Storeowners angered by new downtown loading policy

By Lauren McDonald

Due to a new traffic law downtown, Jim Adams can no longer see Jackson Street out of his single storefront window for a majority of the day. Instead, he now stares at the side of a delivery truck.

Adams, owner of Adams Optics, said the newly painted loading zone for distributors is seven and a half feet from his store’s entrance.

“Number one, I can’t see out,” Adams said. “And number two, nobody can see in. And people will think we’re closed. I’m not happy at all.”

Adams is one of several storeowners on Jackson Street who feel that their businesses have been negatively and unfairly affected by the recently implemented loading zone ordinance downtown.

The new “center lane policy,” passed by the Athens-Clarke County unified government in December, has been in effect for four months.

According to the policy, it is now illegal for all delivery drivers to load or unload in the center lane of Clayton Street. These vehicles must park in the new loading zones painted on the north-south streets, such as Jackson Street.

The new policy has been delayed by the painting of the new loading zones, but storeowners have recently begun to notice the effects of the change.

And several wish they’d been consulted.

“I just can’t imagine what they were thinking,” Adams said. “Nobody from the city came into my office and discussed it with me, so I had no idea that this was coming about. When I questioned them, they said ‘Well it was in the paper.’ Well, who reads that sorry paper?”

Adams said only two parking spots were left in front of his store.

“If a car is parked there, somebody can see my store,” Adams said. “But if a beer truck, a UPS truck or FedEx truck is, nobody can see me at all.”

The Athens government passed the new policy as an attempt to address the ongoing issue of allowing stores downtown to receive deliveries, without the delivery trucks impeding traffic.

“Everybody knows downtown Athens is unique because it was built without alleys, so there’s not anywhere to put your trash, there’s not anywhere to accept deliveries,” said Pamela Thompson, director of the Athens Downtown Development

Authority. “So everybody knows you have to make accommodations to get goods into the businesses.”

In 2002, Mayor Nancy Denson attempted to address this issue by allowing delivery trucks to park in the center lanes of Clayton Street and Washington Street.

But while this policy appeased distributors, Athens drivers, pedestrians and some business owners were unsatisfied.

“The concern was that the delivery trucks, especially on Clayton, were creating a potential traffic hazard – because you have parking, a travel lane, then the delivery truck,” Thompson said.

Delivery trucks parked in the center lane also became an eyesore, she said.

“You lose some visibility, if they had an outdoor restaurant or café, when your view is of a delivery truck,” Thompson said. “For the retail stores, sometimes if you’re just window shopping, you may be on one side of the street, you look across the street and see a store that you want to go visit. But if there’s a delivery truck in the way, you wouldn’t see that window.”

So the Commission took the issue up again in 2014, with the help of Mayor Denson. They sat down in April to discuss a solution to this difficult problem.

Officials decided to create loading zones on the north-south streets, allowing the center lanes to be used only for traffic flow from noon to 3 a.m.

“We wanted to make sure that delivery drivers didn’t have to walk too far, so we just picked four businesses that seemed pretty far from the loading areas and measured that, to see that the farthest any one business would be from a loading zone was 162 feet,” Thompson said.

She said traffic downtown has improved since the policy went into effect.

“One reason we think it’s going to be successful is because we have created enough larger, longer loading zones on the north-south streets that weren’t there before,” Thompson said. “So we think we’ve provided enough alternate spaces to park to do your loading and unloading that it will be successful.”

Chris Stallings, director of sales and marketing at the beer distributor Leon Farmer and Company, said his deliverers have not faced any issues since the policy took effect.

“We haven’t run into anything that has prevented us from servicing our customers,” Stallings said. “But from a whether it’s positive or negative standpoint, it’s such a work in progress right now, that I really would hate to say anything positive or negative about it.”

Since the policy took effect, the ADDA has worked to educate the downtown community about the change, and for the first month they only gave warnings for those violating the new law.

“We gave to all the business owners the new ordinance, so that they could give it to all of their delivery drivers, because this applies to everyone – beer delivery, food delivery, linens, anything you’re getting,” Thompson said. “For about a month, we ticketed with warnings.”

But Adams said he never received this information.

