City DopeNews

The Clayton Street Project That Tore Up Downtown Is Finally Complete

Athens Downtown Development Authority board member Jason Leonard (left) and Mayor Kelly Girtz celebrate College Square’s new bike rack/beer-filled splash pad. Credit: Blake Aued

When Kelly Girtz was first elected to the Athens-Clarke County Commission in 2006, the Clayton Street infrastructure project was already in the works. Four terms later, it’s finally done.

“This may be the longest-underway project in my time as mayor,” Girtz said after cutting the ribbon at College Square last week.

Originally approved by voters as part of SPLOST 2005, Clayton Street didn’t come up until toward the end of that round of sales tax-funded projects. By that time, costs had nearly doubled amidst a post-recession construction boom, so more funding was added via TSPLOST 2018. Planning and public input started in 2019, but then football season and the COVID-19 pandemic delayed construction further. When it finally started, the torn-up sidewalks threatened to decimate downtown businesses.

Now, though, the smell of pee and stale beer is gone. So are the uneven, narrow sidewalks. The street has new utility lines, stormwater drainage, landscaping, wayfinding signs, streetlights and benches, wider sidewalks, larger outdoor dining areas and bollards that come up out of the ground, allowing county officials to easily close off portions of the street for festivals. It also has new trees to replace those that had to be cut down, and even more of them than before.

“For everybody who lived through what I call the Beirut years of 2020–2021, it’s great,” Girtz said.

He recalled walking around downtown during a Georgia football game day last year and overhearing a fan talking to his friend on the phone, trying to find each other. “It’s all fucked up down here. Just meet me at College and Clayton,” the man said, according to Girtz.

“I’m glad to see it when it’s not all fucked up,” Girtz said. “Now it’s going to be clean and accessible for the rest of our lives.”

While anyone who spends time downtown is no doubt pleased that our long municipal nightmare of Clayton Street construction is over, one aspect that has pleased hardly anyone is the public art installation. Maryland artist and planner Eric Leshinsky’s 14 blue Tinker Toy-esque sculptures, collectively dubbed “Frequency,” have been widely panned on social media.

Leshinsky took the criticism in stride during the Dec. 8 ribbon-cutting ceremony. A lot of thought went into the artwork, he said—”the businesses, the other streetscape elements, the different types of visitors who come here.”

But can you lock a bike to them? “I’m cool with that,” Leshinsky said, noting that the installations are made of durable powder-coated steel.

“If you want to come back when we win our second national championship, I guarantee you’ll see some unique uses for them,” Girtz joked.