Decatur City Commission balks at plans for Callaway Building
This story has been updated.
Decatur City Commissioners say plans for turning a building at 120 West Trinity Place into a mixed use development didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped.
During their Aug. 17 meeting, commissioners unanimously voted to table a request from developer Cousins Properties for exceptions from the city’s building codes for redevelopment of what’s commonly called the Callaway Building.
“The exceptions you’re asking for are ridiculously easy,” Mayor Jim Baskett told a representative from the company. “That’s not the problem here.”
Baskett and other commissioners said the redevelopment plans include far more apartments than they’d anticipated, about 361 units to be exact. It includes little office or retail space. The plans presented during Monday’s meeting would allot 19,511 square feet for commercial space.
That the plans didn’t shape up to the city’s liking is a bit of a surprise, given the city’s level of involvement in the project and the controversy surrounding the use of the building. Many residents have openly wondered why Callaway, currently used by the county, isn’t being transformed into a school building. The city has an agreement with Cousins Properties to redevelop the 5.25 acre site. The city purchased the property from DeKalb County using $5.12 million borrowed by issuing bonds. Plans for the building go back to at least 2011.
Bill Bassett, Senior Vice President at Cousins, explained that the market today is different than it was in 2011. Some potential commercial tenants, like a grocery store, have already moved into locations surrounding Decatur, like Earth Fare at Emory Point.
“This is what this market is asking for and demanding,” Bassett said. “Markets do change.”
Still, commissioners wanted a fuller explanation of the changes that led to the plan they were being asked to consider.
Commissioner Scott Drake, who wasn’t on the commission when the project was conceived, said based on what he knows, the plans have changed drastically from what was proposed.
“We didn’t have such a heavy component of residential which I don’t think we need,” Drake said.
Other commissioners had similar sentiments.
“I’m hesitant and not as thrilled,” Commissioner Fred Boykin said. “What I’m seeing here is not what I thought I would be looking at. Maybe that’s the reality of what we’re looking at. I’d like it to be something I feel pretty happy about.”
Commissioners were also concerned about the effect adding more residential units would have on the city’s schools, which are quickly filling beyond capacity.
“The possible impact on the schools is even worse than we anticipated,” Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tem Kecia Cunningham said.
Lyn Menne, Decatur’s Assistant City Manager in charge of Community and Economic Development, said the project is still has some strong selling points.
“First, let me clarify that the original concepts were just that – concepts,” Menne said. “They were presented as part of the Request for Proposals presentations. At that time, there was a larger office component to the project and talk of a large grocery store. As the project progressed, the office component was reduced substantially and the original grocery store concept was difficult to sell to potential tenants. The project itself, as designed, is beautiful and the few variances requested are minor and make sense because of the topography. The city commission was voicing a frustration and disappointment that we all feel about missing an opportunity to create some office space and wants time to talk with the developer to see if there are options to be explored.”
Commissioners will reconsider the Cousins proposal at their Sept. 21 meeting.