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Downtown Athens Streetscaping Plan: It Needs Reworking, Letter Writer Says

What's going to happen to Clayton Street?

Clayton holds much of downtown's retail establishments.
Clayton holds much of downtown's retail establishments.
Dear Mayor & Commissioners,

I attended last month’s work session during which Downtown Streetscaping plans were presented, and I attended the follow-up public input session. I was also one of the apparently dismally few who attended the early public input session on this project earlier this year. I presented a long list of concerns/ideas to Planning at both of these sessions, and I’d like to present them directly to you.

Obviously, this is a controversial project and I share many of the concerns that were brought up in last month’s work session. I was very disappointed that the presented designs did not include a variety of options for discussion, but were rather presented as something of a done deal. And I am extremely disappointed that this project does not include bike lanes, a vital transportation component that has been repeatedly proven to increase the economic performance of businesses located on corridors featuring proper bike lanes

ACC has adopted a Complete Streets Policy that calls for the accommodation of all modes of transportation whenever possible. I urge you to reread this document and keep it in mind when considering this project—why do we adopt such a policy if we are not going to adhere to it when the opportunity arises? One could not imagine a better opportunity to implement this policy than the restreetscaping of our urban core’s most vibrant commercial corridor. In addition to encouraging bicycle travel to downtown, a proper bike route through downtown would provide a much-needed connection from Normaltown and Prince Ave. neighborhoods to the Firefly Trail, Greenway, and East Athens neighborhoods. As it stands now, many cyclists from these in-town neighborhoods find it safer to push their bikes along downtown’s sidewalks (creating pedestrian impediments), or resort to loading them up on their cars for the mile or so trip in order to enjoy a ride on the Greenway.

Quite frankly, incorporating bike lanes is no longer simply catering to the desires of a niche population. It is an investment in a sustainable and equitable future transportation system as well as an issue of social justice. Georgia is now the most expensive city in the nation to own a car, while wages continue to stagnate and even decrease in Athens. A median income family in Athens now utilizes over 11% of their annual income for ownership of a single automobile.

The financial burden of car ownership on the poor is astounding, and with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, it is imperative that ACC accommodate safe, accessible alternative transportation modes whenever possible. The easier we make it for all of our residents to bike and hop on a bus, the more money they have to make ends meet and contribute our local economy.

In fact, ACC’s Bicycle Master Plan calls for bike lanes through downtown, albeit simply painted-on striped ones on Washington St. Seeing as there are no foreseeable future plans to address changes to Washington St., I urge you to seize the initiative now and implement proper, safe, and separate bike lanes during the Clayton St. streetscaping project (Clayton St. also includes more level, bikable topography). Bike lanes could easily be accommodated by removing the central “loading lane” and utilizing the leftover width to install properly separated bike lanes on either side of the street between the parking and the sidewalk. This is also the time to open up a discussion about possibly 2-waying Clayton St. In a town with such a large transient population of inexperienced drivers, and a tourist-oriented downtown, the current configuration of this street often hinders visibility and leads to dangerous confusion for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike. (For a fun lane configuration tool, click here.

Yes, this presents the problem of where to load—but why not remove 3-4 parking spaces on either side at each mid-block for dedicated daytime loading zones that could then serve as trash pickup bays at night, thus eliminating the need for the controversial “trash corrals” on every corner? Such an arrangement would essentially kill 3 birds with one stone: eliminate the inefficient center loading lane, accommodate bike lanes, and accommodate trash pickup. A fourth benefit of such an arrangement would allow these areas to serve as additional café or parklet space during the busy evening hours when loading and trash pickup do not occur. (For a little insight on the potential alternative temporary uses of parking spaces, click here.)

