The Mayor and Commission is considering closing the block of Newton Street between The Grit and Taziki’s to build an outdoor café, but the plan is drawing opposition from business and property owners at the Bottleworks.
The café is included in the downtown master plan completed by UGA professor Jack Crowley and College of Environment and Design students last year. Prince Avenue is known to have walkability and safety issues, and this plan is a consequence of those problems, says Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link, who represents the Bottleworks and serves on ACC’s downtown master plan implementation committee. “It is really uncomfortable to sit outside The Grit or Taziki’s and have a meal there, because cars are speeding by at 35 or 40 miles per hour,” she says.
Closing Newton Street would allow both businesses to seat customers in an outdoor area that is not adjacent to Prince Avenue, where there is a narrow sidewalk and no on-street parking to serve as a buffer, causing a safety concern for diners.
However, closing the block between Prince Avenue and Meigs Street would have another set of consequences. The proposal would encourage customers to make a dangerous turn in order to access the Bottleworks parking lot behind the development, and Link is concerned the change will unfairly benefit only two businesses—The Grit and Taziki’s. “I’m not sure that it is the government’s purview to be selective in what businesses it benefits by closing public streets,” Link says.
Parkside Partners, which owns the majority of retail and office spaces in the Bottleworks, is concerned its work improving the safety of the area will be undone by the plan, says company founder Kyle Jenks. When the Atlanta-based company purchased spaces in the Bottleworks, they successfully lobbied the county to reverse the direction of one-way Newton Street from south to north to prevent driving customers from making a difficult turn at Meigs Street.
If the block is closed, Jenks is concerned access will be limited again. “If we cut off the access to our parking, then we think we are certainly going to take a step back,” he says.
Whit Richardson, the owner of Taziki’s, does not entirely support the plan. Richardson says they are considering both sides of the argument: that closing the street will limit cars’ access, and that keeping the street open is a safety issue. Representatives from The Grit did not respond to requests for comment.
The National chef Peter Dale, a co-owner of Seabear Oyster Bar in the Bottleworks, says they are concerned about limiting access to parking as well. Seabear signing its lease was contingent upon Parkside Partners successfully getting the direction of Newton Street changed, Dale says. Before the direction was changed, people perceived there to be no parking in the area, since it was so difficult to access. “Debunking that myth was pretty important to us in order to commit to doing business at Bottleworks,” Dale says.
If Newton Street had been closed before they signed the lease, Dale is unsure whether or not Seabear would have committed to rent the space. Now that their business is established and the perception that there is no parking is gone, however, Dale does not think Seabear would be adversely affected. “While I think the patio area is desirable, I am conflicted about it, because the street change was key to us signing the lease in the first place,” he says.
But Dale also believes there are better solutions than the one being offered, and that the county should consider solutions to the entirety of Prince Avenue, not just one area. “I feel like we are wasting our time on these small projects when the county should have bigger goals and visions and actually do something about Prince Avenue,” he says. For Dale and Richardson, a better solution would be to pursue traffic-calming efforts on Prince.
Link also believes that addressing only this problem is misguided, and that the county should consider solutions to make the street safer for all businesses, pedestrians and cyclists. “What really needs to happen is we need to address Prince Avenue, rather than just shuffling the diners and ignoring the problem,” Link says.
The commission voted last week to order the ACC Transportation and Public Works Department to do a study on closing the Newton block. Once the study is completed later this fall, public hearings will be scheduled.
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