Drifting Dollars: Student Housing Boom Changing Face Of Downtown Athens



No stranger to metamorphosis, downtown Athens is in the midst of another cycle of change, this one fueled by a proliferation of student housing that is beginning, if slowly, to boost the downtown economy.

For many years a traditional downtown retail center, hosting major department stores, movie theaters, car dealerships and other local businesses, downtown Athens began to change in the 1980s as major department stores left for the then-new Georgia Square mall, situated alongside what was a far less crowded Atlanta Highway. Eventually, those abandoned downtown spaces filled up with commercial, retail and some residential uses, not to mention numerous bars, clubs and restaurants, as downtown Athens developed the character that would help make it a nexus for the town-gown interface between local residents and University of Georgia students.

In the early 1990s, the student-oriented Waterford Place and Steeplechase developments put several dozen housing units on Oconee Street on the edge of downtown Athens, but during the last few years, students have become an increasing presence in the downtown area.

Four student housing developments — The Flats at Carrs Hill off Oconee Street, 909 Broad and Eclipse on East Broad Street, and The Standard on North Thomas Street — have added more than 1,400 beds to the mix of student housing available in Athens.

And that’s just the start of

what will be, for the next couple of years, a student housing boom in the downtown area. The Mark — like The Standard, a project of Athens-based Landmark Properties — is slated to open in the summer of 2016 with 928 beds, part of a mixed-use development covering nine acres between East Broad and Oconee streets.

On the opposite end of downtown Athens at Broad and Lumpkin streets, Georgia Heights, another mixed-use development that will bring 292 beds into downtown Athens is moving toward completion.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, at the intersection of Lumpkin and West Dougherty streets, Chicago-based CA Ventures-Student Living is beginning work on a 210-bedroom development.

In all, when the current set of under-construction projects conclude, there will be more than 2,500 student beds in downtown Athens.

That increased student presence is at least beginning to have some effect on the business climate in the downtown area.

Irvin Alhadeff, owner of Masada Leather and Outdoor, a longtime downtown retailer, says he has seen an increase in business since student housing moved into downtown Athens. And while he’s not quite ready to say the increasing numbers of students living downtown are driving that growth, he’s enthusiastic about what the proliferation of student housing is likely to do for the downtown economy.

“It’s not as dramatic an effect as many people might think,” Alhadeff said, adding that businesses enter “a tricky realm” in trying to determine what factors might be responsible for an increase in business. “Is it just because we’ve got new stuff in?” Alhadeff asked rhetorically.

Still, he doesn’t see the increasing number of student housing units in the downtown area as “anything but good for downtown.”

“Think about the alternative,” he said, referencing the massive scale of The Mark and Georgia Heights, both of which cover multiple city blocks. “What would you rather have — a quarter-mile of empty space?”

In the years before the downtown student housing boom, Alhadeff went on to say, the University of Georgia wasn’t doing the downtown business community any favors by building its new on-campus housing — Rooker Hall, Busbee Hall and McWhorter Hall opened in 2004, and Building 1516 opened in 2010 — off College Station Road on East Campus, blocks away from the downtown area.

“For 20 years, the trend (at UGA) was for building away from downtown Athens,” Alhadeff said. But that trend has been balanced somewhat by the construction of the Student Learning Center, the expansion of the Tate Student Center and the recent opening of the Bolton Dining Commons on North Campus, all of which bring large numbers of UGA students much closer to downtown Athens, Alhadeff said.

So, what’s the bottom line for Alhadeff on the question of student housing in the downtown area?

“I’m all for it,” he said.


Like Alhadeff, Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge is watching how the influx of new student housing is influencing the downtown area.

“We’ve just started to see some new storefronts,” he said.

A few blocks down Clayton Street from Alhadeff’s business, Urban Outfitters, a national clothing chain geared toward young people, is renovating a building at 155 E. Clayton St., and J. Crew Factory, another clothing retailer, is going to be part of the retail mix at Georgia Heights.

In other recent downtown business action, Zaxby’s, a fast-food chicken franchise, will be moving into 227 E. Clayton Street.

Eldridge credits parents for contributing to the boom in downtown student housing, where monthly rent can be as much as several hundred dollars per bedroom.

