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$21 million, 185-room Hilton Garden Inn Awaiting
 Building Permit from Athens, Georgia
 Planning Department
By Allison Floyd, Athens Banner-Herald, Ga.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 2, 2004 - Hotel executives will break ground on a new downtown Hilton Garden Inn Friday, though they haven't yet received a building permit.

After months of work on designs for the 185-room facility, hotel designers had satisfied all but a couple of issues with Athens-Clarke County Planning Department late Wednesday and could, conceivably, have the building permit in hand for Friday's ceremony.

The two remaining issues involve a sign that might top the eight-story building and a plain facade facing East Clayton Street.

County law doesn't allow signs any higher than the second story. While hotel developers with Classic City Hotel Co. intend to apply for a variance to allow the sign, officials want the structure removed from the plans in the meantime, said Athens-Clarke Senior Planner Rick Cowick.

Classic City Hotel spokesman Mike Waldrip confirmed that the company will ask for special permission to erect the rooftop sign.

"The sign isn't advertising," he said. "It's directional."

Athens is difficult to navigate, he added, especially for out-of-towners.

Planners also want Classic City Hotel Co. to dress up the facade facing East Clayton Street, which cannot feature windows because that wall will stand on the property line.

The south wall of the hotel will overlook a small shopping center, including Covington Credit and Bluebird Cafe. Since a future developer might one day build a high-rise building on the site of that shopping center -- effectively blocking any windows on the south wall of the hotel -- county code doesn't allow windows there.

Hotel designers "are very close" to completing the plan, Cowick said Wednesday, as he waited for final approval from the Clarke County Health Department.

Public health regulators recently signed off on the hotel's kitchen and granted a waiver for the swimming pool, which is smaller than typically allowed.

The minimum size for public swimming pools -- including those in subdivisions -- is based on the number of people public health officials estimate will use the facility.

In the case of the Hilton Garden Inn, the number of rooms led officials to require 1,960 square feet, Cowick said, enough room for 98 swimmers.

Instead, the hotel company plans a 500-square-foot pool and agreed to limit the number of swimmers to 20 at a time.

"I've never seen more than 10 people in the pool at a time," Waldrip said of the 308-room downtown Holiday Inn, owned by the same parent company as the future Hilton.

Waldrip agreed that hotel architects are putting the finishing touches on designs needed for a building permit, but admitted they may not finish in time for Friday's ground-breaking ceremony.

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