). At right is a plan showing how the building would occupy the site, with South Lumpkin Street and the bottom of the drawing and University Court to the left. The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta recently chose to withdraw its proposal after Athens-Calrek county commissiones indicated they might reject the proposal as currently envisioned. (Drawings courtesy studio.bna architects)

Faced with heavy hints that Athens-Clarke County commissioners were prepared to reject a change in the county’s future development map and a rezoning request that would allow the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta to build a private dormitory on South Lumpkin Street, the local attorney representing the church group withdrew the proposal from consideration at a recent commission meeting.

 

Withdrawing the request for Episcopal House, a proposed residential development with ground-floor commercial space and a chapel, does not mean that it won’t come back before the commission. In fact, asking for the withdrawal, rather than waiting for the results of a commission vote, could mean that the request will be back in front of the commission sooner than might otherwise have been the case.

Had commissioners rejected the future development map change and the rezoning request, the Episcopal Diocese would have had to wait one year before bringing the proposal back through the county’s rezoning process. By simply withdrawing the request, the diocese retains the option to bring a revised proposal back through the process at any time.

As presented to the commission last week — and prior to that, as presented to the county planning commission, which recommended approval of the project — the Episcopal Diocese is seeking a rezoning of the 1.13-acre tract at 980, 984 and 994 S. Lumpkin St. at University Court from Commercial-Office to Commercial-Neighborhood (Planned Development). Pursuing the project as a planned development allows the diocese to seek waivers from some provisions of the county zoning ordinance.

The tract, currently home to an Episcopal chapel serving the University of Georgia community, is proposed to eventually comprise a five-story building and a two-level parking deck. The four-floor residential portion of the building would comprise 106 bedrooms, arranged in 30 “pods” of two, three or four bedrooms grouped around common living spaces, with some sharing of bathrooms. The residential space would also include communal kitchen and dining space, along with study, lounge and fitness spaces.

The first floor of the building would include a 1,200-square-foot chapel, along with study rooms and storage facilities, and the street-level floor would comprise 3,000 square feet of retail space and a management office.

Rev. Lang Lowrey, canon for Christian enterprise for the Diocese of Atlanta, said Episcopal House is designed to be an alternative for students who may have concerns about fitting in with their peers, or who might want to concentrate on academics more than collegiate life, or who may not be able to afford the off-campus apartment developments that have proliferated in downtown Athens and the surrounding area in recent years.

Because Episcopal House is designed as a private enterprise, the property would be subject to taxation, which would not be the case if it were being used for specifically religious purposes, commissioners learned at the May 2 meeting.

Much of the concern about the proposed development focused on the traffic congestion that it could bring to the area. Under current plans, the only entry and exit to Episcopal House would be from Lumpkin Street. University Circle, which runs along another side of the proposed development, is a UGA street.

To keep cars entering or exiting Episcopal House from making left turns, plans call for installing some curbing in the existing left turn lane, which university officials say would bring congestion to the area as cars looking to turn left onto Cedar Street would back up into the Lumpkin Street travel lane.

The university has a number of other concerns about the project, which officials outlined in a recent letter to Mayor Nancy Denson and the 10 district commissioners. Among other things, the letter contends that classifying the project as a dormitory “could create confusion by suggesting an affiliation with the university’s residential life program.”

The tract contemplated for Episcopal House sits in the middle of the UGA campus, but the university’s letter goes on to note, there are no guarantees that any sort of supervision or support would be available to residents, as it is in UGA-operated residential facilities.

The proposal came to the county commission with mixed recommendations from county planning officials. The planning commission, a group of county appointees who serve the mayor and commission in an advisory capacity, recommended that both the development map and zoning change be granted, but county planning staff members recommended that both requests be denied.

In its report to the commission, the planning staff noted that the current design for Episcopal House “results in excessive massing and intensity” for the site, “yielding a project that would be out of character with the other nearby privately-owned development, and that does not appear to provide a benefit to the community as a whole.”

For their part, some planning commissioners saw the project as filling a need for some students, providing an affordable housing option in a location tied directly to university life.

County commissioners voted unanimously at the May 2 meeting to accept a withdrawal of the plan. The project’s impact on traffic in the area was a major concern for some commissioners, with Commissioner Jared Bailey suggesting the likely increase in congestion issues “make this project a non-starter.” Similarly, Commissioner Andy Herod said “the right-in, right-out [traffic pattern] is the killer.”

A number of commissioners were reluctant to consider changing the future development map.

In the end, it was Commissioner Allison Wright who most succinctly signaled the commission’s frustration with the plan, as she rejected a suggestion that the proposal be allowed to return to the planning commission for reconsideration.

“I have no interest in sending this back to the planning commission,” Wright told her colleagues shortly before the vote to allow withdrawal of the proposal for retooling.

 

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