College Square will remain closed to cars permanently after the Athens-Clarke County Commission voted last week to convert it into a pedestrian plaza.
A pilot project started last year, with the county government blocking off College Avenue between Clayton and Broad streets and filling the open space with picnic tables. With the pandemic showing the importance of outdoor public gathering spaces, commissioners now want to make the change permanent.
“We don’t want to go back,” Commissioner Carol Myers said at the Apr. 6 voting meeting. “This is too important a space. We’ve been waiting so long to get this open to the public.”
The idea has been floating around for decades, but was always opposed by downtown business owners due to the loss of parking and potential effect on traffic. However, ACC officials found that the closure “does not have a major impact on the downtown traffic circulation” and makes crossing Broad Street on foot safer without drivers trying to turn from College onto Broad.
“Seeing is believing,” said Commissioner Russell Edwards, a downtown business owner. “We talked for a long time, but the vision behind this pilot project has really shown folks how great this square can be. It’s been a tremendous asset and positive for businesses throughout the pandemic.”
Almost all of the 77 comments ACC received from the public were positive, with a few concerns raised about loading zones for delivery drivers. But commissioners Patrick Davenport and Ovita Thornton said the public input was insufficient, and Thornton said she’d like to see a price tag for the plan. Both eventually voted in favor of it.
Designing a permanent town square could take years, though. There is currently no funding attached, although the county general fund, federal stimulus money and an upcoming transportation sales tax referendum could be potential sources. In the end, Commissioner Melissa Link said she envisions “a space that truly, truly belongs to the community and welcomes all people in the community—all ages, all races.”
The commission also extended a “parklet” program that allows restaurants to use city-owned street parking for outdoor dining. Bars and retailers can also take over parking on West Washington Street on weekends. The extension will last until ACC’s COVID-19 emergency order expires. A commission-defined option introduced by Commissioner Jesse Houle also instructed Mayor Kelly Girtz to assign the commission’s Government Operations Committee to look at expanding the parklet program and making it permanent.
Given the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations, Girtz said he expects the emergency order to be extended “at least through mid-summer.”
Although Link and Edwards said during a parklets discussion last month that they’d like to keep last call at bars at 11:30 p.m. rather than move it back to 2 a.m., “this proposal does not in any way relate to when the bars close,” Houle said.
Another downtown park—a real one, not just tables on asphalt—also won approval. The parking lot at the Costa Building near City Hall will be landscaped with trees, grass, seating and a performance area. The Athens Downtown Development Authority is picking up the tab for the $400,000 project, and construction is expected to start this summer.
In addition, after a contentious discussion last month about which nonprofits to fund, the commission allocated $460,000 from the federal CARES Act to nine nonprofits: ACTION Inc., Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, the Athens Area Diaper Bank, Athens Land Trust, Athens Nurses Clinic, Family Promise, Farm to Neighborhood, Project SAFE and The Ark. They will use the money to provide food, rent, transportation and utility assistance to indigent residents. ACC received 31 applications, but many were rejected because they came from religious organizations which the county can’t fund under the Georgia constitution, the application came in after the deadline or the group did not have 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. The vote was 9–1, with Thornton opposed.
Commissioners also started the process of changing the name of Carriage Lane at the Clarke Garden apartments off Barnett Shoals Road to Thumpa Avenue. “Thumpa” was the nickname of Auriel Callaway, a 27-year-old resident who was killed by a stray bullet in 2019 while she was four months’ pregnant.
During commissioners’ open comment period, Edwards continued his crusade against gas-powered leaf blowers. Then he set his sights on Gov. Brian Kemp, who set up eight mass vaccination sites around the state run by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, but none closer to Athens than Habersham County more than 50 miles away.
“Pretty crazy that we don’t have a mass vaccination site here in Athens, Georgia,” Edwards said. Kemp sent in the National Guard for a “50-person block party sponsored by Black Lives Matter,” Edwards said, but not to help vaccinate Athens residents.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “Athens is a regional center. It has the most concentrated poverty in the Northeast Georgia region. So many of our constituents do not have cars to drive an hour and 15 minutes. Why won’t the governor set up a mass vaccination site in his hometown?”
Houle said they were disappointed that the state legislature did not pass a homestead exemption for low-income homeowners or an increase in the hotel-motel tax, as the commission requested.
Commissioner Tim Denson said he was disappointed about Senate Bill 202, which he called “voter suppression” and compared to Jim Crow-era restrictions on voting. He asked county officials to come up with a plan to “mitigate the impact” of the legislation.
“Our Republican state legislators have really betrayed democracy by allying with seditionist, traitorous, insurrectionist, terrorist sympathizers by crafting an omnibus bill that is based on a lie, a lie that dismantles our democracy,” Link said, referring to false claims that the election was stolen from Donald Trump.
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