New development threatens historic site

Just a year ago, a drive down Oconee Street through Carr’s Hill would show a bustling neighborhood community, housing students and non-students alike, multiple churches, and the historic Oconee Street School; now the headquarters of ACTION Incorporated.  This, however, may not be the case for much longer.

Today, a similar drive reveals a new student housing complex that presses the boundaries of Carr’s Hill, cutting the area off visibly from Downtown and the Oconee River, and choking the already cramped streets and intersections.  This new development coupled with the current economic recession could signify the end of mixed-use housing in the area, and devastating blow to the future of the historic building that houses ACTION Inc.

Located in the old Oconee Street School building on the corner of Oconee and Poplar Street, the Area Committee to Improve Opportunities Now, or ACTION Inc., was founded in 1965 with the goal of helping impoverished families and individuals in Northeast Georgia.  With offices in ten counties, ACTION Inc. provides various services to the children, elderly, and poor of North Georgia, including emergency home repair and self-sufficiency classes, just to name a few.  Marilyn Appleby, the Marketing and Communications Director for the Athens Housing Authority, described the organization as a great benefit to the community and the state.

“They provide programs that help senior citizens who have difficulty paying their utilities,” said Appleby.  “They also offer housing counseling, and they teach classes on budgeting and money management.”

The Community Development Block Grant program plays a big part in the services provided by the organization.  Formed in 1974 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the CDBG fund provides communities with funds that address a wide range of unique community development needs, allowing ACTION Inc. to provide vital services like weatherization, emergency repair, and various other utility cost-cutting services to the elderly and poor around Georgia.

The Oconee Street School that houses the organization has long been a staple of the neighborhood, offering historic charm to Carr’s Hill, an area that the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation has called; “one of Athens most historic areas.”  The building itself was built in 1908 as an initiative to build three new public schools in Athens, and is the only one of that era still intact today.  As one of Athens’ earliest public schools, this building is both architecturally and historically significant, making it eligible to be designated as a national landmark and placed on the national register of historic places, though this is not yet the case.

This important community resource and the historic building that it is located in may be in danger, and it will not be the first time.

With the sign in front of the building dirty and almost unreadable, and the parking lot full of potholes and rocks, this area has definitely seen better days.  A quick survey of the ACTION building as it is now quickly reveals that the organization has been unable to correctly care for it, and has resorted to, among other cost-cutting measures, renting out office space to other organizations.

ACTION Inc. has had several financial difficulties over the years, which has caused many further problems for the organization and put the building that houses it in danger.  In 2005, the ACTION board of directors decided to sell the building in order to eliminate debts reaching a reported $1.4 million dollars, according to the Athens Banner-Herald.  Over the next year, several prospective purchasers of the property came and went, with each ultimately backing out of a deal.

In December of 2006, ACTION filed for a special use permit that would allow for a potential buyer of the property to demolish the existing historic building to make way for 17 townhomes.  After considerable effort by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, and two separate appeals, the application was denied.  A study was then commissioned, according the ACHF, to assess potential use and historic significance of the building itself, with the ultimate goal of designating the building as a nationally recognized historic landmark.

The Oconee Street School Feasibility Study, commissioned by the Heritage Foundation and carried out by Lord Aeck Sargent, an Atlanta-based architectural firm, detailed the historic and architectural significance of the building, as well as potential uses, renovation costs, and tax credits associated with use and renovation of the property.  The study concluded that adequate renovations would total to just under $2.5 million, but the use of the building would be eligible for significant tax incentive programs if the property is ultimately deemed a national historic site.

ACTION Inc. met further financial difficulties in 2011 due to federal budget cuts, forcing it to cut back its hours of operation across all ten offices, as well as make significant cuts to programs like Full Plate, which collects leftover food from restaurants and cafeterias to donate to local shelters.

With a history of debt and mismanagement, coupled with an uneasy economic foothold, the future of ACTION is a little foggy.  According to the Athens Banner-Herald, the organization was able to come to an agreement with the IRS in 2011 to wave a large portion of unpaid taxes, though the organization is still having trouble making payments.

As of yet, the Oconee Street School building has still not been formally designated by the national register as an historic site, and even though it has been deemed eligible for historic status, it is still venerable to new development initiatives in the area.  Amy Kissane, Executive Director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, expressed concern regarding the status of this historic building, especially with the advent of large-scale housing-developments in the area.

“With the new development going on in the Carr’s Hill area, we don’t know what’s going to happen to the school,” said Kissane.  “We will certainly be watching the area carefully.”

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