Adams and other storeowners on Jackson Street, including the owners of Dynamite Clothing and Community, complained to the ADDA. He said they have not yet been offered a solution.

“If you’re a store on Clayton Street, and a beer truck is parked in the center lane, it is probably 50 feet from the beer truck to the front of the store,” Adams said. “If a beer truck is right there, it’s seven and a half feet from the front of my store. Nobody will be able to see me.”

Adams said he feels that the new law was created with bar owners specifically in mind.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. Eighty-five percent of the trucks there are beer trucks,” Adams said. “Well the bars don’t open until 10 o’clock at night. Well, why not deliver at night? They said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to inconvenience any body.’ Well, it inconveniences me when I don’t have any business because of it.”

Adams would like to see the loading zone in front of his store removed.

“They better be concerned about the merchants – the few remaining merchants that aren’t bars,” he said. “This town caters to the bars, and that’s just facts.”


After a few drinks health score doesn’t matter

By Audrey Milam and Esther Shim

 

Jerrod leaves Magnolia’s at 2:20 a.m. Thursday night, ready to sober up on a heaping pile of hot food at a 24-hour restaurant. Few full service restaurants are still open downtown, but Jerrod has his sights set on Waffle House. The Washington Street Waffle House received an 87 on its last health inspection, not terrible but not great. “I don’t care,” Jerrod says, “Waffle House is AMAZING.”

“The Grill is disgusting. Steak ‘n Shake is way too far to drive on a couple [of drinks]. That’s just my prerogative,” Jerrod said, explaining his rationale.

After a night of fun and drinks, Jerrod said that he isn’t looking to drive anywhere, especially when Waffle House is only a short walk away. Plus, he enjoys the All-Star Breakfast deal that the joint serves.

Jerrod’s loyalty to his first choice restaurant is typical of downtown visitors. When it comes to picking a dive, cleanliness isn’t a factor. People just don’t care.

In a survey of 50 late-night drinkers, only two people changed their minds about their chosen eatery after learning the health score. Both decided not to go to Waffle House.

Most of the survey subjects commented on the quality and taste of the meals served or the quality of the service provided. Cleanliness didn’t play a large role in altering a subject’s choice of venue.

Multiple people declared that Waffle House had the best breakfast, the most convenient location, and the most food for a few bucks. In terms of pricing, some, such as UGA student Lewis Payne, disagreed.

“I prefer Steak ‘n Shake. Waffle House in Athens is disappointing. They all have bad service and cold food. I’ve never had a good experience at any of the three around campus.”

There are in fact nine Waffle Houses around Athens.

Steak ‘n Shake, a chain restaurant specializing in Steakburgers and milkshakes, was noted the second-most popular restaurant during the survey. The venue boasts half-priced shakes during happy hours from midnight to four in the morning, a prime time for drunken crowds to rush into the diner.

However, half-priced shakes and hot Steakburgers don’t mean that the restaurant is performing at high standards. The Steak ‘n Shake on West Broad Street actually failed a health inspection.

Unexpectedly, no one decided against Steak ‘n Shake, even after learning that it received a score of 71. The Clarke County Department of Public Health cited the restaurant for two critical violations: failure to properly wash hands, and failure to cool food properly.

Employees were seen handling clean dishes right after washing dirty dishes, something you might easily do in your home and never give a second thought. But it’s cross-contamination in the dish room enough to alarm health inspectors.

A representative for the West Broad Street Steak ‘n Shake declined to comment on the branch’s performance.

Steak ‘n Shake’s failure didn’t seem to sway its fans, though.

“I can’t believe Steak ‘n Shake is so dirty. I guess I’d still go, though. I love their fries,” said UGA student Sarah Greene.

The restaurant offers several flavored seasonings for customers to add to their fries. Greene said she constantly craves this dish and often orders “a ton of fries and a shake after a night out with the girls.”

After learning about some of Steak ‘n Shake’s health code violations, Greene shrugged and said, “they must be busy or something.”

Ricoh Black, another UGA student, agreed, “I’d still go to Steak ‘n Shake to get my Steakburger, parmesan fries and my mint Oreo shake. Can’t pass up such a good deal. Why would anyone want to pay 10 bucks for a burger when they can pay four bucks for one?” he said, referring to the higher prices at The Grill.

