City DopeNews

What Is Walkable? It Depends on the Development—and the Commissioner

If anything was clear from their Apr. 18 agenda-setting meeting, Athens-Clarke County commissioners have divergent—and often contradictory—ideas about walkability. For example, one commissioner who criticized proposed suburban developments for being car-centric later fretted about a lack of parking in her intown district. Another commissioner who said not everything needs to be walkable then turned around and lamented the lack of traffic calming in her mostly rural district.

Commissioners were mostly critical of a proposed development of 254 rental townhouses off Olympic Drive, because it’s not located near transit or stores or other destinations within walking distance. The developers withdrew their proposal last year after the planning commission recommended denial, but brought it back virtually unchanged. It’s in an area zoned industrial, and if it’s rezoned to residential, that could cause employers to shy away from bringing jobs to that part of Clarke County, which has long been set aside for industrial uses, Planning Director Brad Griffin and local economic development officials said.

Or what if residents could walk to their jobs at a manufacturing plant? “It’s kind of like the old-school mill towns where people live where they work,” Commissioner John Culpepper said.

There’s a reason industrial and residential uses were separated, Commissioner Jesse Houle said—workers suffered from the effects of polluted soil and water.   

Arguments shifted when it came to a similar townhouse development off Jennings Mill Road on the other side of town. That area was intended to be industrial, but when the Georgia Department of Transportation didn’t build a Loop interchange, slowly but surely, it turned into residential. “We’re never going to see industrial built in this area,” Houle said.

But, Houle criticized the project’s lack of connections to the surrounding area, particularly given that it’s not far from the busy Atlanta Highway commercial strip. “You can’t walk to anything here,” they said.

Jennings Mill does have sidewalks and bike lanes, Commissioner Mike Hamby said. But it’s also a divided four-lane road that was originally intended to carry trucks, and Atlanta Highway is one of the most unfriendly roads in Athens for people on foot or bike. ACC has some TSPLOST funding to help, as Hamby noted, but GDOT is also planning on widening the highway, which won’t help.

The discussion prompted some musings from Commissioner Ovita Thornton, who represents the northeastern part of the county and—it should be mentioned, since the topic is driving versus walking—has been charged with DUI twice since February.

“We should be looking for diversity—some areas are walkable, some areas are out and separate,” she said. “But it looks like a couple of us really want to push [their] vision of what a community looks like. 

“Some people… they don’t want nobody walking by and looking in their window,” she said. “They don’t want those paths.”

Shortly after, Thornton said that she was being misunderstood. “Just because we want something to be walkable doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” she said. “You’re going to have some places, you’re going to have to drive, and some people want to drive.”

No one had mentioned preventing people from driving, just that there should be other options. And University of Georgia students should have all the options they want as far as parking, according to Commissioner Melissa Link. She had questions about parking around a Cobbham house near the Clarke County School District’s headquarters that CCDS wants rezoned so it can sell because it has no use for it. Link said the house would inevitably become a student rental or be torn down for student apartments, although Thornton and Commissioner Dexter Fisher—a former school board member and CCSD administrator, respectively—said they weren’t aware of any such plans.

“I think the major concern would be, what if you pack four or five students in this house? That’s four or five cars parked on the street, plus all their friends who want to visit and stumble downtown,” Link said.

“One of the biggest pushes on missing middle [affordable housing] is you shouldn’t have all this parking,” Griffin reminded her. “I know, I know,” Link replied. UGA students will bring cars anyway, though, she said.

When discussion turned to traffic-calming projects, Thornton changed her tune. The District 9 representative aligned herself with Link, the former District 3 and current District 2 representative, when she lamented that, “It’s getting hard to explain to districts 9, 2 and 3 why they keep getting left out.” (Generally, neighbors band together to petition for traffic-calming measures because traffic is so fast that it makes walking perilous.)

The proposed list is based on a formula set by the commission and tweaked repeatedly over the years, and includes a new formula that factors in race and income. It consists of speed tables or speed humps on Forest Heights Drive, Arch Street, Homewood Drive, Club Drive, Saxon Woods Drive, Springtree Road, Waddell Street, Stanton Way, East Meadow Drive, Lullwater Road, Westview Drive and Gran Ellen Drive, and traffic circles on Forest Heights and Club.

Thornton was apparently referring to Boulevard, formerly District 3 and now 2, when she asked why a street in “a posh neighborhood” had received speed humps before others. Link said the neighborhood had applied twice, under older, more restrictive rules, and waited years to move up the list. “We do have a more equitable policy now, which is why we have so many more streets on this list,” Link said.

Houle and Hamby also questioned why streets in their districts weren’t included. They hadn’t met the criteria for agreement among residents, ACC Manager Blaine Williams said. Staff merely followed the policy set by the commission, he said, and invited them to revisit it.

Commissioner Tiffany Taylor asked Williams why Arch Street had been bumped ahead of Nellie B Avenue, where Taylor said she had received many more complaints about speeding drivers. That’s because Nellie B is too busy to qualify for the neighborhood traffic management program, Williams said, but staff will be bringing forward a policy for medium-volume “collector” streets.

“When we talk about equity, it’s not about assigning resources equally amongst all the districts,” Williams said, “It’s not about assigning resources to wealthy neighborhoods. It’s about where the need is. And there’s a part of this where the neighborhood has to come together, and that can be contentious sometimes, because sometimes the speeders live in the neighborhood.”

In other business, the commission appears poised to reinstate an eviction prevention program that was suspended last year after ACC officials found accounting irregularities in reports filed by contractor Athenian First Development Inc. The new provider, Family Promise (formerly the Interfaith Hospitality Group), would receive $800,000 in federal funding to restart the program. 

At its May 2 voting meeting, the commission is also likely to rename a block of South Finley Street between Cloverhurst and Baxter streets Linnentown Lane, in honor of the majority Black neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for UGA dorms. The University System of Georgia claimed ownership of the street and objected to the renaming and other plans to honor Linnentown, such as a monument, but subsequent research by the ACC attorney’s office found that ACC owns the right-of-way on that block.

Mayor Kelly Girtz also assigned the commission’s Government Operations Committee to look at ways to “enhance resources and protections for renters in the community,” and assigned the Legislative Review Committee to consider adding vaping to the county’s longstanding indoor smoking ban.