For a lot of people, Oconee Street is just a blur on their way into downtown Athens, a commercial artery lined with gas stations, fast food restaurants and storage sheds. But for Allie Kerr, it’s home, a potent mix of people living and working on a historic main drag into town.
Through the trees, at one end of the commercial spine, you can see the homeless people clinging to life in their tent city on a hill by the bypass. Going up the road, Oconee Street passes between the “older homes” of Carr’s Hill and East Athens, and brick and metal remnants of a bygone warehouse district.
Nowadays, Kerr notes that “rich kids” from the growing University of Georgia live on both sides of the street, settling into new or renovated Craftsman homes dotting the hills above the North Oconee River.
A recent UGA graduate, Kerr herself scoots from her home off Oconee Street to her job at the UGA’s Center for Applied Genetic Technologies, part of the massive flux of students, teachers and staff moving down the corridor from town to campus each day.
She supports plans for a large retail-residential development on the road and she says she would “totally” shop at a Walmart if it’s built there as an anchor store. “It’s trendy to be against Walmart,” she said, walking in the neighborhood with her Beagle/Basset mix on a recent blustery day. But she does worry that the big box, looming at the top of the street on a prominent site over the river, “would not mesh aesthetically. If I had one qualm it would be that.”
Atlanta-based Selig Enterprises is meeting privately with influential parties before finalizing plans for a major retail and residential center on a 10-acre tract. While this is going on, Kerr is not alone in worrying about a blow to town history and the Thomas Hart Benton charm that is already luring new construction and life to the district’s rolling hills and cottage houses.
A 90-day moratorium remains in place while commissioners review some of the historic brick and metal warehouses on the sprawling site and negotiate with Selig on the use of buildings and materials in the path of the 94,000-square-foot store. But the clock is ticking off the days.
The “materials” at least will be used, Athens-Clarke Commissioner Alice Kinman said. But there’s been no hint Selig plans to incorporate the old brick ruins into structures, as was done successfully on the other side of downtown, at the Foundry Park Inn.
A 1988 application for National Historic District designation notes “the district (that includes Oconee /Oak streets) is important for its intact collection of warehouse architecture.” The Georgia railroad that runs along Oconee was the first to serve Athens in 1841, and transported both passengers and freight. Oconee was an important part of the early town, which grew up around the railroad and university.
By 1885, according to the application, “Oconee was lined with frame houses and one commercial establishment,’ the Klein and Martin Wagon Factory. By 1918, the road had “totally gone commercial and industrial.”
A corridor study released this fall by the county notes the Oconee/Oak corridor, while poor and alarmingly vacant in parts, still boasts an enviable location and numerous cultural assets of a musical and a historic nature. These include the REM Murmur trestle at Dudley Park, the St. Mary’s steeple (part of a church built originally by business interests as an Episcopal church for African Americans – later the site of REM’s first show) along with “foundations and ruins at the Armstrong and Dobbs property that showcase our industrial past.”
More recent investments can also be seen, including the popular Mama’s Boy restaurant and the multimodal transportation hub off Oconee on East Broad, a possible future hub for a long-discussed commuter rail line to Atlanta.
Nearby, Jittery Joe’s Coffee Roasting Co. on East Broad attracts a steady stream of customers to its site in an old warehouse, built sometime between 1926 and 1950.
Fitted with new interior walls and dotted with examples of local art, the windy structure exudes a handcrafted charm with its wide wooden porch, neat stacks of burlap coffee sacks and welcoming seats and books.
A couple buildings over, also in the path of the Selig development, sits the practice space for the Modern Skirts, one of Athens’ better known bands. Some Roasters regulars wonder - what’s going to happen to everyone’s investments? The renovated homes? The townhouses by the river? What will happen to their value?
“If it was Walmart, it would probably go down,” said Marisa Mustard, a Clarke Central High School senior who has worked at the coffee roasting company and tasting room for the last two and a half years. “It should be developed, but I don’t think there should be Walmart there.”
Sinking values remain a worry in a neighborhood where college graduates are having trouble finding work in their fields. Money is so tight some are even resorting to government benefits to make ends meet. The Daily Co-op and the Athens Farmer’s Market “take Food Stamps,” said Asheley Faris, working behind the counter at Jittery Joe’s Roasters. “A lot of folks can’t find jobs, so they’re staying.”
Representing the district with Commissioner Kelly Girtz, Kinman said all the commissioners are happy to have interest from investors in the neighborhood. The recent county survey paints a somewhat bleak picture of the Oconee/Oak corridor. Some 60 percent of the residents live on $20,000 a year, making it one of the poorest areas in the entire metro area. Gentrification of the long-term African American neighborhoods is also singled out in the report as a particular concern.
“It’s a very poor area - it’s visibly poor,” says Kinman. The Oconee Street area has been designated a state Opportunity Zone, a designation given to help revitalize certain older commercial and industrial areas. According to the state Department of Community Affairs, being part of an opportunity zone means businesses in those area can qualify for the State’s maximum tax credit of $3,500 per job.
The poor of the area “deserve a good place to shop” and leasing to an expensive store like Whole Foods would be “almost insensitive,” says Kinman. Bus rides to the Kroger several miles away currently take an hour and a half, with buses running only every hour, so shopping is a major effort for those without their own transportation.
“I don’t like Walmart,” Kinman said. “I don’t shop at Walmart, but Walmart is successful at opening grocery stores that offer good quality at low prices.”
Traffic chokes Oconee Street at peak times. Traffic was mentioned as a major concern in the corridor study, along with a recommended rezone that would have prohibited a grocery stores larger than 30,000 from being built there. It’s too late for a rezone, officials say, but traffic might hold the key to keeping the new development to scale with the humble roots of the old neighborhood.
“The traffic study is going to drive a lot of it,” said Kinman. She noted that the state DOT reserves the right to restrict or deny use of Oconee Street, as a state road. “There’s a good chance (Selig) could be told to scale it back.”