UPDATE: The construction group planning the redeveloped Bethel Homes has resumed collecting community input after pausing due to the pandemic and community conversations about social justice. Please see its website, ndathensplanning.com, for more details.
Last February, the partners of the North Downtown Athens Planning Study scheduled two workshops to get to know the community of Bethel Midtown Village, and to hear how they would like to better their home. Brian Keith, principal architect of JHP Architecture/Urban Design, works with his firm in Dallas, Texas, but planned to come back to Athens in early April to host another workshop.
Due to the shelter in place orders made in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Keith could not plan another workshop and never made it back to Athens after February.
“There’s no way to have public meetings and input,” Keith said.
However, Keith, along with partners from the Athens Housing Authority, Columbia Residential, and Jonathan Rose Companies, have a website and Facebook page in place for people to learn about their planning. Though no one can meet to conduct business, Keith is currently working from home at his firm. Since the Bethel redevelopment project is still in the master planning stage, he worked remotely on the project in Dallas and continues to work remotely at home too.
“The community work is on hold, but there’s still much to be done at home,” Keith said.
In an earlier interview with Rick Parker, CEO of the Athens Housing Authority, he shared that the North Athens project started when the site of Bethel Midtown Village was put up for sale in a nationwide market. Parker, along with Keith, and other partners from Columbia Residential and Jonathan Rose Companies, purchased the site altogether, saying that the local government did not have access to funds to purchase it.
Several months later, the group developed a contract to share with the public ahead of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum in late 2019.
The SPLOST was passed in November 2019, which Parker says “ensured that the transformation effort could occur.” The transformation starts with a master planning process, which consists of many meetings with the community, residents, and officials in an effort to make sure everyone has the same vision before construction starts. Before the coronavirus pandemic affected the year of 2020’s agenda, Parker said that with more meetings, the first phase of construction could have started in early 2021.
Parker cannot work remotely, but says that most of the physical plans for the Bethel redevelopment project have been postponed for the foreseeable future or cancelled completely.
Gathering is all on hold until after the pandemic ends. Even so, people may be worried to meet again,” Parker said.
His biggest worry was not being able to complete a tax credit application. The application opens for a small window of time in the spring and if rewarded, it will give the project funds needed to complete the master planning sessions. If you don’t make the deadline, you cannot apply until next year. He says that the deadline has been postponed since the closure of businesses has hindered the preparation process.
In the meantime, Parker shared the practices he’s implementing throughout his office in order to stay safe.
“Before the orders, we instilled some shelter in place guidelines and later moved to working from home,” Parker said. “Two years ago, we went into a cloud based computer system, so this way our office people can get to what they need remotely.”
For those that must work in the Athens Housing Authority building, Parker says that everyone is practicing social distancing and is not allowed in each other’s offices. He also says that the main AHA office is sanitized and he is making sure that the senior high rise Denney Tower is keeping clean also.
“Medical grade sanitizer used to clean the office, and we’re making sure the elderly high rise tower is kept clean also,” Parker said. “Most of the units [managed by AHA] open into air, but Denney Tower does not.”
Since he’s at risk and can’t quite shelter in place, he’s making sure he and his staff stay safe at work too.
“I’m over the age of 65. I work at the office, but we’re keeping up with the best practices,” Parker said. “We’re making sure the managing office is rotated throughout the week if they must come in. And we’ve adapted much hand washing and are keeping more than six feet apart.”
Kelsey Miller is a junior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
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