Representatives of North Highland Assembly of God appeared before Columbus Council on Tuesday requesting rezoning for an Academy Sports and Outdoors store to be built on Whittlesey Boulevard.
The Rev. Dennis Lacy, the congregation’s lead pastor, spoke glowingly of the project and asked for council’s approval. Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed rezoning on Feb. 14 at a 9 a.m. meeting.
“It’s the feeling of the church that to rezone and develop this property would definitely be congruent with the previous developments,” he said, referring to retail stores at Columbus Park Crossing. “That’s really high-quality stuff and this is a high-quality tenant, and I think it would add value to our entire community. I don’t think it’s just a win for our congregation, I think it’s a win for our city. Therefore, I’m just very hopeful, and on behalf of the church, would petition you to respond favorably to this application to rezone this property.”
Lacy said some people may think the 100-year-old church is moving because it’s selling some of its property, and he wanted to clear up that misunderstanding.
“I just think it’s important for our community to know we’re not,” he said. “... We’re staying here. We are embedded in our public school system, in our civic clubs, and sporting programs, and we are committed to this community.”
George Mize Jr., an attorney representing the congregation, presented plans for the development during the first reading of an ordinance that would rezone 13.46 acres located at 7201, 7221 and 7001 Livingston Drive from single-family residential to general commercial. He said the developer is Hammerford Development Company, a commercial real estate firm focusing mainly on high-end, upscale commercial development.
The property sits on the northern end of Columbus Park Crossing, across from the new Dairy Queen and Candlewood Suites hotel, and not far from the Moon Road intersection. Subdivisions close to the property include the Spring Lake and Ginger Creek communities.
The Planning Advisory Commission recommended the rezoning ordinance for approval, and the City Planning Department recommended conditional approval prior to the meeting. On Tuesday, City Planning Director Rick Jones said the developer had addressed all of the department’s concerns.
The development company plans to construct a 64,400-square-foot Academy Sports store with two out-parcels that could be used for other businesses, according to the plans.
Mize said the developer met with city planners on numerous occasions to address concerns about buffering, traffic and other conditions. He said the developer plans to construct an eight-foot shadow box wooden fence, plus a 20-foot landscaped buffer, along the 412-foot common property line between the development and existing residents on the southeast corner of the property. Along the approximate 172-foot southwest property line, adjoining the northern line of the Georgia Power easement, there will be a 30-foot undisturbed natural buffer with plants and large trees.
In some places, the buffer would be twice as wide as what the Unified Development Ordinance requires, he said.
Mize said the developer also would install traffic signals at the main entrance of the development along Whittlesey Boulevard, a third lane along the south line of Whittlesey Boulevard, and would lengthen and improve the left turn lane into the development when heading in a westerly direction along Whittlesey Boulevard. A traffic study concluded that the transportation network won’t be adversely impacted by the development, he said.
Mize said the development would have a positive impact on the city by creating many construction jobs during the 9 to 12 month construction phase and about 125 permanent jobs once the project is completed.
He said the property taxes generated by the property will go from zero to about $160,000-$250,000 a year as a result of the project, and the sales taxes collected would amount to about $2.2 million.
Some in the audience weren’t impressed with the details.
David Gray said his mother, Lilly, lives at 7007 Livingston Drive, which abuts the proposed development. He said she owns some of the property that developers plan to use as a buffer zone, and the plans call for a 40-foot-tall warehouse with a 20-foot buffer behind her home.
“I know she’s not going to enjoy that; I don’t know many people who would enjoy that in their backyard,” he said.
Steve Tart Jr., president of Genesis Real Estate Advisers, said he is one of the co-founders of Columbus Park Crossing, and his company represents owners of the outdoor shopping center. He said he objects to the proposed development because there’s property in the vicinity already zoned for future development with infrastructure and traffic signals already in place. He said the designated property is part of a master plan developed for the area that called for a 250-foot buffer between commercial and residential areas.
Tart also referred to the upcoming closings of Kmart and Sears stores in Columbus, as well as other retail stores around he country, as a reason for concern.
“Online shopping is affecting consumers, retailers and the overall shopping industry,” he said. “Consumers today have more options. Does that mean retail is dead and gone and shopping centers are going away? No. But what it does mean is that we have to be prudent about where we zone, what we zone, and how we go about those things.”
Tart said Columbus retail vacancies today are at the highest level that he’s ever seen during his tenure.
“Vacancy today is about 10 percent, or 1.3 million square feet, out of a retail market of about 13 million square feet,” he said. “Other compatible markets across Georgia have fared much worse than Columbus, and we believe the reason is other municipalities have allowed development to occur in numerous locations leading to fractured markets.”