Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
The intersection at Lexington-Gaines School-Cherokee roads is the crux of the problem for Athens’ Eastside. Following that is the Lexington-Whit Davis intersection and then the Lexington-Barnett Shoals intersection, say members of the Athens-Clarke County Lexington Road Corridor Study Committee.
Once concerns at those three spots are addressed, other changes along the Lexington Road corridor should fall into place, they agree. The group met for the first time Thursday, July 24 to discuss overall concerns about the stretch of road between the Loop and Southeast Clarke Park at Whit Davis Road.
During the next year or two, the committee will meet monthly to talk about what needs to be done to spruce up the Eastside and attract more businesses. The ACC Mayor and Commission set aside $25,000 in the budget this year for the committee; the money will likely go toward a professional assessment of the corridor or a survey of residents about needs, desires and changes.
“This is near and dear to me,” says District 8 Commissioner Andy Herod, the committee chair, whose district touches two of the problem intersections. “We’ll look at a number of ideas and put together a report with action items for the commission.”
The group plans to tackle several questions: Is the zoning appropriate for the development they’d like to see, and if not, what should it be? What can the county do to make the corridor look better aesthetically? How can the group market the corridor as a place for new investment? Can the committee set up a Lexington Road Business Association to bring ideas to the table and keep the conversation going?
“I’ve been concerned about the Eastside for years, and I want to reverse this trend of people and business going to the Westside,” says Carl Nichols, president of Nichols Land & Investment Co. “This road affects this whole community.”
One of the biggest concerns along the road is zoning. A large chunk of the land between the Loop and Gaines School Road falls under an airport overlay, which means the Federal Aviation Administration has a huge say about what can be built. The FAA doesn’t like “people places,” such as churches and restaurants, that draw large numbers of residents to areas where planes are low in the sky, says Brad Griffin, ACC planning director.
“This is a challenging corridor,” he says. Griffin kicked off the meeting by pulling out large aerial maps of Lexington Road and explaining the zoning and code challenges that may discourage businesses from signing a final contract. During the past few years, deals have been on the table for Aldi, CVS, Hardee’s and Cook Out to revamp the Willowood shopping center at Lexington and Gaines School roads, but they didn’t stick.
“The interesting part is that they sit down with us, and it seems to work,” he says. “But they don’t come back.”
The group discussed the many reasons why this may be the case—county code requirements, traffic, sewerage, lack of sidewalks, crime, litter, curb appeal and even a negative perception of growth and business opportunity.
“Sales and numbers are the same for our stores on both sides of town,” says Kip Farlow, store manager for Walmart on Lexington Road. “There’s a lot of potential on the Eastside, but how can we show this to businesses?”
The first step might be shaping up the roadside, he says.
“I ride that route every day, and we need to find a way to get the grass cut,” Farlow says. “All the changes we want aren’t going to happen overnight, but we could take that one step now.”
Even grass-cutting gets bogged down in politics and red tape. Most of the corridor’s roadside is owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation, which doesn’t tend to prioritize frequent mowing trips and has reduced funding for certain transportation projects by more than half in the past few years. The Atlanta Highway Corridor Committee encountered the same roadblock when it considered landscape, sidewalk and lighting changes.
“But GDOT generally looks favorably on recommendations that Athens makes,” Commissioner Harry Sims says. “We can control what we own in terms of making it more aesthetically pleasing and then work with them to streamline their process.”
Other Lexington Road aesthetic issues include sidewalks, lamp posts, trash cans and an overall “Athens” tone.
“It’s important for people to remember this was the first road into Athens,” says Maxine Easom, an ACC planning commissioner who is writing a book about the history of the Eastside. “It’s historic and ought to look good.”
The aesthetic question is one of scale and speed, says David Spooner, a landscape architect and University of Georgia College of Environment and Design professor who lives on the Eastside. Given the length and width of the corridor and that drivers see it at 45 miles per hour, the county would need to make a big statement to create a noticeable change, Spooner says.
“Several places deserve a human-scale touch, such as the Willowood and Walmart shopping centers, but this is a huge project,” Spooner says. “If we knock it into chunks and focus on those two places, it’s just a matter of time before something unlocks the entire corridor.”
Spooner suggested the committee discuss pros and cons of the corridor’s aesthetics in an upcoming meeting to “get on the same page, whatever that page may be.” In addition, the committee should ask residents for pros and cons, says Eastside resident Sharyn Dickerson, the District 1 commissioner-elect.
“I’m one of the people who drives an hour to the other side of town and back to go shopping, and I can tell you we want retail,” she says. “We need to ask people what stores they want to see.”
From there, county officials can compile demographics and strengths of the Eastside to pitch to developers, Dickerson says.
In the meantime, first steps should include cutting grass and picking up litter, the group agreed.
“We need to take care of our road to change impressions,” Spooner says. “The repaved surface makes a big difference, and we can do more to help that.”
Next month, the committee will discuss the Oak Street/Oconee Street corridor study to determine what similar concerns apply and if any recommendations can be carried down the entire length of Lexington Road. In September, the group will hear from county officials about ongoing housing, community development, economic development and public works concerns along the corridor.
“Lexington Road is a neat way for people to come into Athens, and we need to loosen our requirements to get businesses and residents to look at the corridor in a new way,” Nichols says. “Won’t the other committees be jealous when we have the best-looking corridor?”