A $50 million private development recently greenlighted by Statesboro City Council will replace the old University Plaza near the Chandler Road-Georgia Avenue intersection with a ground floor of retail businesses and four upper floors of student apartments.
The project required a zoning change from commercial to planned unit development, or PUD, plus three variances. These allow a PUD on less than three acres, where 10 acres is usually the minimum; a building 68 feet tall, where 50 feet is the usual maximum; and fewer parking spaces. After hearing from people opposed as well as those in favor during meetings Oct. 16 and Nov. 6, the council unanimously approved the change and all variances.
Most of the opposing statements came from representatives of existing apartment complexes, who pointed out that Statesboro is overbuilt with student housing as it is. As currently approved, the project will add 464 beds in 116 units in an area where the Statesboro Apartment Association’s president said there are almost 3,000 vacant units now.
But the developer and other supporters touted the project, which has the working title University Place, as a way to replace a faded University Plaza with something new and attractive that will help Statesboro stay competitive with other university towns.
“We all know this property,” Joey Maxwell, president of the local engineering firm Maxwell-Reddick & Associates, told the council in October. “This property has been in Statesboro’s history good and bad, unfortunately. This particular property, next to the Georgia Southern campus … has become an eyesore, quite frankly.”
Built in 1965, the plaza was home to the Collegeboro post office before the area was annexed into Statesboro. A clothing store, the Oxford Shop, once thrived in the plaza. The six parcels, totaling 2.99 acres, now planned for redevelopment also included the barbershop Henry’s Haircuts , which was near Zax’s, the little chicken restaurant that launched the Zaxby’s chain.
But University Plaza later evolved into ground zero for drinking establishments that beckoned to students, often underage, from just beyond the university’s grounds. The Woodin’ Nikel name is still visible on the plaza’s sign. Rumrunner’s was also there, as was Rude Rudy’s.
The death of GS freshman Michael Joseph Gatto, 18, after a beating at Rude Rudy’s in August 2014 brought changes in Statesboro’s alcohol regulation and enforcement. Grant James Spencer, who was 20, also a GS student and reportedly off-duty as a bouncer when he struck Gatto, is serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Deciding a civil suit brought by Gatto’s parents, a local judge ruled just last month that the city of Statesboro was not liable for his death.
“It’s time to eradicate the history and the past that that property poses for us as a community and let it rise from the ashes and perhaps bring back something that’s vital and open, that invites everyone into the university campus,” Maxwell said.
The developer, Robert Forrest of Stonewalk Companies, is a 1992 Georgia Southern graduate who has been in the business 20 years and for the past 10 or 12 years has done projects of this type.
“I concentrate on walkable, mixed-use developments,” Forrest said. “A lot of times that is removing something else. … We do a lot of recycling of buildings and then we put something up that’s better in its place and its more fitting for what needs to be there.”
The ground floor’s 18,500 square feet of retail space should accommodate eight to 10 businesses, he said.
Forrest said he has visited a number of universities and seen developments of this type but that there is nothing like it at Georgia Southern. Kennesaw State University was mentioned several times as a competitor for students from metro Atlanta.
“When they come down they start to compare it to Kennesaw. … It doesn’t have a comparative product here,” he said. “That’s why I felt very strongly that this was the right place at the right time.”
But Statesboro, where according to the city’s estimates almost 80 percent of residents are renters, has student apartments in abundance.
“I don’t think that anybody in this room would argue that the plaza is an eyesore and it does need a rebirth,” Statesboro Area Apartment Association President Margie Williamson told City Council. “I think that’s an awesome idea. However, I don’t think student housing is the right fit for that. I don’t think anybody on this council realizes how saturated that housing market already is.”
She gave an estimate of almost 3,000 empty beds within a five-mile radius of campus. When Councilman John Riggs asked for specifics, Williamson said it was based on Georgia Southern having approximately 20,500 students and there being 23,170 apartment beds within five miles, not including individually owned homes and duplexes available for rent.
“Of the 20 properties represented by the Apartment Association, only five properties actually filled up this year over 90 percent, and that was after giving away concessions of anywhere from a hundred dollars to a thousand dollars per student, just to try to get a lease,” Williamson said.
Representatives of at least nine apartment complexes attended the Oct. 16 meeting, and several spoke. When new apartment complexes are built, students flock to these, leaving even slightly older complexes with an increased number of vacancies, the apartment managers said.
Then the older complexes reduce their rents. Nonstudents take advantage of the lower rents, which some apartment managers said results in criminals entering the mix with students.
At the Oct. 16 meeting, Councilman Jeff Yawn made a motion to deny the zoning requests, but this failed for lack of a second.
“I’d love to see this go there, I think it would be tremendous, but I think this problem that we have is far greater than the potential solution that could be brought currently,” Yawn said then.
But council tabled action on the zoning requests until Nov. 6 on a motion from Riggs second by Councilman Phil Boyum.
At the Nov. 6 meeting, Williamson followed up with a three-year chart of occupancy rates, rents and incentives at 19 apartment complexes. The complexes ranged from 111 South and Aspen Heights through Copper Beech and the Grove to The Hudson, The Islands, the Renaissance and The Vault.
As of Sept. 1, occupancy rates ranged from 66.7 to 100 percent. Her chart stated a collective “vacancy loss” of more than $8.8 million for this year.
Williamson and others also pursued the idea further that the new development would lead to crime in older complexes.
“We have plenty of competition, so that is nothing new for us, that doesn’t scare us at all,” she said. “The issue here is the crime, and you guys aren’t understanding the ripple effect that this is going to bring.”
Increased vacancies and lower rents also will lead to declining property values, offsetting tax gains from the new development, she argued.
Attorney Michael Classens spoke on behalf of James Peery, owner of the nightclub Shenanigans, one of several businesses still in leased portions of University Plaza. Classens asserted that the effect of the zoning amendment and variances amounted to “spot zoning” and that the resulting displacement of businesses would amount to “a public taking for private uses.”
However, City Attorney Cain Smith told the mayor and council that if anything could be considered “a taking” under state law, it might be denial of a zoning amendment providing “highest and best use” in the absence of a detriment to public welfare.
But the variances were purely the council’s to deny or approve, he said.
The surrounding area is also not entirely commercial. University-owned, four-story residential Centennial Place can be seen across Georgia Avenue from the plaza.
Earlier, the city Planning Commission had unanimously recommended the University Place requests for approval.
At first, the Planning and Development staff had recommended denial of the parking variance. Without a variance, such a development would have required 494 parking spaces, and Forrest originally proposed only 270. But city planners offered a compromise, requiring 0.5 parking spaces per bed onsite and another 0.2 spaces per bed within a one-mile radius, plus the 37 spaces required under ordinance for the retail ground floor.
So the developer is required to provide a total of 362 parking spaces in this way.
On a motion from Riggs, seconded by Councilman Derek Duke, the zoning change and variances, with all city staff requirements included, were approved 5-0.
Forrest said he hopes to have the building ready for renters fall semester 2020.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.