City DopeNews

How to Reinvent the Aging Eastside

First, the bad news: When more than 700 people who responded to an online survey were asked what words they associated with Lexington Road, they said things like “eyesore,” “congested,” “dangerous” and “trashy.” Traffic is a problem, and developments are aging. “This corridor has probably seen disinvestment and decline,” said urban planner Bill de St. Aubin.

De St. Aubin is one of a dozen experts brought in by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit think tank with a branch in Atlanta, to take a closer look at Lexington Road last week at the request of a Lexington Road Committee chaired by ACC Commissioner Andy Herod.

The group came up with numerous recommendations for improving the area, starting with sidewalks and bike lanes, which many of the more than 700 people who filled out an online survey said they want. “They feel like pedestrians need a safe space to get around,” said real estate lawyer Jan Bozeman. By the way, that figure—719, to be exact—was the highest Bozeman had ever seen. “You have a very involved community,” she said.

The Eastside is growing at the rate of just 0.5 percent per year, well below the booming downtown and intown areas. But it has potential, said economic development consultant Ken Bleakly. About 38,000 people live within a three-mile radius of Lexington Road, and they spend $230 million a year.

The slow growth is because of a lack of housing options and students moving downtown, Bleakly said. Ideally, vacant apartment complexes would be turned into mixed-use and senior-living communities, but redevelopment is unlikely without government help. “When we look at rental housing opportunities, I think it’s going to be difficult to make the numbers work, given current rents,” Bleakly said. Cracking down on code violations could push landlords who’ve let properties deteriorate to sell. “I hate to say it, but code enforcement can be an effective tool to get those property owners out of there,” Bozeman said. As another incentive, multifamily density should be increased, Bleakly said.

Walkability is key, too, and the ULI recommended creating a pedestrian/bike pathway along Lexington Road and building an “Athens Beltline.” This route would continue from where Firefly Trail will dead-end at the Loop, on past the back of Wal-Mart to Southeast Clarke Park. While businesses need parking in front and cars move too fast to put buildings on the street, strategically placed medians and small stores in front of big-box shopping centers would give the corridor a more human scale, de St. Aubin said.

Past Wal-Mart, where traffic drops off from 35,000 cars a day at the Loop to 8,000, the road could be trimmed down from five to three lanes, said John Devine, a planner with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission. It’s GDOT’s responsibility to fix the Loop interchange, but according to Devine, bus rapid transit could reduce congestion.

A string of urban “nodes” along the corridor would serve as destinations for residents and visitors alike. They could include a “wellness” node with a park near the Lakewood subdivision, a “food hub” with a farmer’s market and community kitchen in the old Rose’s building and an artists’ community on undeveloped residential land. Other shuttered big boxes, such as the Piggly Wiggly, could be converted into craft breweries, creating a “beer trail.”

Don’t expect the invisible hand to work its magic, though, de St. Aubin warned. “You can’t expect private development to come in and do it for you,” he said. “You need P3 [public-private partnerships] to make it happen.”

That means incentives like tax breaks. A Community Improvement District—where property owners agree to tax themselves—could also fund improvements. Those funds can be leveraged to win state and federal grants and can pay for public art, transportation and public safety, according to Gil Prado, who runs a CID in Fulton County. Creating a CID could also influence GDOT to move ahead with the planned reconstruction of the broken Lexington Road-Loop-Barnett Shoals intersection.