January 30, 2013

Athens Rising: Is South Milledge Walkable Enough?

Photo Credit: Stella Smith

The trend in new development is mixed use—Athens-Clarke County law in many places requires it—and that's definitely something I like to see.  Combining residential and commercial property has proven to increase business, encourage neighborliness, cut down on crime and improve health by creating a less auto-dependent community. 

 The idea of a mixed-use community is nothing new. Before suburbia existed, all towns were mixed use. It was just the natural way a town formed.  However, mixed-use neighborhoods are now planned, and though they sometimes take the surrounding area into account, they do not always, leaving them sheltered neighborhoods standing alone and not assimilated into the town in the way well-planned developments should be.

With that in mind, what happened to Smoke ‘n’ Choke?  A strip mall that used to house the tobacco store and a few houses on 1.92 acres on South Milledge Avenue have been razed for a triple-R mixed-use development (residences, retail, restaurants) called Courtyard South.  The commercial portion of the development will consist of two two-story mixed-use buildings with commercial on bottom and residential on top.  In addition, there will be a mixture of single-family houses and duplexes for a total density of 15 dwellings and 56 bedrooms.

The two buildings with commercial space will front South Milledge and will have access from both the Milledge side and the parking lot side, much like the shopping center by the Loop.  The more residences come in, the more likely it is that customers will actually use those road-front entrances as the area becomes more walkable.  

The development will have a total of 71 parking spaces, but not in one large parking lot; the parking spaces will be scattered throughout the development as needed.  Naturally, the project is expected to increase the amount of traffic on Milledge; however, there will only be one entrance onto South Milledge. (According to the ACC Planning Department, a development of this size would typically have two entrances.) To encourage walkability, a sidewalk will be added along South Milledge and pedestrian circulation is provided throughout the site.  

Athens is already a fairly walkable town, so new development should be pedestrian-friendly in order to maintain that standard.  I’m all for new development and especially new development that is pedestrian-friendly, but new development should always tie in with existing development.  South Milledge is almost completely residential on both sides of the street; however, there are relatively few crosswalks.  With the addition of restaurants and retail on the east side of Milledge, there needs to be a safe way for pedestrians who live on the west side of Milledge to access them.  A fair amount of pedestrian traffic is possible from the residences along Milledge, but only if they can safely cross the street. (The bus stop is across the street from this development.)

Courtyard South reminds me a lot of Ansonborough on the Eastside—a mixed-use community with retail, restaurants and residences.  Once in the community, it is very walkable and encourages foot traffic, but although there is a sidewalk along the front of the development, I rarely see it used.  The proposed development in the SunTrust parking lot downtown and Selig’s proposed development at the Armstrong & Dobbs property are fundamentally the same as Ansonborough and Courtyard South, except that with their proximity to downtown, they are almost assured of pedestrian traffic from outside of those developments. In terms of pedestrian-friendliness and accessibility to those not living in the development, they are a good fit in their respective neighborhoods.  

While I am glad to see the South Milledge/Macon Highway area grow, I would like to see it incorporated into the surrounding area, rather than stand alone as a new development only pedestrian-friendly to itself.  Several years ago, when a shopping center nearby on South Milledge was built, I remember thinking that no one was going to drive all the way to Macon Highway for anything. I was wrong: There is constant traffic in and out of the restaurants and businesses there, and it seems to be a very successful development.  I hope Courtyard South assimilates nicely into the South Milledge neighborhood and is beneficial to the growth of the area.  Nothing, including new development, happens in a vacuum.