December 19, 2017

Commission Could Redo Clayton Street With Little Public Input

City Dope

Athens-Clarke County commissioners are moving forward with a long-awaited plan to remake Clayton Street—without any input from the downtown businesses that will be affected by the new configuration, as well as more than a year of construction.

Originally part of SPLOST 2005, the Clayton Street project was put on hold in 2013 after bids came in at almost double the $6 million budget. T-SPLOST, the 1 percent sales tax for transportation voters approved in November, included another $6 million, and commissioners now apparently are rushing to make up for lost time.

They decided at a work session Dec. 12 that they want to fast-track the streetscape project, which will involve tearing up Clayton Street to do underground utility work and lay down new sidewalks, in order to avoid construction over two football seasons. County staff’s original timeline called for approving a “project concept” in March, with more detailed design work approved in May, and construction starting next summer and running until mid-December 2019.

“Ripping up the heart of downtown through two football seasons is pretty harsh,” said David Lynn, director of planning and outreach for the Athens Downtown Development Authority, at an ADDA meeting earlier that day.

At their evening work session, a majority of commissioners agreed, opting to vote on a design in March to start work in May and hopefully wrap up by August 2019. The project concept is on the agenda for the commission’s Dec. 19 discussion meeting, setting up a vote on Jan. 2.

While some details can be tweaked after Jan. 2, that vote will lock in how wide Clayton Street will be, because engineers need to know the curb-to-curb street width before they can proceed with further design work. The consensus among most commissioners was to accept Transportation and Public Works Director Drew Raessler’s recommendation to remove one of the three vehicle lanes on Clayton between Thomas and Lumpkin streets, narrowing the street to two lanes, which would allow the sidewalk on each side to be widened by three and a half feet.

There are other options, though, including leaving the street three lanes or replacing the angled on-street parking with parallel parking, allowing the sidewalks to be widened even further. The latter option appealed to Commissioner Melissa Link, who said she’d like to see more public gathering space downtown. “Maybe we can replicate [College Square] on one block of Clayton Street,” she said.

Link called for more opportunity for public input because retailers are busy this time of year, and many people are out of town for the holidays, so they may not be able to comment before the Jan. 2 vote on the project concept. She advocated a middle approach of holding the vote in February. “The public deserves an opportunity for input, or even to know that parallel parking is an option, and we could have more sidewalk space,” she said.

The idea of delaying construction until after the 2018 football season was never brought up.

Other commissioners dismissed the parallel-parking alternative out of hand because, according to Raessler, it would reduce the number of parking spaces on Clayton by about half—from 54 to 28 spaces per block, on average. (In contrast, Raessler’s recommendation would remove seven spaces per block.) Downtown merchants always wring their hands about any potential loss of parking downtown, and Lynn had told the ADDA board earlier that he’s fighting to preserve as many parking spots as possible. In addition, fewer parking spaces equals less revenue for the ACC government, Commissioner Mike Hamby said.

“We were elected to make a decision and represent the public, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said.

Commissioners also shut down any discussion of back-in parking or making Clayton Street two-way again.

Back-in parking is just what it sounds like: Drivers back into parking spaces and pull out, rather than pulling in and backing out. It’s safer because it’s easier for drivers to see when leaving the space, and they can make eye contact with other drivers, Raessler said. But commissioners dubbed it too confusing, and the ADDA opposes it as a potential impediment to people coming downtown.

“Given the number of new drivers we have every year, I’d like to avoid that impediment,” Commissioner Kelly Girtz said.

Commissioner Allison Wright said that her hometown of Lexington, KY (another college town) has back-in parking, as does Macon. “If Macon is doing it, anybody can do it,” she said.

Athens drivers “don’t all go to Macon to practice backing in,” Hamby said, “but they all know how to pull into a parking space.”

At some point, ACC should consider making Clayton and Washington two-way streets, Commissioner Jared Bailey said, because “there’s an economic advantage for businesses when the streets are two ways.” But doing so would be expensive: About $250,000 for new traffic signals at each intersection, Raessler said.

Where delivery trucks should park to unload beer is a perennial issue downtown, but doesn’t appear to be a concern as it relates to the streetscape project. Lynn said bar owners are “ambivalent” about the loss of the center lane, which is used by delivery trucks. And Raessler said there are plenty of other loading zones that delivery trucks can use.

P.S. Yes, this is the same project that will involve cutting down the trees on Clayton Street, which are nearing the end of their lifespan anyway and are too big to be moved. So, once again, be aware: The trees on Clayton Street are coming down. New trees will be planted. [Blake Aued]

You Spin Milledge Right Round

The commission is also moving forward with another, much less controversial T-SPLOST project—a roundabout at Milledge Avenue and Whitehall Road. The roundabout was approved in 2009, but the commission opted in 2013 merely to flatten out a hill at the existing intersection because of a lack of funding, knowing that it would need further improvement down the road, so to speak. Both a traditional option and a roundabout are the same price ($2 million), and a roundabout will significantly improve traffic flow during rush hour while eliminating time drivers would spend waiting for the light to turn during off-peak times, Raessler told commissioners. It will also look nicer, with landscaping in the center island, he said. [BA]

CCSD Reaffirms Immigration Stance

Clarke County School Superintendent Demond Means has been outspoken in his view that local schools should be welcoming places for all children, and now the school board has codified that view.

Per school board member Jared Bybee, the board approved a resolution Dec. 14 affirming that CCSD has a “responsibility to welcome and educate all students” and that “deportation, or the threat of deportation, of students or their parents undermines the sense of safety that all students must have to academically achieve their greatness.” The resolution directs Means and a committee of BOE members to review district policies and come back to the full board within 90 days with recommendations “to effectuate the Board's commitment to the education, safety and emotional well-being of all students and their families regardless of immigration status, ethnicity, national origin, race, or religion.”

Beyond the widespread belief in Athens that the community should protect members who are vulnerable to deportation, school districts are legally obligated to accept all students regardless of immigration status. The Texas legislature in 1975 decided to start charging tuition to students who had not been “legally admitted” to the U.S., but the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that any money saved was far outweighed by the cost to society of not educating those children.