A Fresh Look At downtown Athens

Meeting Story

By: Tina Romero

Historic preservationists and urban planners titillated local citizens’ imaginations about redevelopment possibilities in downtown Athens during an all day symposium at Ciné.  There were about 90 guests who attended the event including Heidi Davison and several other commissioners, representatives, and professionals.

In conjunction with the symposium called “Look at That! Fresh Approaches in Urban Redevelopment for Athens,” the director of the University of Georgia Owens Library and Circle Gallery, UGA students, and an Athenian exhibited their distinctive interpretations of Athens. All of the speakers were striving to consider new ways to approach Athens redevelopment with a creative flair.

“We’re hoping for a little bit of a wow factor,” said Amy Kissane, executive director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation. “The reason we did this is to broaden people’s ideas about what can happen in downtown from an architectural standpoint and new construction, to public art and transportation in and out of downtown.”

The setting at Ciné, an art film theater and bar in a building that originally housed a tire-recapping business, serves as an example of adaptive reuse. Experts in urban design and redevelopment discussed examples of successful revitalization in other cities in Georgia to urban centers around the world in order to broaden the attendees’ vision of what could happen here and to inspire them into action. Many of those examples of urban redevelopment were presented in slides and films.

The symposium wasn’t so much about specific ideas for Athens as much as it was to share ideas being adopted in other places. The speakers all had a good breadth of experience of other places.

Morning speakers included Pratt Cassity and Judith Wasserman with the University of Georgia College of Environment and Design. Cassity addressed the principles of vital, livable urban spaces. He gave attendees a primer in how to evaluate neighborhood cohesiveness and determine whether new construction fits in. Wasserman discussed the creative use of public spaces and public art. She discussed the various ways in which public spaces can also serve as places for art and expression within the city. Nina Butler from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission and BikeAthens spoke about local transportation concepts and issues.

Following a buffet lunch catered by local restaurant Marti’s at Midday, attendees watched short documentaries depicting development programs in cities like London; Bogota, Colombia; Portland, Ore.; Paris; Detroit; and Chattanooga, Tenn. The film component seemed to be one of the most successful aspects of the event. Screenings of short segments about innovative solutions to urban design challenges in various cities around the country and the world were presented, such as bicycle sharing programs in Paris and bus rapid transit in Curitiba, Brazil. The opportunity to see these cities as the dynamic places they are seemed to capture the audience’s attention and served as a far more effective illustration than even the most well presented PowerPoint lectures.

Later in the afternoon, Ken Reardon, director of the University of Memphis graduate program in city and regional planning and founding member of the Memphis Regional Design Center, walked attendees through the process of participatory planning. He led a discussion about possibilities for Athens and also presented some of his work involved with the Memphis Regional Design Center.

There was definitely a great deal of open dialogue about Athens redevelopment.  Cyclists were blamed for taking up every traffic lane all the time and there was vehement dispute over a future plaza called College Square. According to the pro-plaza party, downtown Athens will become a Portland-esque urban paradise as that plaza (College Square) goes in. The anti-pedestrian mall faction suggested that downtown would end up looking more like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. These issues really illustrated the disagreement about methods.

The general consensus was that there should be more use of the downtown area and there should be a stop to sprawling over at the east side and other places. North of downtown is a prime location for growth, argued many of the attendees. It was clear that the majority felt that part of preserving the history of Athens is preserving a mixed income population in-town. That is, we should assure that affordable housing (not just for students) increases, and that historically black communities keep their buildings and neighborhoods too. Finally, along with reusing old buildings and warehouses, new buildings should keep within the scale of old buildings, though they shouldn’t look faux historic. Participants seemed wary of new downtown buildings that have started to look more and more like the SLC and new Tate center, for example.

In the discussion led by Reardon, there was real consensus among those involved about what Athens should feel like. Athens should remain vital, accessible, affordable and diverse. It needs to keep its small-town nature even as it embraces big-city ideas. Attendees were also very adamant about wanting a downtown grocery store.

René Shoemaker exhibited her one-of-a-kind textile paintings in “Athens Above,” a unique view of the skyline of Athens. Her interest in urban development stems from her roots, having been born and raised in New York City, as well has her work as the director of the Owens Library and Circle Gallery at the UGA College of Environment and Design. She said her workplace informs her design sensibility and interpretation of place, and that she values Athens as a quality livable city.

“My intention through the artwork is to help people open their eyes to the physical and spiritual essence of our everyday environment,” said Shoemaker.

“THREADS: Stitching urbanism, ecology, and community together in Athens, Georgia,” is a montage by a group working together to share their vision of what Athens could be. It was created by CED landscape architecture undergraduates Kevan Williams, Thomas Brown, Cat Dunleavy, and Agustina Hein; graphic design student Lizzy Hinrichs; recent interior design graduates Mary Alston Killen and Taylor Rassel; and Athenian Will Kiser. Their exhibit illustrated a possible future for Athens.

The group’s concepts were shown through a number of images that did a great job illustrating what words could never have done. There were four main concepts the people could take away from the exhibit.

First was the potential for a 3.6-mile loop of pedestrian spaces around downtown that does not yet exist.  Second was the Hanson Quarry. Hundreds of feet deep and covering around 50 acres, the Hanson Quarry is a big hole. Water issues aren’t going away, and when this quarry is tapped-out in the next 10–15 years, it could be a great reservoir. It’s also immediately adjacent to the Firefly rail-to-trail, and might make a great greenspace. Water is needed for industry and growth. The third main concept of the exhibit was a rail-trail along the CSX rail line which would serve as the most viable northern link between the Middle and North Oconee Greenways. The ability to connect and strengthen numerous elements of an entrepreneurial/arts district is huge. The exhibit showed how this rail-trial concept really has the potential to put Athens on the map in a big way.

Boroughs were the fourth concept illustrated in the exhibit.  The planners suggest that if there’s any idea we could borrow from New York, it is that of the borough. Athens could be split into five cohesive districts based on existing divides such as major greenbelts and the bypass. These five districts, based on the physical conditions of Athens-Clarke County, could be used for planning walkable services, neighborhood schools, transportation, political districts and anything else on a scale that makes sense.

None of these solutions on their own are necessarily the right answer to this town’s problems. These concepts were simply possibilities that address some of the issues Athens faces. The speakers, films and exhibits presented at this symposium achieved their goal of encouraging attendees to see what Athens could really become.

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One Comment on “A Fresh Look At downtown Athens”

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