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Athens Rising

Walking through Athens’ historic downtown on an early October day, I can’t help but imagine what this place means to everyone else as I encounter a diverse representation of inhabitants: street musicians, old men in suits, a student hurrying to class, a panhandler, a mother running errands.

Since I arrived here, the downtown area has been an integral part of my life. It’s a place to eat, stroll, people watch or enjoy coffee while writing. More than functional, downtown is beautiful! The essence of Athens, with its laid-back, quirky attitude, shines through every storefront. Every block presents something straight-up cool, whether it be a mural or a semi-demolished wall. With all it has to offer, it’s no wonder that people turned out to University of Georgia College of Environment and Design professor Jack Crowley’s presentation regarding the downtown master plan at a Federation of Neighborhoods meeting.

One lady in front of me posed a good question: What exactly is a master plan? It is a tool that outlines the future of our city through 2030, and its process provides citizens a forum to voice their input. Unfortunately, after that question, the remainder of the meeting dissolved into the entire room posing their concerns about their individual property. So goes a town hall meeting.

While I was more interested in what Crowley had to say than why some woman couldn’t get home insurance, I am pleased that the master plan is so focused on gathering citizen input. There will be several public meetings where one can voice opinions, and Crowley will be meeting with a variety of groups interested in downtown planning. Later, there will be meetings for citizens to vote on matters like whether a street should be one way or two ways and whether College Avenue should be turned into a pedestrian mall.

One factor the planners will consider is how to relate downtown to the North Oconee River. No connection? A footpath? A new riverside development? Reutilizing existing nearby structures? The latter is my preferred option. Without further intrusion upon the river, Athenians could enjoy a coffee with a great view. With its close proximity, how can a downtown district ignore a potentially great gathering place?

Parking certainly will be a hot topic. At the meeting, ideas were already tossed around on how to encourage public transit, increase parking, decrease parking, etc. Nearby residents expressed concern about visitors parking in neighborhoods if the downtown district doesn’t properly accommodate them. I don’t blame them; I wouldn’t like my street packed with cars and bar-goers loudly stumbling back past my porch.

With the diverse interests Athens has, it’s a slim chance everyone will agree on any issue. So, what then? Do those with the larger economic interests take precedence? Does the steering committee have the final say? Does the majority win? If majority rules, what about others’ interests? Are they simply out of luck? How will the master plan dictate what happens to our city? How do we navigate our community values and individual preferences? Furthermore, what are our community values?

A community should provide an environment in which its citizens can be happy. This is a constructive relationship: Our community is as much a product of our actions as it is a factor in steering us towards positive action. This definition can be used for any community. But what is unique here? What is the essence of Athens?

Once this question is answered, let the planning begin. How do we preserve and enhance those aspects of the city we wish to promote? What scene do we want to emphasize? More bars? More music venues? More art galleries? More affordable housing for musicians and artists? More parks? More parking? Better public transit options?

How we do this in terms of infrastructure and land use is the question at hand. What is the right thing to do to better ourselves, not as individuals, but as a community, which is greater than just the sum of its inhabitants? Only an omniscient view can tell what the ideal design is. It is the role of the city planner to get as close to the ideal as possible. After learning of all relevant interests, the planner should be the one to decide. Economic interests, moral values and political leverage will be ever-present factors. The planner must balance these forces and do what’s best for the city as a whole.

As Crowley said, we are “better off encouraging a good thing than preventing a bad thing.†Let’s figure out what is this good thing we want to encourage, then work towards achieving that. Within a year, we should have an idea of what the future of the town’s center should be. For the time being, it is our duty to consider these questions and participate in the process.