Think of what the word “neighborhood” means to you. If you’re lucky, it means comfort, home, a place to belong, a place of refuge. If you’re lucky, neighbors watch out for you, as you do for them. If you’re unlucky, your neighborhood might not be safe or comforting. It might be overrun with elements which mean you no good or people who don’t look after your interests. If you find yourself in such a place, you likely feel “stuck,” particularly if there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it and your thoughts will naturally turn to getting out as soon as possible.
I am privileged to be the president of the InTown Macon Neighborhood Association, which is comprised of people who actually love their neighborhood and have no interest in “getting out.” We are urban dwellers and we understand the give-and-take that living closer together, on busier streets, in the heart of the city, requires. The vitality of this neighborhood is a big part of its appeal. So is its diversity of both residents and structures. And, of course, what makes it such a special place is that we live and play in an area where the past is also present, where appreciation for our history is combined in an essential roux with our lives now, our hopes for the future and our passion to preserve our neighborhood for future generations.
We are not alone in our feelings for our neighborhood. Think of where you take out-of-towners to show off Macon when they visit. Chances are you visit our neighborhood, just as virtually all the rest of our city’s tourists do. We are glad to have you and delighted you appreciate our efforts to preserve Macon’s rich architectural treasures. And, since you seem to like what we have done and are doing, we would like you to empathize with us a little. We want to ask you to imagine your own neighborhood facing constant efforts which would undermine its charm and quality of life, because some days that is how we feel.
NEIGHBORHOOD THREATENED AGAIN
Our neighborhood is often threatened. Not by crime; our crime rate is among the lowest in our community. Of course, there are a few incidents of blight, but they are quite limited these days because of our continuing progress of revitalizing more and more areas of our neighborhood. Rather, our neighborhood is often threatened by inappropriate and insensitive development, particularly now that the overall economy is rebounding. Because of the success revitalizing the neighborhood over the past four decades, it is attractive enough to draw investment interest and, more and more, we seem to have to fight developments which might make sense to the investors, but which are burdensome and counterproductive to the preservation progress we have been able to make.
The latest one of these was a surprise rezoning of two parcels of land that belong to Navicent Health at the corner of Spring and Rose Park streets. Where two one-story doctor’s offices were demolished not too long ago, a mixed-use development, five stories high and taking up virtually all of the land available, is planned. There is no setback, and there is a great deal of concrete with a few token trees. In addition, there are 60 new residential apartments in the project, and almost 700 additional vehicle trips anticipated for this site in what is already a heavily congested traffic area.
ZONING NO REAL PROTECTION
The property had been zoned Historic Commercial and, because of this, there was a modicum of protection for the surrounding neighborhood from unfortunate new developments. Against the objections of neighbors and without adequate public notice (their posted rezoning sign was no longer giving notice, except to the ants, because it was on the ground), our Planning & Zoning Commission has once again shown virtually no regard for the integrity or survival of our neighborhood, or to the concerns and aspirations of those who call it home.
This same neighborhood has endured encroachment from the Medical Center for years. It has had overscaled parking garages plopped down in its midst and has suffered from the diminishing street parking, increased traffic, both on the streets and in the air, that the growing medical facility has brought. With an abundance of vacant or under-used property on the town side of the hospital, we had hoped that future expansion would go in that direction and stop impacting the residential character of our neighborhood.
ENEMIES OF DEVELOPMENT?
The neighbors are not against the hospital. They are not enemies of development. They are not hysterical in opposing any new buildings in the neighborhood. What they are against is developments in our neighborhood which negatively impact it and which are not in harmony with it. A building five times the height of what was there is out of scale. Building to the property lines, with no setbacks, is overbuilding. Increasing the residential density and traffic counts so drastically, on such a small lot, in such a restricted location, is irresponsible. Ignoring the rhythm and character of the district is insensitive design.
The proposed modular-inspired building would be more at home on the cargo docks at the Port of Savannah than it is in the middle of our 19th century Macon neighborhood. While it might relate to the ugly parking garages and the institutional hospital, it is totally out of harmony with the neighborhood’s essential scale and character.
This overscaled and inappropriate project should never have been green-lighted by Planning & Zoning. The developers should have consulted the neighborhood for their input. From an urban planning point of view, there were so many red flags on this project that it should have been sent back for redesign and scale reduction. With the removal of what little protection and guidance the historic zoning gave to the property, and with the decision by the commission that any further changes to the proposal can be handled “by staff,” there is no longer even any public input required.
QUALITY OF LIFE IN DANGER
What gives, Macon? Are we so starved for economic development that we are willing to accept anything proposed, even if it is too big and in the wrong place? Not long ago P&Z was criticized by the Chamber of Commerce because it deferred a proposed shopping center because it was not attractive and because it was too close to another one. That is what P&Z should be doing -- assuring that Macon continues to have as good a quality of life as possible. That was a good decision, based on valid reasons and one that citizens could applaud. This latest one, alas, is pretty much a disaster.
James H. Webb is president of InTown Macon Neighborhood Association in Macon.