Downtown development brings headache and promise

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By Emily Curl

As Carley Gainous walks up Broad Street every day, she confronts the SunTrust building construction.

“There are fewer parking spaces around my lot and portions of the sidewalk are closed,” she says. ” I know it’s temporary, but it has been harder getting to and from class.”

Gainous is not the only one faced with the hassles of construction. She is an example of what pedestrians, business owners, and workers experience with downtown construction: temporary inconvenience followed by an improved downtown.

Construction is nothing new to downtown Athens, but projects taking place this year are expected to bring major disturbances and changes to downtown development.

The SunTrust building’s neighboring property redevelopment, along with the Clayton Streetscape infrastructure work, are two of the largest projects occurring simultaneously downtown. Many businesses anticipate an initial loss, but hope upon completion the new construction improves the downtown area and attracts more customers.

After interviewing pedestrians, business owners, and employees, a temporary disruption and loss is anticipated, but ultimately, once downtown construction is complete, businesses are expected to return to normal or even experience a rise in business, and pedestrians can look forward to an improved downtown.

While both projects promise limited disturbances, businesses and pedestrians are already beginning to feel an impact. The Clayton Street infrastructure project is expected to last until mid 2015 according to SPLOST Project Manager Derek Doster. And according to reports on OnlineAthens.com, the multiuse development in progress beside the SunTrust building is not expected to be complete until Summer 2015, leaving businesses and pedestrians to deal with the construction for another year.

This is not the first time large-scale construction has appeared downtown. After fire damage in 2009, the Georgia Theatre began a major reconstruction project. Ophelia Culpepper, an employee of Horton’s Drug Store remembered the construction on the corner of West Clayton and North Lumpkin Streets.

“It was pretty noisy, but if anything, I think the construction helped business, especially once the construction was complete.” she said. “The construction workers came into the store often to buy snacks and drinks, but I think it would have been different if we were more of a specialty store.”

When asked about the new construction beginning on Clayton Street, Culpepper was worried that parking might be a problem, but she hopes to once again gain business from the construction workers.

While Horton’s Drug Store may not be facing a decrease in sales, many other businesses are already feeling a loss.

With jackhammers buzzing and bulldozers in action just steps away from the front door of Heery’s Too, employee Martha Easton McLemore already noticed business has been slower than usual.

“[The construction] has definitely affected the flow of customers in the store and all the heavy machinery outside seems to turn people away,” McLemore said. ” It’s really loud and a hassle, but I do think Clayton needs a facelift. I can only hope all this [construction] will be worth it.”

According to the Athens- Clarke County Downtown Streetscapes Improvements website, the infrastructure of Clayton Street is expected to be improved and upgraded. Utility, sidewalk, and exterior improvements are all expected to bring multiple benefits to businesses and pedestrians. The benefits  include water system and street light improvements, wider sidewalks, and improved crosswalks.

Work will also be done in sections in hopes to minimize disturbances and so the entire street will not be affected at once, according to Doster. He expects large traffic or parking problems to be very limited.

According to the website of the construction company in charge of the SunTrust building redevelopment, Juneau Construction Company, “the project will consist of more than 300,000 square feet of a mix of retail, apartment, and restaurant space. Five stories of apartments totaling 266 units and 165,000 square feet will sit above one level of retail totaling more than 40,000 square feet and below grade parking that will consist of 266 parking spaces.”

Another downtown business affected by the construction is Private Gallery, an apparel store located on Clayton Street. When asked about the construction, employee Jordan Garner was not happy about the noise surrounding the work but agreed that Clayton Street needed street and sidewalk improvements.

“Once this is all done, I think we will have more customers stopping by the store and all other stores on Clayton in general,” Garner said.

When asked about the SunTrust building redevelopment Garner added “When people live downtown they are more likely to shop downtown as well. I hope we will gain some more customers as people move towards downtown.”

The new apartments, along with street improvements, also have Cat Bobon, owner of Cillies Clothing, hopeful for the future of her business.

“It’s a pain now since the construction is taking up parking spaces, but I know it will eventually be for the best. I haven’t had many customers today, but hopefully that changes soon,” Bobon said.

Cillies Clothing is a vintage store located on Clayton Street, and while the business profits on customers buying clothing and accessories from the store, they also count on customers to sell the store their gently used apparel.

Although this is the largest construction to take place recently in downtown Athens, if businesses and pedestrians can cooperate with the construction, they will ultimately benefit. While businesses may be beginning to experience a loss now, that loss is seen as temporary and business owners can expect to return to normal or better after construction completion.

“More people living downtown just means more opportunities [for the business] to buy and sell, which is always a good thing,” Bobon says. “And once the street is in better shape, even more people will want to come shop on Clayton.”

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