Monday, June 01, 2009

GDOT Lets Bids for Entrance to Oconee Shopping Center

More Magic Still Needed?

Atlanta developer Frank Bishop cleared the last legal hurdle for development of his $76 million Epps Bridge Parkway shopping center last week when the Georgia Department of Transportation awarded a bid for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last October set as a condition of its rezone of the 63-acre Epps Bridge Centre site that construction could not begin until the state had awarded a bid for the roadway.

Bishop plans to build a major shopping center with a 16-screen movie theater, several restaurants and major retail anchors on the site, which, without the Oconee Connector Extension, has only a single right turn in and right turn out access point on Epps Bridge Parkway, opposite the Waffle House near Kroger.

The roadway, delayed several times as the state has struggled to find funds and as it worked its way through the process of obtaining permits from the United States Army Corps of Engineers for stream and wetland damage, is designed to open up land for Bishop and other developers.

In addition to the property owned by Bishop, four other large tracks are available for development behind Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s.

Oconee County has strongly promoted the development, lending the state $6 million for right of way purchase for the Connector Extension, which will make a loop from SR 316 at the current intersection of the Connector north and then back to Epps Bridge Parkway between the Verizon store and Lowe’s.

The state did reimburse Oconee County for the $6 million, but county Finance Director Jeff Benko cited the loss of interest from the $6 million used for the right of way purchase as part of the explanation for the county’s revenue shortfall this fiscal year.

On May 28 GDOT awarded a bid of $13,465,759 to G.P.S Enterprises Inc. of Auburn for the 1.488 mile project, that includes a widening and reconstruction on Jennings Mill Parkway and construction of a bridge and approaches over Sr 10 Loop. The project has a December 31, 2011, completion date.

G.P.S. was one of six bidders for the project when bids were opened in April, but a decision on awarding of bids was delayed at least in part because GDOT had not yet purchased mitigation credits for the work.

The Corps of Engineers requires anyone destroying streams and wetlands to mitigate that damage by stream and wetland restoration elsewhere–or the purchase of mitigation credits from someone else doing the restoration.

GDOT purchased 3.2 wetland credits from Jeffco Boys LLC of Atlanta, which operates a mitigation bank on the Middle Oconee River in Jackson County, and 3,268 stream credits from Environmental Services Inc. of Stone Mountain, which operates a mitigation bank on a tributary to the Middle Oconee River in Hall County.

Bishop plans to clear all but one of his 63 acres and pipe and fill streams and wetlands on the site. He has purchased a site in Greene County and developed a commercial mitigation bank there to sell himself mitigation credits.

Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, has prepared a resolution for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners that would urge the Corps of Engineers in the future to mitigate damage to Oconee streams and wetlands with mitigation in the county, or at least upstream from the county so the county would gain some benefit in cleaner water.

The BOC on May 5 referred the resolution to its Land Use and Transportation Committee, which has taken no action on it so far.

Sheehan drafted the resolution after talking to me about the development in Oconee County and reading my blog about it. The streams and wetlands are on tributaries to McNutt Creek, which forms a border between Oconee and Clarke counties.

G.P.S. also was the low bidder in December when the state first sought bids for the Oconee Connector Extension project and eight companies submitted bids. At that time, G.P.S. bid $13,969,803. The state rejected those bids for unspecified reasons.

Oconee County has promoted the roadway as a way of increasing commercial development in the county. Commercial development produces both higher property taxes than undeveloped land and more sales tax revenue.

At least some of that development has been and is likely in the future to be at the expense of Clarke County. The move of Wal-Mart from the Atlanta Highway in Clarke to the Oconee site has been the biggest example so far, but the recent opening of the AT&T store near the Kroger and the closing of the Atlanta Highway store shows a continuation of that trend.

Shoppers coming from the Atlanta Highway to the Epps Bridge Centre and other future development will access the Oconee Connector Extension via an exit from the Loop or an access road that will take traffic from and funnel traffic to Jennings Mill Road. That road intersects Atlanta Highway opposite Logan’s Roadhouse.

That already is a very congested part of Clarke County.

The question now is whether Epps Bridge Centre developer Bishop can work the same magic in the financial and retail market in these difficult times as he has in getting the roadway built.

The state purchased the land needed for much of the right of way for the Oconee Connector Extension from Bishop, who purchased exactly the land needed for the roadway when he purchased the site for his shopping center.

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