Saturday, January 18, 2020

Watkinsville Council Agrees To Move Forward With Discussion Of Rezone For Former Southwire Property

***Plans Presented For Mixed-Use Wire Park***

The Watkinsville City Council on Wednesday authorized City Manager Sharyn Dickerson to move forward with creation of a development agreement for the former 66.6 acre Southwire property on Barnett Shoals Road.

The Council took the action following a presentation by developer Duke Gibbs and planner Bob Smith for what they are calling Wire Park.

The project includes single-family detached housing units on both large and small lots, town homes and condominium flats, and an adaptive reuse of the existing wire manufacturing building on the site.

The central part of the roof of the building will be removed to create a pedestrian plaza that will be surrounded by restaurants and retail outlets.

The building also is expected to provide space for light manufacturing, warehousing, and offices and what the developers are calling "makerspaces," according to correspondence submitted to the city by Smith of Smith Planning Group.

A centerpiece of the design is 1.5-acre public park at the front of the project on Barnett Shoals Road.

Gibbs says, in a video he had created for the project, that his goal is to create "a full live-work-play community within the city of Watkinsville."

Property Purchase

Gibbs purchased the 66.6-acre Wire Park property for $3,115,000 from Southwire on Dec. 13 of last year, according to county tax records.

Southwire Sign On Barnett Shoals Road

The purchase includes two parcels. The largest is 62.1 acres and is wholly inside the city of Watkinsville. The smaller is 4.5 acres and is outside the current city boundaries.

Gibbs told me in a telephone conversation on Friday that he will ask the city to annex that 4.5 acres.

Gibbs, 2151 Union Church Road south of New High Shoals Road, said he has lived in Oconee County for 10 years and has been doing redevelopment work for 15 years, including more than 100 residential sites in Clarke and Oconee counties.

Gibbs purchased the property under the name Wire Park LLC, which is based at his Gibbs Capital LLC headquarters, 1120 Mars Hill Road, just north of Butler's Crossing.

Gibbs Oconee Projects

Gibbs redeveloped the building at 1971 Hog Mountain Road just east of Butler's Crossing in 2016 that now houses Creed Fitness, PharmD, a hospital pharmacy company, and Travel World, a travel agency.

Hog Mountain Road Development

Walls of Books recently moved from the site to another on Experiment Station Road, and that space is signed as open for lease.

In 2017 Gibbs purchased two acres at 2250 Old Bishop Road, then just outside Watkinsville, from Thaxton Storage Rental LLC that included two buildings that had been the Thaxton's Turkey Hatchery.

Gibbs converted the buildings into The Hatchery, which now houses Peach State Pride and Empire South, related clothing retailers, furniture maker Sons of Sawdust, and beverage company New Creation Soda Works.

The city has annexed the property.

Southwire Property

Southwire of Carrolton acquired the wire and cable manufacturing plant and the land surrounding it from General Cable of Highland Heights, Ky., in 2001, according to county tax records.

The Hatchery

In January 2009, Southwire began laying off employees of the plant, citing the downtown of the economy, and eventually Southwire shuttered the plant.

LAD Truck Lines bought 15.8 acres from Southwire from 2005 to 2010, according to county tax records, and currently has two large buildings on that property.

The Southwire acreage purchased by Gibbs contains two manufacturing buildings and two storage buildings, according to the county tax records.

Total square footage of the buildings, according to county tax records, is 211,600, and planner Smith, in his Jan. 2 letter to Dickerson outlining the Wire Park plans, refers to "adaptive re-use of the existing 221,432 sq. ft. wire manufacturing building."

According to county tax records, General Cable Industries Inc. still owns two pieces of property totaling 48.5 acres fronting on Barnett Shoals Road and Norton Road east of the property Gibbs purchased from Southwire.

Gibbs told me in our telephone conversation that he has no interest in purchasing the General Cable properties.

Long-Term Project

Gibbs told me that the project is "long-term" and the first phase will be redevelopment of the existing building.

Master Plan (Click To Enlarge)

The next phase will be residential, Gibbs said.

Gibbs estimated it will take four to five years to complete Wire Park.

The Master Plan that planner Smith submitted to the Council on Wednesday shows 10 large lots on the finger of land that runs furthest north of Barnett Shoals Road between Norton Road and the tracks of the line of the Bishop, Central and Watkinsville Railroad.

Those lots are separated in the Master Plan from the former manufacturing buildings by green space that will include a retention pond surrounded by walking trails, according to the Master Plan submitted to the city.

