The Varsity restaurant in Athens

The Varsity in Athens has been serving customers since 1932.

Credit: The Varsity

Whaddaya have? A mixed-use development all the way.

The owners of landmark fast-food restaurant The Varsity recently filed for a permit to tear down the 1965 restaurant to make way for what is likely to be apartments and retail, perhaps a grocery store.

It’s been obvious for years that The Varsity’s owners, the Gordy family, would take this step. The family started buying up properties around the restaurant in 2017 and requested a rezoning for the 6.7 acres they’d assembled in 2018.

“This was inevitable,” said Commissioner Melissa Link, who represents the area. “We knew this was coming. The people who own The Varsity have made it clear they want to wash their hands of the property.”

Hidden between two other signs on Milledge Avenue is one announcing that The Varsity is slated for demolition.

Hidden between two other signs on Milledge Avenue is one announcing that The Varsity is slated for demolition.

Credit: Blake Aued/Flagpole Magazine

With residents fearing another Best Western-style development towering over their homes, in 2019 the commission approved an overlay zone for the block surrounding The Varsity. The overlay district requires buildings to be set back from the sidewalk, caps building heights, restricts the amount of parking and discourages student housing by limiting bathrooms in an apartment to two (most new student apartments are four-bed, four-bath).

The overlay district came about as a compromise after owners the Gordy family filed for a permit to tear down the Mack-Burney House, a historic home on Reese Street built by an African-American family where several prominent educators lived. As part of the deal, the Gordys agreed to turn over the Mack-Burney House and three other houses on the block to the Athens Land Trust to serve as affordable housing. 

Link has placed a 90-day hold on the demolition permit in hopes of convincing architects to somehow acknowledge The Varsity’s history, but ACC cannot stop the demolition. In addition to its iconic status among UGA football fans, the restaurant was the site of Vietnam protests, Klan rallies and sit-ins during the civil rights movement. 

A deal is in place to sell the property to Atlanta-based Fuqua Development, according to Link. “From what I understand, they’re going to do a grocery store there,” Link said. However, ACC Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee said no plans have been filed.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Flagpole Magazine.