Students add vibrance to downtownPosted: March 27, 2013
Downtown Athens on a Thursday night is a sight to see. Streets swarm with people moving from bar to bar in what has been called the world’s best college town.
The masses crowding the sidewalks are mostly students, attracted to downtown’s 40-plus bars and nightlife spots.
Downtown during the daytime is a different story. The bars, all that are visible at night, melt into the fabric of shops and restaurants and historic architecture.
The Athens Downtown Development Authority’s goal is to keep Athens – day and night – “safe and economically viable.”
Jason Leonard, who owns Flannigan’s and Whiskey Bent – two bars downtown, said that while students come downtown for the bars, Athens is offering a “better product” on all fronts.
“I would say that there’s an increase in a better product overall of downtown. I think the clothing shops are better clothing shops and the restaurants are better restaurants,” he said. “Downtown is providing a better quality product today, which would inspire students to hang out there.”
Bars hire students and cater to students. Students spend their money where their friends are.
“You know how it works, someone recommends someone who knows someone to work here,” Leonard said. “ And we love everyone, but when we hire someone, they usually bring in their network of friends.”
So students use downtown – one way or another. But what about residents of Athens? Visitors?
Kathryn Lookofsky, the executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, said it’s not that black and white.
“Downtown is the center of the community and should have something for everyone within the community,” she said. “I think the relationship between students and residents is a symbiotic one.”
Maura Freedman, a UGA senior, lived on Pulaski Street downtown for three years.
“I feel like every year more and more long term residents are moving out and more students are moving in,” she said. “There are these really nice, big beautiful houses on Pulaski, and I wonder how families feel about paying a significant amount to rent or buy those homes when the neighborhood is shifting towards students.”
Freedman said the neighborhood is attractive to students because of its location.
“Logistically, it’s close to downtown, and it’s nice not to worry about cabs or driving when you go out.”
Maura’s landlord, Lee Smith, said students have been a part of the neighborhood for a long time.
“There’s always been a rental component to Pulaski as long as I’ve lived here,” said Smith, who has owned property on Pulaski Street since 1996. “Over the years, particularly in the late 90s and early 2000s, a lot of people purchased houses that were condemned or in disrepair and turned them into rentals.”
He said there’s no tension between students and residents.
“I’ve never perceived any sort of tension between undergraduate renters and homeowners here,” he said. “Actually, there are several people in our neighborhood, including my wife and I, who over the years have been able to purchase houses around them because we knew we could rent them out to students. We’re surrounded by our rentals – they’re our next door neighbors.”
Smith said he has seen an increase in students wanting to live downtown.
“I’m inclined to think it’s going to be more of the same,” he said. “In the time since I went to school here, downtown has just become more and more urban. So I think we’ll continue to see that. I’d expect denser and more taller buildings downtown. More people will want to live downtown, but I also wouldn’t expect that to only be students.”
The Downtown Athens Master Plan town hall surveys show that 44 percent of attendees want to encourage urban professional residential growth, 20 percent want family housing, and only 3 percent want student housing.
Yet a student housing development is in the works for downtown – set to open Fall 2014. The development will create more than 600 apartments for students.
“I don’t perceive that as negative,” Lee said. “If there are more students living downtown, that’s more opportunity for people to open businesses that cater to students, more restaurants, bars, clubs, maybe even movie theaters. Maybe we’ll finally get a grocery store downtown. There will be other types of development that go along with it – it’s not only going to benefit students.”
He said most Athens residents understand what living in a college town means.
“If you live close to a university, you’re going to be close to students,” he said. “That’s the way it is, so you’ve got to make your peace with it. My wife and I, through our rental properties, are able to continually meet new young people who move to town. We have a wide range of friends that if we lived in a different town we wouldn’t necessarily have.”
Freedman said students are capable of building community downtown.
“Just because a lot of students live there, it doesn’t mean the area is devoid of community,” Freedman said. “There’s a really tight-knit community of people who care about Athens culture and music, so that’s really appealing to someone who is going to be in Athens for a few years.”