Decatur City Commission balks at plans for Callaway Building

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt August 18, 2015
The Callaway Building, located at 120 West Trinity Place, is behind Decatur High School. Source: Google Maps

The Callaway Building, located at 120 West Trinity Place, is behind Decatur High School. Source: Google Maps

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.

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  • FRL

    In a shocking twist, the city commission realizes that more apartments mean more kids in the schools.

    • ApartmentsDontHaveKids. WHAT?

      Kids in apartments? Shocked, *shocked* I say.

      And 180 degrees opposite of the argument they used for the Arlo. And that place is a wooden tinderbox. I cant believe the city keeps approving the plans for multi-story multi-family wooden fire hazards downtown. One nasty grease fire in a apartment unit and downtown could go up in smoke.

      Good thing they are across the street from the fire department.

      • NMKIMS

        What does wooden construction have to do with being against this? People would find a reason to qualm against them even if it were all concrete/heavy construction.

  • King Tommen

    “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.”

    These are the same people who told us over and over again during the annexation push that people with kids don’t live in apartments.

    • No More Kids in My School

      Or rather commissioners were afraid of creating some decent affordability in Decatur when in fact the only way to make the city improve is to expand the tax base to sustain growth for funding the nearby schools’ growth.

      Decatur has seemed to create this sense of entitlement with not wanting more housing under the guise/excuse that they will only overcrowd schools when you honeslty have to have more housing in order to increase the tax base to fund those very schools for the future.

      • Dec30030 Teacher

        I think the point here is that more residential would further crowd the schools but commercial (which would also increase the tax base) would not. The comments are asking the commission to think about growing commercial to generate funds (which was their reasoning behind pushing for annexation) rather than continuing to approve residential given limited classroom space.

  • Lindsay

    I am very happy to read this. I sent an e-mail to my commissioners, Scott Drake and Fred Boykin about 2 weeks ago regarding the city’s lack of attention to the fact that their growth policies were a burden to the schools. I keep feeling like the commissioners basically say, “Hey, that’s the school board’s problem.” instead of working together as I think they should. Only Commissioner Boykin gave me a full response, and it was essentially more of the same and I wasn’t super happy with it. Having said that, I am glad that they are considering this issue, at least as it relates to this project. If anyone wants to see the email and response, I’m happy to post it.

    • v maier

      I would like to see your email and the response, for some context if nothing else.

  • Judd

    Comments so far are pretty spot on in identifying what the real news is here. Even if it’s just ad hoc rhetoric, it’s unprecedented coming from the City Commission. This is, after all, their most glaring electoral vulnerability.

  • An American Patriot

    Folks, I’ve been trying to raise people’s consciousness about this property being used as a school for a long time now. I am glad to see that schools are now being talked about as the best use for this property. It just makes sense that it would be a perfect transition from middle school to high school, if that’s the way it turns out, and the whole big old block surrounded by N. McDonough, Trinity, Commerce and W. Howard would be nothing but school property. This is just common sense. It is my fondest hope that the City Commission swallows it’s pride and makes this happen.

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