The long-time Athens diner, The Grill scored the best out of the round-the-clock downtown eateries. It’s score of 93 is exceptional, but not enough to change its perception as a grungy hole-in-the-wall.

“I was never a big fan of The Grill. It’s grody,” said UGA student Matt Thomas. He said the cleanliness was funny because “it’s always gross” when he goes. “I haven’t heard any good things, like ever.”

According Yelp, The Grill scored three and half stars out of five, and four stars on Urbanspoon.

Mike Bradshaw, owner of The Grill since 2009, laughed at the survey’s findings. “I worked my butt off for that [health inspection] score!” he said.

When it comes to dining after a night out and a few drinks, does the health score truly make a difference? In this college town, it’s not about the cleanliness of a diner, but about convenience, large servings, and money left in pockets.

 


New Pilot Program Begins On Prince Avenue

By Joy Bratcher

On Jan. 7, citizens of downtown Athens saw a new pilot program take affect on the street of Prince Avenue. The six-month program focuses on the crosswalk located at Newton Street and Pope Street and places orange flags at each side of the crossing. The flags are to make pedestrians more visible as they cross the street.

“In a few months we are going to do an after study of the success of the flags,” Traffic Engineer Steve Decker said. We will be looking for increased compliance with motorist.”

Kelsey Butler is a student at the University of Georgia and lives near downtown Athens. She describes herself as someone who enjoys walking around downtown as much as she drives through it to go to her hometown. As she crosses Prince Street, she admits she feels silly waving the flags so drivers will supposedly “see her better.”

Butler said that she has seen more close calls in pedestrian accidents than she has cared for especially on the infamous avenue. Yet, she is not sure if the flags will be successful.

“As a pedestrian, I can see the benefit of the flags,” Butler said. “Yet, as a motorists, it is very distracting. I could see how more accidents could be caused by motorists staring at the flags without paying attention to the person carrying the flag.”

Every five years, the Traffic Safety Research and Evaluation Group examines Athens roads to tally up the number of pedestrian and cyclist accidents due to being struck by motorists. In the most recent study released in 2012, one street stood out to researchers- Prince Avenue.

According to the report, while bike crashes are down 46% from the previous five year span complied between years 2003 and 2007, pedestrian crashes are up 160%.

Cities as far as Washington have seen success stories from the new program, but the idea of whether or not this statement is accurate is still being debated in larger cities across the country that carry a high number of pedestrians.

Salt Lake City has been using the flags since 2000. It’s city website states that due to the success of the program, in 2001 the city had to create an Adopt-a-Crosswalk program opening the doors for businesses and individuals to maintain crosswalk flag cites for little or no cost. As of 2013, more than 200 crosswalks were adopted.

Even with the program trying to help pedestrians, some see them as a joke to pull on one another. Looking in the flag pit, one may see a United States Flag, rebel flag, German flag, or Georgia Bulldog flag instead of the orange flags

According to an online article on the Athens Banner Herald website, the cost of replacing each flag costs the city $2. <http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2015-01-12/prince-avenue-pedestrian-flags-get-mixed-reviews&gt;

Decker is quoted in the article saying, “the occasional loss of a flag would be a small price to pay if the program is effective in improving pedestrian safety.”

When using the flags, pedestrians are not to solely rely on carrying their flag. “It’s just an enhancement” for the crosswalks, and “not a cure-all” for pedestrian safety, Decker said in the article. <http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2015-01-06/pedestrian-crosswalk-flags-be-tried-prince-avenue&gt;

In June, the city will examine Prince Avenue to see if statics have improved since the start of the project.

“I’m not sure what the results will be from this,” Butler said. “If it works to help make us safer, then it won’t matter any cost or problem it could cause. Even if it saves one life, it will be worth it.”


Fewer Fires in Athens Redefines the Role of Firefighter

By: Patrick Adcock

The call came at 10:50 P.M. Firefighters rushed to get suited-up and piled on the truck as the siren began to blare. School alarms require a quick response, but these men train for years to get to a location as quickly as possible no matter who is in need.

