City DopeNews

The Downtown Master Plan, Taxis, the Eastside Aldi and More

The pattern has been repeated so many times, it’s almost a cliche: Someone identifies a problem in Athens. Citizens are outraged. The Athens-Clarke County Commission springs into action, appointing a committee to study this very important issue. After everyone has forgotten about the problem, the committee writes a report. If the report’s recommendations make any sense, of course they could never be implemented, politically, so the report is shelved. The issue goes away—for now.

That is what I expected to happen to the downtown master plan, especially after Mayor Nancy Denson dragged her feet on accepting the plan and appointing a committee to implement it. But the committee, believe it or not, actually appears to be making some progress. In related news, the sun exploded.

Last week, the implementation committee—made up of commissioners Diane Bell, Kelly Girtz, Mike Hamby, Allison Wright, Melissa Link and Harry Sims—moved two items off its plate. One was a plan to close the block of Newton Street between Meigs Street and Prince Avenue to create a European-style outdoor cafe for The Grit and Taziki’s. The cafe will be, at first, a low-cost measure made of concrete planters, but it could be made permanent. It may or may not include a bike path down the middle, which could double as space for emergency vehicles to access the block.

(Incidentally, Bottleworks owners Parkside Partners are no longer selling the development’s parking lot to student-housing developer Landmark Properties, because tenant businesses revolted over the loss of parking during construction, according to Wright.)

The other was to work with the state Department of Transportation on a second crosswalk across Broad Street on the east side of the College Avenue intersection, where masses of students tromp from campus to downtown and back each day.

Granted, these are both minor changes in the grand scheme of things, and the bigger, harder issues (passenger rail, for example) remain far from the realm of what’s currently possible. But they’re something.

More Taxi Talk: The commission’s Legislative Review Committee is starting to get down to the nitty gritty on a broad framework for reforming local taxi regulations, spurred on by a new state law that will take effect July 1. As with most things the legislature inserts itself into, the law has sown confusion and tied Athens-Clarke County’s hands.

Although the law is set to take effect in two weeks, at last week’s LRC meeting, local cab companies had heard nothing from the state, so Laura Lusk, the ACC police lieutenant in charge of regulating taxis, took it upon herself to track down answers, finally locating an attorney in the state Department of Driver Services. “She seemed way more confused than we were ever confused, even when we started” working on the ordinance, Lusk said.

Under the law, the state, rather than local governments, will license taxi drivers. Those drivers’ ACC permits expire July 1, yet a state-run website for them to apply for renewal won’t be up and running until that day.

Among the law’s other provisions, ACC will no longer be allowed to regularly inspect taxis, county attorney Bill Berryman said. Instead, they can only order an inspection if they see a taxi on the road with defective equipment, for example a broken taillight. This is alarming because, according to Lusk, only 12 of 30 taxis passed their most recent inspection. Failing vehicles had everything from bald tires to bad alignments to broken air conditioning. Lusk said she will step up on-site visits in response to the law.

Whereas Athens taxis now use a zone-based fare system (to accommodate passengers in large vans with a variety of destinations), the shoddily written new law requires them to use meters. But meters are only vaguely defined as instruments measuring distance traveled, time AND mileage (as if distance and mileage were two different things). “There are just several inconsistent things in this law, and I think this is one of them,” Berryman said.

One advantage of meters is that they would protect both passengers and drivers from overcharging or false accusations of overcharging. “Our call volume is very high at night with passengers saying they’ve been overcharged,” Lusk said.

Commissioners discussed using a cellphone app as a meter, rather than the traditional dashboard meter. No one has figured out a way to charge passengers using a meter when 10 passengers might have 10 different destinations, though.

That problem may solve itself. Due to competition from the ride-sharing service Uber, cab companies are already adjusting the makeup of their fleets, according to Lusk. “They’re starting to realize kids don’t want to get in a van with 15 people anymore,” she said.

Eastside Aldi: A proposal for a 17,000 square-foot Aldi grocery store on Barnett Shoals Road at the College Station Road intersection looks like it will crash and burn when the commission votes on it Tuesday, July 7.

Commissioners rarely tip their hand on rezoning requests, but Andy Herod and Sharyn Dickerson, who represent the Eastside, are flat-out refusing to vote for it. In particular, they cited Aldi’s request to rezone residential property and encroach on the Green Acres/Crestwood subdivision.

“There is plenty of land on the Eastside that is already appropriately zoned for such a store and is arguably a better fit,” Dickerson said at the June 16 agenda-setting meeting, reading a statement on behalf of herself and Herod.

The Eastside already has several vacant big boxes, and if Aldi should build a store and go out of business, the area will be left with yet another empty storefront, she said.

In addition, the store would bring another 2,000 vehicles per day through the busy intersection. “Something that would generate less traffic would be a far better fit for that location,” Dickerson said, such as a medical or dental office, a restaurant or a bookstore. The new University of Georgia veterinary hospital on College Station Road could raise property values, leading to increased interest in the parcel, she said.

Planning commissioners unanimously recommended approving Aldi’s plan. Their reasoning was that someone else could build something worse under the existing zoning—logic that Dickerson rejected. “I don’t think we need to make decisions on community planning based out of fear,” she said, and she added that the Eastside wants investment and jobs, but those who want eastsiders’ business should be willing to work with neighbors.

The days of ward courtesy (when commissioners would follow the district representative’s lead on zoning matters) are long gone, but several other commissioners said they share Dickerson’s concerns.

Boulevard Woods: Construction is underway on this pocket park on Barber Street where Boulevard dead-ends, and it’s expected to be completed in about three months. Crosswalks have already been installed in front of the park. It’s being built with funds raised from the community and volunteer labor on ACC-owned property.

A Solid Choice: Waste Reduction Administrator (aka recycling czar) Suki Janssen has been appointed director of the ACC Solid Waste Department, replacing the retired Jim Corley (for whom life must have lost all meaning when his nemesis, Commissioner Doug Lowry, lost his re-election bid last year). As interim director, Janssen oversaw the rollout of robotic garbage trucks and changes to the leaf-and-limb pickup program. “I can absolutely tell you she’s proven herself,” Manager Alan Reddish said.

Media Matters: It’s been a rough few weeks for our friends and competitors at the Athens Banner-Herald. First the paper made a couple of egregious spelling errors in a headline both online and in print—not that Flagpole has never made a mistake, but these were particularly cringeworthy. (We’re told the person responsible has been fired.)

Then the website erroneously reported that the sun had exploded, and the subsequent correction went viral. The official word was that the ABH was “the victim of on online miscue,” which could mean anything. Were they hacked? Was it a joke? Did someone screw up? (It was the former, supposedly. Call me cynical, but I wouldn’t put it past a few folks over there to do something like this on purpose for the clicks.)

After all those lulz, the paper redeemed itself with some old-fashioned standing up for the First Amendment, fighting Judge Patrick Haggard’s gag order prohibiting any reporting on jury selection for the Jamie Hood trial, which is unconstitutional prior restraint. While District Attorney Ken Mauldin led the way and the daily’s publisher had to be shamed into action, the ABH was preparing its own motion when Haggard lifted the most egregious parts of the order.

Last month, veteran newspaperman Ed Morales took over at the Banner-Herald in the newly created positions of editor-in-chief and director of content. Morales was formerly the copy desk chief and until 2013 served as editorial advisor at The Red & Black. (He’s also—full disclosure—married to Flagpole contributor Kristen Morales.)

Meanwhile, his old job at the college paper will be filled, starting in August, by Atlanta magazine editor and Grady College instructor Rebecca Burns.