October 4, 2017

Envision Athens Transitions Into Action

City Dope

Do you want an expanded transit system? More bike lanes? Should there be a historic resources master plan? Should the community once again address poverty and find ways to lift up everyone? What about working to retain police officers? And does Athens really need another performance venue?

These are some of the issues in the Draft Action Agenda set by participants, focus groups and steering committee members and framed by consultants in the Envision Athens process, designed to help the community decide what kind of future it wants. The consultants, Planning NEXT of Columbus, OH, gathered 8,500 comments from 1,229 participants through a series of meetings, focus groups and online feedback. There will be opportunity for people to comment online this go-round as well, officials said.

The next part of the process is to narrow the focus to 25 or so items on an “actionable agenda,” said Marc Beechuk, who works with Planning NEXT. These will be turned over to the local government’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, which will use the information to help create the updated land use plan. There will be opportunities for residents to weigh in on that plan as well. Public hearings are scheduled for Oct. 9 at Chase Street Elementary School and Oct. 16 at J.J. Harris Elementary, both at 7 p.m.

At the Envision Athens sessions, there were posters on the walls organized under big headings, such as “posterity,” “foundations,” “education,” “arts and culture,” “transportation” and “social services.” Attendees were given a few orange dots and instructed to stick the dots on the items they felt were most important.

Among those attending last Tuesday’s session at the Lyndon House was Judy Johnston, whose daughter attends Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School. Her biggest concern is the lack of bus service on Tallassee and Whitehead roads. Parents without cars who want to attend events and conferences at BHL have no way to get there. “They want to participate in the life of the school, and they can’t,” said Johnston, a member of the BHL school governance committee. “If a child misses the bus, well, that’s it, there’s no alternative.”

Randy Wakefield, a shift supervisor at a plant near Nicholson, had attended one of the Envision Athens meetings earlier this year. He returned to the Lyndon House to see how things have taken shape. His wife, Joan Wakefield, knows what topic is most important to her: safety. If the orange dots were any indication, few of those attending agreed with her.

Wakefield works in risk management, she said, and she believes many issues are tied together, such as safety, income and education. She would like youth development programs expanded. She wondered what the vision plan is for the ACC Police Department. And she wondered why more mixed-income developments like Columbia Brookside, formerly the Jack R. Wells public housing project, aren’t being built. Brookside, she thinks, provides residents with a sense of safety and community.

Glenwood resident Diane Riley said she would like to see more affordable senior housing—which to her means small, one-story houses—in town instead of the massive high-rise apartment complexes blocking the sky downtown. And she wants community service in Athens to be a graduation requirement for every student attending UGA.

Georgia Museum of Art Director of Communications Hillary Brown (who is also Flagpole’s restaurant critic) was a member of the focus group discussing arts and culture in Athens. She helped craft the action items, and she took issue with one item the steering committee added to the list—creating a public arts space. Athens has splendid public arts spaces already, such as the Lyndon House and GMOA. Adding another would stretch financial resources instead of making everyone stronger, she said.

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship President Linda Gilbert, who’s involved with the progressive political group 100+ Days of Action, said the action items reflect a variety of voices from all parts of Athens. “I think they did a good job with a messy process,” she said. She said there’s a difference between what’s on paper and what will actually happen, but she’s “determined to be optimistic. This time, the people leading the process have some level of expertise.”

Some of those attending the session wondered not only about the choice of action items but also the language describing them. Some had elaborate, clear language with bullet points; others were vague.

Attendees could also contribute their own thoughts on a board for “big ideas.” At least two comments called for free public transportation.