Potential buyer of historic building in uptown Athens has plans for rentals and retail

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A long-vacant piece of prime real estate in uptown Athens may soon get a new owner with plans for a combination of housing and retail.

The three-story corner building at 63 S. Court St., which sits across Court from Ohio University’s Alumni Gateway, was for decades a college bookstore. But it has sat empty since Follett’s University Bookstore closed two years ago.

Back in the spring, a sale pending sign was taped up on one of the several large ground-floor windows that face Court and West Union streets. It’s still there.

The sale has not closed yet, but in mid-September the potential buyer sought a variance from the city’s code requirements for parking.

Jon Stevison, with the Athens architectural firm RVC Architects, represented the buyer at the hearing before the Athens Board of  Zoning Appeals.

Stevison identified the buyer as Student Rentals Inc. and said it planned to use the ground floor for retail space and convert the top two floors into 20 single-bedroom or efficiency apartments.

City code requires 40 off-street parking spaces for this many units, but the buyer wanted a variance to provide half that number. And the parking spaces would be located about 2,300 feet down West Union Street, just past the roundabout.

Stevison said the purchase of the building was contingent on getting this variance, which was approved by the board on a 3-2 vote.

This building at a busy intersection in uptown Athens has sat vacant for two years, but now a potential buyer is interested in using it for a combination of retail on the ground floor and rental housing on the two top floors.
This building at a busy intersection in uptown Athens has sat vacant for two years, but now a potential buyer is interested in using it for a combination of retail on the ground floor and rental housing on the two floors above. [David Forster | WOUB]
This wasn’t the first time the buyer had sought a parking variance. It previously had asked that it be allowed to provide no off-street parking for tenants. The board rejected that request at a hearing in June.

WOUB reached out to RVC Architects and to Athens Real Estate, which is listing the building, to get an update on the status of the sale and the plans for the space. An agent with the real estate office said the buyers are not yet ready to talk about their plans. RVC did not return a call before this story was published.

At the September variance hearing, John Wharton, a local realtor, developer and landlord, spoke against the variance. He argued that the buyer should be required to provide parking on site.

Wharton owns two buildings on Court Street through one of his businesses, Wharton Rentals. The building next door to 63 S. Court is owned by Wharton Properties II, which is registered to Wharton’s son Bryan.

Wharton said he was required to provide parking on site when he redeveloped a building on the north end of Court Street that now houses Broney’s restaurant on the main floor and rental units above. This required considerable reconstruction of the basement floor. The same could be done at 63 S. Court, he said.

Adequate parking space for customers is a chronic problem for businesses in uptown Athens, Wharton said. If parking for 63 S. Court is nearly half a mile away, he said, tenants may park close by instead if they’ve just returned from shopping and have bags to haul, or if for some other reason they just don’t want to walk that far. And they may decide to stay parked there for a while.

This will take up spaces needed by merchants, he said.

Wharton said it would be a mistake to assume that the only way the building will get developed is by allowing parking off site. It will cost more to create onsite parking, but it can be done, he said.

The building at 63 S. Court was built in 1915 and was originally a car dealership. It became a bookstore in the early 1950s. Each floor is about 8,300 square feet, including the basement.

Stevison of RVC Architects told the zoning board that trying to convert the basement floor into a parking area would be too costly and disruptive.

It would require carving two ramps down into the basement, one for entering and one for exiting, he said. One ramp would be on Court Street and one on West Union, and this would eliminate two parking spaces on each street. It also would require cutting two large holes into the walls of one of the city’s historic buildings.

Also, cars would be entering and exiting the building at the busiest pedestrian intersection in uptown Athens, he said, raising safety concerns.