Thirty-nine smaller lots are shown on another finger of the property extending along North Road where it turns east. These also will be for single-family, detached homes.

Town homes and condominiums are shown on the acreage on Barnett Shoals Road in front of the manufacturing building.

The public park is between these condominiums and town homes and in front of the repurposed manufacturing building.

Groundwork For Rezone

Gibbs and planner Smith, with whom I also spoke by phone on Friday, told me that the purpose of the presentation to the Mayor and Council on Wednesday was to request that the body approve a development agreement between Wire Park LLC and the city.

Enlargement Of Master Plan (Click To Enlarge)

Smith said he and Gibbs are seeking an understanding of what zoning the city will require. He said something similar to a planned development is needed.

In his Jan. 2 letter to Dickerson, Smith said he was "preparing the groundwork of applying for a rezone for the 66.6 acre tract."

Smith noted that he and Gibbs had held a two-day charrette in early September with "community leaders, elected officials and nearby residents" to "begin the process of design and gain stakeholder input into the vision and future uses of the site."

A charrette is defined as a collaborative session.

"Since the completion of the charrette, we have been at work refining the plan, and now believe we are ready to move forward to the development process," Smith wrote.

"As discussed earlier," the letter continues, "the current zoning ordinance does not include a zoning category or a 'planned development' category that allows or contemplates mixed-used developments such as proposed."

"We are therefore requesting the creation of a 'development agreement' which will allow the development to proceed should the city council consider Wire Park worthy of approval," Smith wrote. Smith Planning Group is located at 1022 Twelve Oaks Place east of Butler's Crossing.

Sewer Capacity

The intensive residential development along with the commercial development will require sewage capacity that the city cannot offer at present.

The city has been in negotiations with the county over sewers, and Watkinsville approved an Intergovernmental Agreement with the County, signed on Dec. 18, that will require the county to allocated to Watkinsville 100,000 per day in additional sewage capacity.

County Administrator Justin Kirouac told me in an email message on Jan. 10 that he expects approval of the agreement to be on the agenda of the Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Jan. 28.

Kirouac also provided me with a map showing that the overall boundaries of defined "Industrial Properties" for sewer capacity will include the South Wire building.

The Watkinsville Council on Wednesday approved a modification of its Waterwater Capacity Allocations to prioritize maintaining the vitality of downtown Watkinsville and Main Street, serving in-fill single-family homes, providing for new development on undeveloped or vacant land, and assisting with "redevelopment of existing commercial" land.

"To balance residential, commercial, and industrial development," the ordinance states, "the City will reserve 50% of its wastewater capacity allocation for industrial and commercial facilities, and 50% for residential development."

Wire Park Video

Gibbs provided to the Mayor and Council on Wednesday a five-minute video, by Atlanta freelance film maker Matthew Perkins, providing an overview of Gibbs' vision for Wire Park.

Gibbs From Video

“Been driving by Southwire for over 10 years," Gibbs says in the video. "Every time I drive by I think about what used to happen here. What’s going on with it. Why is it just sitting there vacant.

"And I’ve always daydreamed about being able to buy it and do something with it," Gibbs continues.

"This property has always been a wire manufacturing plant. It’s been through many different name changes. It was Anaconda. It was General Cable. It was Southwire," Gibbs says.

"And to me there’s something about taking space and it’s old and making it new.

"And so we choose the name Wire Park because we wanted to memorialize the history of this property and also to usher in a new era of serving the community with a public space,” Gibbs says in the video."

“What we’re building at Wire Park is going to be a full live-work-play community within the city of Watkinsville less than a half a mile from Main Street," Gibbs says later in the video.

"And so all of the people that live in and around downtown will be able to walk or ride a bike or ride a golf cart out to Wire Park. What gets me most excited about this project is a 1.5 acre wide open grassy lawn in the middle of the development that is the park,” he adds.

Bernardi On Video

Oconee County Chamber of Commerce President Courtney Bernardi also speaks on the video.

Bernardi From Video

"It’s exciting to finally have a place in the City of Watkinsville where people can come together more than once or twice a year," Bernardi says.

"Because right now there’s really only a couple of times a year where people from the county and the city come together for a festival or parade," Bernardi says. "But this allows this to happen every day.”

Bernardi, under an agreement with the county, also is heading up economic development efforts for the county.

In an email message to me on Friday, Bernardi said "At this point there is no role the Chamber is playing in Wire Park.

"I was present at the charettes this summer and provided feedback in the sessions and shared my thoughts in a general sense in the video you saw.

