The old joke about making the long trek to the Eastside is about to get a little less funny. After some lobbying by Mayor Kelly Girtz, the Georgia Department of Transportation has moved up the long-awaited reconstruction of the Loop interchange at Oconee Street/Lexington Road, “one of a couple of real pinch points in town,” Girtz said.
The project involves moving the northbound (outer) Loop entrance to the other side of Lexington Road, which will greatly improve traffic flow. Estimated to cost $22.5 million in 2017, has been on the books since 1994 but until recently was scheduled for 2025 or later. Construction will now start next year. (A GDOT crew was cutting back foliage last week, but that was most likely routine work, according to the ACC Transportation and Public Works Department.) The timing will coincide with the construction of a bridge for the Firefly Trail, Girtz said.
And more improvements are coming to Lexington Road, as well as Atlanta Highway and other gateways into town. Commissioners Andy Herod on the Eastside and Jerry NeSmith on the Westside are heading up committees that will recommend ways to spend $4 million in TSPLOST funding—sales taxes earmarked for transportation—on Lexington Road and Atlanta Highway. Girtz said he expects reports on their priorities by the end of the year. “While $4 million is great, it’s only going to do a handful of things, rather than do everything we want to do,” he said.
Both corridors face challenges related to growth, mobility and the future of retail, consultant Kyle May of planning NEXT told the Athens-Clarke County Commission at a work session earlier this month, but they have unique qualities.
GDOT is also moving forward with rebuilding the Loop interchange at Atlanta Highway, but improvements to the Mitchell Bridge Road intersection are no longer part of that project, and that’s the main reason traffic backs up, according to the study. In addition, Epps Bridge Road does a good job of carrying traffic toward downtown, but not west. The Highway 78 turnoff will also need work eventually. The study also recommends pocket parks, additional transit stops and a multi-use path for cyclists and pedestrians.
The “elephant in the room,” May said, is the future of the increasingly empty Georgia Square Mall. Although ACC’s control is limited because the mall is privately owned, May urged the commission to come up with a redevelopment plan. “It’s important for us to realize that the mall is almost or maybe as big as downtown,” NeSmith said.
On Lexington Road, speeding is a big problem, as is the lack of bike and pedestrian connectivity. A transit hub at Gaines School Road could encourage people to ride the bus.
Just like the mall on the Westside, Ben Epps Airport is a unique feature on Lexington. Planning NEXT recommended a connection to the airport from Lexington Road. That entrance, near Lowe’s, had been planned as part of the new SPLOST-funded commercial terminal, but commissioners nixed it as a cost-saving measure when Athens lost commercial airline service. A new road looping from Lexington north of the airport to downtown could also open up that area for development.
Many people planning NEXT spoke with mentioned the Atlanta Beltline as both a mobility and economic development tool, and consultants tried to emphasize connections between neighborhoods and downtown. Commissioner Russell Edwards said he supports a network of multi-use paths. “People get more exercise, they see their neighbors more,” he said. “This is how we’re going to attract families to live in this community.”
In addition, Girtz has appointed another committee to look at other corridors, such as Timothy Road, Danielsville Road, Commerce Road and Barnett Shoals Road. Chaired by Commissioner Ovita Thornton, it also includes commissioners Allison Wright, Patrick Davenport and Mike Hamby. The corridor committee will make recommendations on bike and pedestrian access, speed reduction, signage and beautification (think the wildflowers planted on Epps Bridge Parkway).
Odds and Ends
After looking around at other Northeast Georgia communities, poultry processor Pilgrim’s Pride has opted to remain in Athens and committed to a $22 million investment in its Barber Street plant, “which will not only have functional benefits for them, but some aromatic benefits for the public at large,” according to Girtz. The renovations will accommodate a trail running from the North Oconee River Greenway to the General Time development off Newton Bridge Road, which Girtz hopes will eventually connect to Holland Park and Jefferson River Road, a major bike thoroughfare.
The Athens Neighborhood Health Center is hosting two open houses next week in honor of National Health Center Week. Attendees can tour the 402 McKinley Dr. facility, take advantage of free body mass and blood pressure screenings, and register to vote from 9 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6. The same goes for the 675 College Ave. location from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8.
While word reached us too late to include in last week’s issue, a group called 86 Hate recently held a similar health-care event for service industry workers at Creature Comforts. 86 Hate connects service workers with resources in areas like financial planning, health, immigration rights and sexual harassment. For more, visit eightysixhate.com.
ACC is soliciting feedback on trash and recycling collection. Fill out a survey at accgov.com/collectionsurvey by Sept. 6, or attend one of three public hearings: Thursday, Aug. 15 at the ACC Library; Monday, Aug. 19 at the ACC Solid Waste Department, 725 Hancock Industrial Way; or Tuesday, Aug. 27 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, 780 Timothy Road. All three are at 5:30 p.m.
Josh Edwards, a former city official in North Carolina, is ACC’s new assistant manager. The graduate of UNC and Wake Forest served as assistant budget director in Durham, NC, and a budget analyst in nearby Cary, NC, as well as Fairfax County, VA. He started work July 22, replacing Jestin Johnson, who left for a position with the City of Atlanta.
We neglected to report in last week’s issue that Hilsman Middle School has a new principal, approved by the Clarke County Board of Education July 18. Capucina Douglass comes to Athens from Walton County, where she was assistant principal of Grayson High School and principal of Social Circle Middle School. Douglass was the sole candidate recommended to CCSD administration by Hilsman’s Local School Governance Team. At press time, Alps Road, Fowler Drive and Chase Street elementary schools remained without principals, with classes starting Monday, Aug. 5. They will “begin the year with strong interim leadership as the hiring process for these positions continues,” according to a district news release.
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