February 28, 2018

ACC Planning Commission Will Take a More Active Role in Social Equity

City Dope

The planning commission is woke.

Less than two weeks after citizens gave them the business about a proposed future development map that’s part of Athens-Clarke County’s once-a-decade comprehensive plan, ACC planning commissioners did some soul-searching about issues like equity.

Dozens of people showed up at a comp plan steering committee meeting earlier this month to express their opposition to the way that commercial corridors through historically black neighborhoods, such as West Broad Street, Baxter Street and Hawthorne Avenue, were being treated. As planners consolidated future land-use categories, those areas were labeled “general business” rather than “Main Street business.”

What difference does it make? Planners said they made those changes to more accurately reflect the zoning that already exists, which is “commercial general,” the most permissive category, which allows things like big-box stores. And the land-use map isn’t zoning. It doesn’t carry the force of law; it’s just a glimpse at what the community envisions being built 20 years from now.

But many people, including ACC Commissioner Melissa Link, don’t think those corridors ought to be commercial-general, pointing to furor over a rumored development on the Varsity property at Milledge and Broad. A conversation on downzoning to something like the less intensive commercial-neighborhood category will have to come later, but if it does happen, relabeling corridors as “Main Street” business will make it much harder for a developer to argue for a rezoning.

After hearing those concerns, the steering committee (mainly made up of planning commissioners) made the requested changes. Concerns about equity in local planning decisions, as well as the vagueness of the entire comp plan, remain. Engagement on equity across racial and class lines is at an all-time high, and the government needs to do a better job of educating citizens on these documents, said one speaker, Kelli Clifton. Tyler Dewey, executive director of BikeAthens, and others said they like the goals expressed in the plan but are frustrated that the path to get there is vague. Imani Scott-Blackwell came armed with a specific platform gleaned from Movement for Black Lives, including a progressive income tax, a mansion tax, a tax on real-estate speculators, tax breaks for low-income homeowners and variable utility rates based on income (at least some of which would be illegal in Georgia).

The criticism was well received. “This community is growing, and a younger generation is coming along,” planning commissioner Hank Joiner said. “They need to be sitting up here in these chairs, not old guys like me.”

The comp plan has to be couched in terms like “work towards” a goal to avoid consequences for not achieving them, ACC Planning Director Brad Griffin said. “If you submit a document where you’re going to save the world, and you come back in five years and say, ‘Well, those were great ideas, but we never got to any of them,’ [the state Department of Community Affairs] would eventually get to the point where they start withholding funds,” he said.

It became clear as the meeting went on that no one—not the citizens who spoke nor planning commissioners themselves—had a clear idea of what the planning commission’s role is or should be in ensuring social equity. The planning commission is merely an advisory board, but members said they do consider it within their limited purview of making recommendations on individual zoning decisions. As an example, Lucy Rowland pointed to the recent QuikTrip approval, where planning commissioners pushed for improved access to the Firefly Trail that will run behind it. “It always comes into play whenever we consider a rezoning, I think,” she said.

Planning commissioners also emerged with a new commitment to putting pressure on the Mayor and Commission, the policymakers, by passing resolutions urging them to study issues like affordable housing. “It’s our charge to consider equity, and people affected need to help us see,” planning commissioner Alice Kinman said.