"As the point of contact for economic development I am here to guide Duke as needed in the process," Bernardi said "ensuring he is contacting the correct people within the city/county and to link him with resources that may be of value."

Gibbs Capital

Bernardi, in her Friday email to me, said "Gibbs has also shared that he will seek my assistance with ensuring that the businesses he hopes to bring to the project are in line with the future growth plans for the city and county and that they will be a good fit for our community."

In the video, Gibbs said “We’re inviting the community to come be a part of it. If you’re a business owner. If you’re a maker, if you’re a restauranteur that loves good food. We want people who care about the things that they create.”

The web site for Gibbs Capital says it is "a boutique real estate development company based in Athens, Georgia.

"Our primary business is value-creation re-development in both commercial and residential sectors. We also build and redevelop custom construction homes and buildings for select clients under Gibbs Capital Construction."

"Duke Gibbs has been in the real estate development and investment business for 15 years," the web site states. "During his career, he has participated in over 250 real estate transactions as either a buyer or seller.

"Duke loves changing the uses of old properties into creative, new developments, while maintaining the old charm."

Missed Council Meeting

The Watkinsville Mayor and Council meets the third Wednesday of each month.

I made the silly mistake of not realizing that Wednesday, Jan. 15, was the third Wednesday in January.

I did not attend the meeting on Wednesday. Sarah Bell, who often attends and records Council meeting, also did not attend.

Watkinsville Council Member Dan Matthews reported on the meeting and on the Wire Park video at the meeting of the Oconee County Democratic Party on Thursday evening. I was present at that meeting.

I obtained the documents I used in this story from Dickerson on Thursday evening and talked to Gibbs and planner Smith on Friday about the meeting.

I also relied on the Facebook post of Council Member Brian Brodrick, who reported that "Council approved starting these conversations" about the development agreement between the city and Gibbs and "Approved a wastewater capacity allocation policy for the city."

I have embedded below the video by Perkins on Wire Park. It is publicly available for download on Vimeo.

WIRE PARK from The Best Story on Vimeo.


Diatom said...

Because we don't have enough traffic running through town already. This is the end of the Oconee and Watkinsville we love and the start of just another Atlanta suburb. Hey.. at least these guys will make a few bucks.

Jim Gaither said...

Are planner Bob Smith and Mayor Bob Smith the same?

Lee Becker said...

Planner Bob Smith of Smith Planning Group is not the same person as Mayor Bob Smith.

Unknown said...

I love this! I’d love to live in a “village” where right out my front door, I have community, and the ability to walk to the cafe or take my daily walk around beautiful green spaces and then go grab coffee at the cafe! Close enough where I could walk to the town square (Main Street) ! Yes! Yes! Yes! Pedestrian pathways connecting residential with green and retail spaces! 100% yes! 👏👏

Anonymous said...

How is Watkinsville planning on handling all the traffic generated by Wire Park, the Smith Setzer project, the 500 new jobs claimed for the hemp facility and the project coming in between Colham Ferry and 15?

BTW, I hope the developer of Wire Park makes a fortune. I would not have purchased that property for 3.1 million.

Laurel said...

It sounds awesome to me...why not develop and use an empty building. Is there some zoning change regarding that hotel on 441 South of Watkinsville?

Anonymous said...

The County is on the fast track of becoming just like Gwinnett. The quality of life has went down hill in the 45 years I have been here. Its just going to get worse. Of course all the newcomers think its great and could care less since they will just move somewhere else when its gets too bad. I guess I will have to do the same. Just a shame to have to leave after seven generations.

Doug Hansford said...

I like the concept and would like to see more mixed use development especially of existing vacant buildings. Wow, the tired old complaint about Oconee County becoming Gwinnett County, to me, is not applicable to this sort of development. Time will tell though.

Anonymous said...

Time to move to a different county.... after living here my entire life the growth and development is slowing pushing people away. Next thing you know it will be a mini Athens.

Anonymous said...

Do the newly passed lot size minimums for the county govern this development?
Small lots?
Residential sewer?

Lee Becker said...

Ananymous 5:38 a.m.

The county lot size requires have no impact inside the city of Watkinsville. So, if the 4.5 acres are annexed to the city, the county's zoning regulations will not be applicable to this project.

Unknown said...

I'm personally glad to hear about this project. I worked there from January 2001 to March 2004 and made some very good friends with the people I worked with. We all invested a great deal of our heart and soul into making the Romex wire that gets installed in our homes as well as cables for commercial buildings.