I understand the controversy that arises when even a scant few on-street parking spaces are threatened with removal, but the ever-increasing number of parking decks throughout downtown, the increasing numbers of downtown residents (who presumably will be walking as their cars sit tucked away in on-site parking decks), the increasing attractiveness of biking thanks to new amenities such as bike lanes and racks, and overall trends toward decreased driving (especially among young people who are the most frequent patrons of downtown) render this argument moot. I would also point out that this arrangement eliminates the need for such large corner bump-outs, and a space or two could be added back in at each corner. (For info on decreasing driving trends, click here

I believe it is time that the downtown businesses should be made more accountable for controlling problems associated with trash. Downtown businesses benefit greatly from the district’s increased traffic and high visibility and such extra efforts would be a small trade-off. Perhaps downtown should be treated a bit more like a residential neighborhood and businesses should be tasked with storing their roll carts within their own property as well as with maintaining the area in front of their businesses—this is how it works in many, many other cities with warnings and fines for noncompliance. Yes, the roll carts are bound to get filthy, but ACC could provide the tools to properly care for them. A power-wash station at each loading/trash-pickup bay could include a grated runoff filtration area over which carts could be cleaned, while equipment would be properly enclosed and locked (much like a power box). Equipment should include hoses long enough to reach each street corner to enable business owners to properly clean the areas in front of their establishments. They could be given guidance regarding appropriate biodegradable cleaning products for particular issues.
This arrangement would eliminate the need to invest in an expensive sidewalk cleaning machine and greatly reduce the burden on ACC Solid Waste as the current proposal calls for switching out & transporting dirty carts for cleanup at ACC facilities. If businesses are required to store trash carts on premises, they will certainly be motivated to keep them clean. Essentially, birds #5 & 6 could be added to the tally of those killed by that single loading-lane stone.

This is also the appropriate time to address issues of decreasing waste through measures such as banning the use of non-recyclable foam cups and containers as well as plastic bags in the downtown business district. I know ACC Solid Waste hopes to someday provide pickup services for compostable food waste, a prospect that could possibly exacerbate existing problems. Perhaps instead ACC should consider investing in a few bio-digestor machines to be installed at strategic locations throughout downtown (in parking decks, perhaps?). Restaurants could be responsible for regularly transporting their food waste to these sites (in lidded buckets on collapsible carts, perhaps?). The effluvia from this process would enter the sewage system, or it could then be collected regularly and transported directly to the landfill for composting. I became aware of these intriguing devices at the Classic City BBQ Fest, where one company had set up an information booth.

Finally, to address a few purely aesthetic issues…. As an avowed environmentalist and a Certified Master Gardener, I find the loss of the trees to be tragic--but I understand that it is unavoidable. I’d like to suggest that in the interim years while the new trees mature into shade-producing canopies, temporary arbors be installed enabling a variety of native evergreen vines to provide alternative shade sources. Paired planters outfitted with simple tall ladderlike structures adjoined by overhead wires would do the trick. There are a wide variety of fast-growing flowering species that could also offer a little fragrant cover-up for some of the unsavory odors that seem to be such a point of contention.

I’d also like to advocate for the incorporation of public art elements at the earliest possible phase of the process. I know this is an earlier SPLOST project and does not fall under the Public Art Ordinance, but there seemed to be some interest in finding a way to incorporate art elements. I firmly believe that the most appreciated and impactful examples of public art are ones that are not only visually pleasing, but also functional and community-created. Rather than accommodate public art by simply installing sculpture pedestals on every corner and advocating for murals here and there, I would suggest that art elements take on the form of functional items such as benches, lampposts, crosswalks, planters, etc. Even those ubiquitous monolithic electric boxes on every corner could provide a canvas for local painters (as could the housing for those aforementioned power-wash stations). Instead of housing “trash corrals” corner pedestrian plazas should instead accommodate small performance and gathering spaces.

I hope that our quaint little side streets can get some particularly creative attention to lure more pedestrians to the businesses located along them (For a rundown of fun, small street projects from around the globe, click here.) The possibilities really are endless and I would be happy to provide a long list of online links to provide inspiration for such elements. I hope that those involved in the early planning stages of this project will sit down with members of the Cultural Affairs Commission to discuss ways in which Athens’ celebrated creative culture can participate in this project for the benefit of the entire community.
Thank you for entertaining my ideas—I’ve submitted them to Planning via the prescribed public input process, but I’m never certain what is lost in translation as such input is presented to the powers-that-be. This is an extremely important project and I will admit that I am sorely disappointed that more of the public has not become more directly engaged.

I do wish that there was some coordination with the Downtown Master Planning Team in this process. And I would like to reiterate that I find the exclusion of bike lanes to be unacceptable considering the existence of adopted ACC policies advocating for these vital transportation elements. Thanks again, and I look forward to witnessing some in-depth discussion of these issues during the upcoming work session.

Sincerely,
Melissa Link

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