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  1. John Huie says:

    I’m in favor of making “College Square” (one to three blocks) a pedestrian mall, permanently closed to cars. Try it first with the block nearest UGA… honestly, I don’t think anyone would ever look back! I realize some business owners hate the idea… but others like it.

    As for losing a dozen parking spaces…opponents were using that argument two parking garages ago! Multiple county-hired consultants have said there is NO shortage of parking downtown, if people are willing to walk a few blocks. The following article is from Flagpole a couple of years ago:

    The idea has floated around for years, and recently surfaced on the BikeAthens discussion listserv: why not close one (or more) blocks of College Avenue to car traffic, to create a pedestrian mall? The idea doesn’t seem to have been officially considered – and isn’t on the commission’s agenda now – but commission clerk Jean Spratlin recalls it being discussed by commissioners two decades ago (when there was a proposal to rename College Avenue for UGA football star Herschel Walker). Today, some commissioners seem cautiously open to trying it. “I’m pretty much for the idea, but I would have to see a traffic study,” newbie commissioner Ed Robinson told Flagpole. Commissioner Andy Herod thinks opening “College square” – the first block of College Avenue – to pedestrians could be “a great boon to downtown” that might bring more foot traffic to stores. “It could create a wonderful piazza-type environment where, for instance, people could sit out, have lunch/coffee, and perhaps listen to a string quartet.”

    It’s an idea that’s worked in some places – but certainly not in all, says Kathryn Lookofsky of Athens’ Downtown Development Authority (ADDA). “Americans are so focussed on their cars,” she said. “It’s hard to predict what would or wouldn’t work here.” She cites “the Commons” of Ithica, New York as a success story; that city’s website calls the two-block plaza “the emotional and commercial heart of the city.”

    But, Lookofsky says, “there’s just so many examples of where it hasn’t worked.” Like Eugene, Oregon, where the multi-block pedestrian mall was reopened to cars after 30 years of declining business. “Most of the pedestrian malls in the country have not succeeded,” the Boulder (CO) Daily Camera newspaper quotes Kennedy Smith of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Often using Federal money, such conversions were intended to draw more shoppers to dwindling downtowns; but for many towns, turning traffic lanes into plazas did not prove to be a magic bullet. Those that succeed may typically be near college campuses, sources suggest; Boulder itself boasts a famous pedestrian mall – a four-block plaza (with cross streets open to traffic) near the University of Colorado. Charlottesville (VA), Seattle, and Madison (WI) also have successful malls.

    Because closing College Avenue in Athens would remove some parking spaces – and because merchants have found in the past that closing streets for particular events has cost them business – it could be controversial. “Are they talking about that again?” asked Midge Gray, who owned and ran Barnett’s newsstand on College Avenue for 30 years. “I’ve never been for closing that,” she told Flagpole. “Anything other than the Human Rights Festival, when the streets closed, it hurts commerce,” she said. And, she said, “you would be losing 10 or 12 parking places.” That’s why commissioner Herod thinks any such plan “would need to wait until after the new parking deck is built.” (Flagpole counted 16 street-parking spaces along the first block of College Avenue.)

    Warren Southall, former co-owner of Walker’s Pub on College Square, finds the idea intriguing. “If I had known this was something that might be entertained, I probably wouldn’t have sold my half of Walker’s,” he said. “If they did it right, and there was a fountain in the middle or something, I could see it being a really neat part of downtown.” Mayor Heidi Davison has “no opposition” to the idea, she told Flagpole. “The ADDA is seriously considering an effort to create a downtown master plan, and this is an idea that should definitely be explored,” she wrote in an email. “Naysayers have been successful in keeping this idea from being implemented, but there are many who would welcome a greenspace in the middle of downtown.”

    Commissioner Kelly Girtz noted that plans for a downtown plaza are already underway next to City Hall, where “the sidewalk on Washington Street will be broadened to a plaza” by removing some parking spaces and one travel lane. As for College Avenue, “several people have told me how much they would like to see this become a pedestrian mall,” he said. With its restaurants and coffee shops, “it is also a natural place for seating and gatherings. Some businesses may be concerned about lost parking, but most of the spaces could be regained in new diagonal parking at either end of the College Square block (on Clayton and Broad),” he said.

    Commissioner Alice Kinman liked the idea too; but to commissioner David Lynn, “downtowns should be busy and bustling; the empty pedestrian malls that I have come across just leave me cold.” Lynn also opposed removing the angle parking for the planned pedestrian plaza along Washington street; “If you will go and look at the areas of downtown where we don’t have diagonal parking, those areas are much colder and less inviting to both the driver and the pedestrian.” He suggests making traffic two-way on Clayton and Washington streets, to “provide a more downtown atmosphere instead of a ‘highway’.”

    “College Square is already one of the most walkable spaces in Athens, in one of the best and most walkable downtowns in America,” wrote ACC planning commissioner Lucy Rowland in response to Flagpole’s query. “A better option would be a ‘woonerf’ or shared space, where bikes and pedestrians have legal priority over automobiles.” The ‘woonerfs’ or ‘living streets’ movement originated in the Netherlands, and cars must move slowly in those areas. “One problem with closing a street is that the traffic is just diverted to alternative streets,” says Rowland, “which leads to more congestion. A functioning grid is the best way to disperse traffic…. And from my observations, there is no guarantee that creating a mall increases foot traffic to businesses.”

    ADDA’s Kathryn Lookofsky offers a different suggestion for improving downtown: more public art. Columbus Georgia has invited sculptors from “across the country” to display selected works in designated spots downtown, she said. “Then the people of the community vote on the sculpture they like the best, and at the end of the year the city purchases it.” But ideas are just ideas, she added: “We need more people involved and willing to get out there and help implement them.”

    ***end

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