While Athens residents are looking forward to a return to normalcy this summer, some pandemic changes to downtown and its bar scene might be permanent.
Athens-Clarke County commissioners said at their agenda-setting session last week that they want to keep outdoor dining spaces and the College Square pedestrian plaza long after COVID-19. The 11:30 p.m. last call and 12 a.m. closing time commissioners set for bars last summer might also stick around.
Commissioner Melissa Link said she has been fielding calls from bar owners and wants to set clear vaccination thresholds for restoring the previous 2 a.m. last call. Another commissioner, Russell Edwards, said he doesn’t want it changed back at all. The earlier closing time is saving ACC money on policing and trash collection, as well as sparing front-line workers from stress, he said.
“For me, where I stand, closing time at midnight makes pretty good sense to me, especially in light of the problems our police have been having downtown, the discrimination, the attacks upon our solid waste personnel,” Edwards said. “Downtown between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. just has not been a good vibe for a long time.”
The earlier last call—approved to prevent big crowds from gathering downtown late at night and spreading coronavirus—is tied to the state’s judicial emergency, which Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton recently extended until Apr. 8. However, commissioners can set bar closing times at whatever hour they want.
The downtown “parklets” program that’s up for renewal is actually two separate programs—one that allows restaurants to set up socially distanced tables in parking spots, and another specifically on West Washington Street that’s open to all businesses, including bars and retailers. County staff recommended extending parklets for restaurants but not the West Washington outdoor retail pilot program. The number of people and businesses using the outdoor seating on West Washington has “significantly decreased” since football season, according to Central Services Director Andrew Saunders.
Several commissioners disagreed. The West Washington parklets “are thriving,” Edwards said.
“I know for a fact that business owners do very much want it and like it,” Link added. Those businesses have an older and more cautious clientele than the rest of downtown, and customers might come back in larger numbers as they get vaccinated and the weather improves, she said.
As for closing College Square to cars, “This has been a complete success,” Commissioner Tim Denson said. A survey found 97% approval for keeping it closed, he noted, and a traffic study found that the closure actually improved traffic flow downtown, contrary to fears that it would cause congestion on other streets.
“Why are we not going ahead and voting to make this permanent right now?” Denson asked. Manager Blaine Williams said staff will make a presentation on College Square in May, after which the commission would decide whether to close it permanently, although the commission could go ahead and make the decision at its next meeting Tuesday, Apr. 6.
“We’re going to close it, right?” Denson said. “We’re going to close it. We are.” But Link said it wouldn’t be transparent to spring that decision on people. Still, whenever a decision is made, it’s clear that a majority of commissioners favor permanent closure.
Other items on the agenda include plans for a pocket park in the parking lot of the county-owned Costa Building at the corner of Washington and Lumpkin streets, locations for trash and recycling “eco-stations” downtown, and the General Time development slated for a former watch factory on Newton Bridge Road. General Time will include retail, restaurant and light manufacturing space, multifamily housing, a hotel and an amphitheater. Business tenants include Terrapin and a call center for online furniture and home goods retailer Wayfair.
The ACC Planning Commission expressed concern about the amount of flexible space in the plan but ultimately voted unanimously to recommend approval. “Clearly, the planning commission wanted to take a chance and go forward with this,” Commissioner Carol Myers said.
Through a tax allocation district in the surrounding area, new taxes generated by the development could be used to fund amenities like trails in the Kathwood Drive area, Mayor Kelly Girtz said.
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