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Decatur City Commission denies special exception for Ponce Primary Care relocation

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Decatur City Commission denies special exception for Ponce Primary Care relocation

315 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. Photo obtained via Google Maps.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — The Decatur City Commission, at its Sept. 7 meeting, denied an application for a special exception that would allow a surface parking lot between the street and the side of the building at 315 W. Ponce de Leon Ave, which was previously a bank drive-thru.

The applicant, Laurel David, an attorney with the Galloway Law Group, requested that the existing drive-thru lanes and ancillary parking be converted to off-street parking. The property owners also planned to re-stripe the existing paved areas for parking and proposed no other improvements to the property, according to the application for special exception.

The property owner planned to stripe 25 spaces originally, but reduced the number to 18 parking spaces.

“The parking will allow a medical office tenant to provide services from the ground floor of the existing building and provide dedicated accessible parking for its patients,” the application states.

Ponce Primary Care, which is currently located at 402 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., wished to move to the new location at the corner of West Ponce de Leon Avenue and Ponce de Leon Place. Their current lease will be ending within the next year and the office hopes to remain in downtown Decatur.

The proposal was approved by the city’s Planning Commission and was first brought to the City Commission on Aug. 16. David asked for a deferral to allow more time to work with residents regarding their concerns. The Planning Commission recommended approval with the conditions that the surface parking lot be arranged similarly to plans that were submitted in May and that trees must be planted in the existing green space between the proposed surface parking and the sidewalk.

The property is located in the downtown Decatur special pedestrian area, which drew concerns from residents about the surface parking.

“We already lost that green space in front of the building,” Decatur resident Mary Karwoski said at the Aug. 16 meeting. “While this is on a side street, it would give us an opportunity to bring back some of that green space and to have an opportunity for the trees to actually develop a mature canopy, much the way the trees in the parking lot previously had a mature canopy and really shaded that parking lot well.”

Decatur resident Kathie Gannon said at the Aug. 16 meeting that she would like to see a compromise that would increase green space, decrease the amount of concrete and allow for pedestrian-oriented green space.

She added that the property already has a special exception, and the city commissioners shared that concern at the Sept. 7 meeting about granting another special exception.

“I would like to add that this property already has a special exemption for 60 parking spaces on the west side of the building. They received that in 2013,” Gannon said. “I just would have problems with an additional benefit of that kind of exception to financial benefit without some kind of return to the community both to the Decatur public as well as the neighborhood in terms of some kind of pedestrian way to improve that area.”

Before the Sept. 7 meeting, Gannon and other residents met with the property owners to review the purposes of the special pedestrian district and share their concerns.

“With no parking allowed there all these years, the addition of 25, or 18 spaces is a tremendous increase in the traffic and pedestrian conflicts that will be prevalent there,” Gannon said at the Sept. 7 meeting. “We think this should not be allowed in that there is not even a nod to towards making this more aesthetic, more protective, all those things the pedestrian district is supposed to do.”

Jordan Edwards, a representative of the property owner, said that he’s sympathetic to the requirements of the district, but the building has many nonconforming features currently, and it would be impossible to lease the building to the doctor’s office and bring it into compliance with the pedestrian district.

Resident Susan Avent said that the number of parking spaces isn’t the issue, it’s the amount of green space and the affordability of removing asphalt to create additional green space.

“We need the trees. It’s a nice gesture, but we need the green space,” Avent said. “Our city’s desperate for it. I would seek to deny if we can’t come to a compromise or compromise.”

Edwards added that while they are not adding green space, the owners were willing to enhance the existing green space.

“That would include working with the city arborist, taking feedback we’re already received from members of the community to put in large trees, as large as the arborist’s recommendation would allow,” Edwards said. “[There’s] shrubs, it’s already irrigated, there are flowers planted, we have it very tidy there. So I think we would be enhancing the aesthetic quality of Ponce Place.”

The City Commission ultimately denied the application, and the commissioners raised similar concerns. Commissioner George Dusenbury mentioned that in the city’s strategic plans, there has been a vision for what the city wants downtown Decatur to look like. That vision is not one of surface parking lots, he said.

“What we envisioned was kind of more of a vibrant downtown community that’s walkable,”Dusenbury said. “We take lots of pride in our walkability.”

He added he sees a vision and desire to basically get rid of surface parking in downtown Decatur and reduce pedestrian and vehicle conflicts.

“To me, this is a case study of one of these uses that was supposed to go away as Decatur developed. By granting this exemption we are actually allowing a new use for the parking, so it’s not that it’s going away, we’re actually enhancing it,” Dusenbury said.

Dusenbury also said he was struggling with the fact that Emory Healthcare and Kaiser are operating in Decatur without surface parking lots, and they have parking decks behind them for their patients. Commissioner Lesa Mayer agreed and said that when she goes to doctor’s appointments, she has not been able to park next to a doctor’s office for an appointment.

The compromise proposed was to reduce the number of spaces from 25 to 18 and add three trees, but Mayer was expecting to see a greater compromise and more agreement between the residents and the property owner.

“I was expecting a little bit more in terms of compromise based on the conversation last meeting so to see this proposed as the compromise, it really didn’t sound like much of what the community was expressing as a concern was really addressed as a compromise, unless I’m missing it,” Mayer said. “I do struggle with an exception to an exception as well.”

She also raised the concern about if the doctor’s office were to leave the space, what would that property look like if a new tenant moved in and how would that affect the city’s plan of wanting to be a more walkable community.

Building owner Bruce Tamarkin, with Redstone Investments, said he’d agree to never use the drive-thru on the property.

“Since we started the process, we have made a lot of concessions. We’re not changing the parking lot, we’re just reusing the parking lot. Since that time, we’ve agreed to had a hedgerow. We started with two trees per the arborist on our first call and we’ve gone to three trees,” Tamarkin said. “We’ve added a park bench. We’ve removed seven spaces. The only thing we haven’t agreed to do this whole process is to remove pavement and add grass. All that grass, that’s not really going to change, from what I hear about pedestrian traffic and car traffic, that’s not going to change that.”

Mayor Patti Garrett agreed with the commissioners that it didn’t seem like enough was brought back to the City Commission to move the needle forward in terms of what the community was asking for.

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