January 16, 2013

Athens Rising

Photo Credit: Blake Aued

Vision Video is an Athens icon, but the building it occupies is not.

After 27 years, Vision Video is closing its flagship location on Broad Street. (Yes, the other two locations will remain open.) With this icon of Athens soon to be gone, a prime piece of property is up for grabs.  

We can lament another locally owned business falling prey to Amazon or Netflix, but this section of Broad between downtown and Milledge Avenue has seen other changes in the past few years. Treehouse Kid & Craft opened in the old, crazy-ass Nuwaubian/Egyptian cult building. (Though it’s a great example of adaptive reuse, I miss the green pharaohs.) This space is also occupied by Luna Bakery and, though it's not yet official, I’ve heard Luna might be opening a restaurant in the third space in the building. Since Peaches Fine Foods closed last summer, another restaurant is needed in the area.  Phi Kappa Tau is renovating and eventually adding onto the old Steak & Ale/Red Rooster/Taco Mac building nearby, though my guess is that most traffic generated from the fraternity will be aimed toward downtown and not up the hill. 

 Which poses an interesting question: What is to become of this area of town?  Its proximity to downtown seems to be more of a problem than a blessing. Being so close to downtown keeps the rents and taxes high on many of these properties, creating an incentive for redevelopment.    

No development applications have been filed in the area, according to the Athens-Clarke Planning Department, meaning that, as of now, there are no immediate plans for change.  Eventually, much-needed change will come. Hopefully, it will fit the wants and needs of residents and business owners in the neighborhood while serving as an attractive entrance into the heart of Athens.  

This section of Broad Street is the main entrance into downtown from the west and should be one of our best-looking thoroughfares. Although there are several great examples of mid-century modern architecture, most of the buildings are so run-down that people notice their dilapidated condition, not their architectural aesthetics.    While almost all of the businesses in the area are local, many of the buildings themselves are owned by out-of-towners. (Vision Video's building, owned by the Benson family, is an exception.) Absentee landlords have few interests beyond collecting the rent check.   

West Broad Street needs more “well-designed two- to three-story structures that offer goods and services that expand area offerings," Athens-Clarke Commissioner Kelly Girtz says. "Athens benefits when more opportunity is available in a smaller geographic area.”  

Girtz says he has not heard much direct feedback form constituents about what they would like to see in the area, but it is clear that oversized, intrusive structures are not wanted. Like Girtz, Evan Smith, beer guru and owner of Blockader Homebrew Supply, would like to see well-designed, renovated buildings and local businesses.  Smith agrees that the area ss not equipped to handle large-scale chains like other parts of Broad but is perfect for smaller, local businesses that attracts a variety of clientele.  While this section of Broad is the most likely direction for downtown expansion, it shouldn’t mimic downtown. 

Restaurants and retail are viable options for this section of Broad, but the nightlife should be kept downtown, says Pat Gannon, a college-age resident.  “I can walk downtown to bars or to the co-op for groceries, but more restaurants and retail in the area would be nice,” Gannon says.  While there are many student renters in the area, there are also many homeowners with nine-to-five jobs and children who would probably not be too happy with bars coming into their neighborhood but wouldn’t mind walking or driving to restaurants and shops that cater to their needs.  Treehouse Kid & Craft, Blockader Homebrew Supply and a few others are filling this niche. 

David Dwyer of Atlas Real Estate Advisors sees Athens as a city of nodes with roadways connecting the nodes like spokes on a wheel, and the downtown and Beechwood nodes are expanding to meet each other.  For example, a Dollar General is opening near the Rocksprings Street intersection with Broad Street, a short walk from several neighborhoods. 

Dwyer says nearby Baxter Street used to be a walkable, vibrant neighborhood, though in my time in Athens, it has been little more than an auto-centric corridor connecting campus and Beechwood.  It just goes to show how much things change over time.  Perhaps 15 years from now, I’ll be telling another Flagpole columnist about back in the day, when the posthumously named Vision neighborhood wasn't vibrant or walkable; it was little more than a corridor connecting a couple of Athens nodes.