“The ‘threshold of pain’ for the parents” — the amount they’re willing to pay to pay to house their children in Athens — “has certainly gone up,” Eldridge said.

“I do get concerned about the amount of student housing downtown,” he added, but suggested that there is evidence that the trend may be slowing. Since work began recently on CA Ventures-Student Living’s 210-bed development on Dougherty Street, there has been no news of any plans for additional downtown projects.


As a former Athens-Clarke County mayor, Eldridge is also focused on another aspect of the boom in student housing.

“They’ve added a lot of value to the tax base,” Eldridge said. What that means is that additional property tax revenue — substantially more, county tax records show — will be coming to the county. And inasmuch as those taxes are paid through the rents paid by students, those tax dollars are coming, in large part, from outside the community.

To Eldridge’s point, here are the figures on the property taxes assessed on just a couple of the new downtown student housing developments:

In 2007, before the 383-bed 909 Broad mixed-use student housing development was constructed at 909 E. Broad St., the property was valued at $3.5 million and the tax bill was just short of $47,000. Last year, the property was valued at $23 million, and the tax bill totaled $318,025.57.

Similarly, the 600 N. Thomas St. tract that now houses The Standard was valued at just under $2.5 million in 2012, with a tax bill of just over $34,000. Last year, with the tract valued at $17 million, the tax bill totaled almost $240,000.

The rosy tax picture, though, is counterbalanced by another overarching governmental concern — whether the existing downtown infrastructure, most specifically water and sewer service — can support that level of development.

Four years ago, concerned about that very issue, the Athens-Clarke County Commission issued a temporary moratorium on residential construction downtown until county government staff members could say whether the area could continue to support the 200-bedroom-per-acre density allowed for multifamily residential development.

The answer, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mike Hamby said in a recent interview, is that the existing infrastructure should be adequate to support downtown residential development at that level, but any variance that might be requested by a developer likely would become problematic.


“Having more people live downtown is a positive thing. It brings more disposable income into the area,” said Pamela Thompson, executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, which works to ensure the economic and cultural vitality of downtown Athens.

But having a relatively monolithic population downtown does mean the businesses choosing to locate there will be skewed toward that population, Thompson noted.
“The market will respond to where the customer is,” she said.

Even so, there are things that can boost the chances of bringing a mix of residents and businesses into the downtown area. One of those things, Thompson noted, is that parents who visit students living in downtown Athens will want different options for shopping, dining and other activities than their children, creating a potential new market.

And, Thompson added, on the business side the ADDA is working on incentive programs to bring technology-oriented enterprises to the downtown area to diversify its economy.

And while it’s not a technology firm, Landmark Properties will be bringing a corporate flair to the downtown area, as it establishes its corporate headquarters at The Mark.

On the cultural side, Thompson said, the ADDA is continuing to work to help stage events like the annual Twilight Criterium bicycle race that bring people to downtown Athens who might not routinely visit the area.


The simple mathematics of student housing may mean that market forces will keep it a dominant part of the downtown residential mix.

The last new beds on the University of Georgia campus were added two years ago, with the new Rutherford Hall on Lumpkin Street. That project brought just 100 new beds to the university’s housing inventory.

Overall, more than 7,600 undergraduates are housed in UGA dorms, slightly less than a third of the roughly 25,000 undergraduates attending the school — a number that’s held fairly steady over the last few years. That might seem to be a low percentage for on-campus housing, but data show it’s typical among Southeastern Conference schools.

At present, it’s not clear how much new on-campus housing will be coming to the University of Georgia, or when it might be built. In November, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, which supervises the state’s 30 institutions of higher education, chose Corvias Campus Living as its partner in a public-private student housing initiative. Corvias, which has been involved in public-private partnerships in military housing, now has a $517 million agreement to develop nearly 4,000 new beds on system campuses and manage 6,195 existing beds on those campuses.

None of that work is slated for the UGA campus, but the $517 million agreement is just the first phase of the company’s work with the university system, according to Board of Regents spokesman Charles Sutlive.

And while Hamby, the Athens-Clarke County commissioner who also sits on the ADDA board, acknowledges that market forces will play a role in determining how many new student housing developments are located downtown, he’s clearly a little nervous about what that might mean.

“I’m hoping that, at some time,” he said, “the market says we have enough student housing downtown.”

By Online Athens

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