They arrived to find students already lined up on the curb outside of the dorms by the bus stop. The flashing lights created briefly illuminated silhouettes of the crowd on the sides of the surrounding buildings. A group of firemen locate the smoke-filled common area that was the source of the alarm.

This is the reality of college towns and the firefighters that serve them. A change occurred in the last forty years in America – the reported number of fires requiring an emergency response fell from 3.3 million per year in the 1970s to 1.2 million in 2013 based on a report from the National Fire Protection Association. Yet there are now more working firefighters employed by local governments than ever before.

That change is reflected in Athens, where fewer fires are occurring in comparison to previous decades. Now, the fire department responds to around 3,000 calls in a calendar year. The population of Athens, however, continues to grow. Between 2010 and 2013, the population grew by 4%, and with urbanization that trend is expected to continue according to census data. This trend shows that more people living in Athens are causing fewer fires than previous generations.

University of Georgia Police Chief Jimmy Williamson has an idea for what led to such a dramatic decline in fires.

“It’s the building codes,” said Williamson. “We have much better building codes today than we did years ago.”

Buildings must now conform to standardized construction practices such as using fireproof materials. Today’s citizens are also more aware of fire prevention methods, and firefighters themselves train hard to effectively put out conflagrations.

On the UGA Police Department’s website, data can be found about fires responded to on campus since 2009. A large proportion are accidental, such as students leaving food cooking in microwaves or letting clothes get too close to lit candles.

Arson is also a common cause of fire responses on the UGA campus. Students sometimes set papers or posters on walls alight intentionally. Alarm systems are toyed with and burned. If the fire department arrives to find that an alarm has been pulled intentionally, law enforcement is notified.

The reality is that today’s firefighters are responding to just as many false alarms as real fires, and unfortunately there is no way for them to tell which alarms are actual fires. However, more firefighters are working today than at any point in the past.

The National Fire Protection Association estimates that there are 350,000 firefighters on the payroll as of 2012 in America. In 1986, there were 240,000 paid firefighters.

There are more firefighters fighting fewer fires than previous generations.

The Athens-Clarke County Fire Company was first incorporated in 1850 and was located in a building that is now part of the Classic Center. Several years later, the first municipal fire department was formed, initially employing 15 firefighters.

According to the Athens-Clarke County website, there are now 190 personnel working for the fire department here spread across nine stations and one training facility. Each station has their own fire engine along with a handful of other support vehicles for the county.

Firefighters here serve many roles however, not just in responding to fires.

Kyle Hendrix, assistant chief of operations with the fire department, points out that a few of the fire department’s trucks carry ropes and rescue equipment, such as the Jaws of Life. Fire responders can deal with vehicle collisions, rescue situations and all manner of other emergencies.

Hendrix, however, does not see firefighters as primarily medical responders. In an interview with the Red and Black, Hendrix said, “The fire department historically has never been a medical services provider.”

Additionally, the fire department is responsible for putting on show and tells at the University and other places around town. Part of the reason the number of reported fires has declined is the fact that the average citizen today knows more about fire prevention than previously.

While there are more firefighters employed today than ever before and fewer fires being reported than ever before, the fire department stills serves an integral role in Athens life. With their other activities and responsibilities, firefighters are also working more than in previous years, and their efforts are essential to keeping fire rates low. However, the image of a firefighter rushing into a burning building is not the face of their everyday work anymore.

Remember that call that came at night from the East Campus dorms of UGA? Firefighters arrived in the common room kitchen to find that the cause of the smoke that set off the alarm – a batch of over-baked cookies forgotten in the oven by a student.


Whitehall Hill Reduction Improvements Project

By Esther Shim

A hazardous and hilly road is about to be reconstructed for the sake of the Athens, Ga., community.

The S. Milledge Avenue at Whitehall Road intersection is dangerous for commuters due to hilly conditions that prevent proper sight of other drivers around curves, according to the Transportation and Public Works committee.

The Mayor and Commission approved the award for the Whitehall Road and S. Milledge Avenue intersection reconstruction and hill reduction project proposal at the regular meeting on March 3, 2015.

The Whitehall Hill Reduction Improvements Project was approved as a subproject of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) 2011 Program’s Road and Bridge Improvements and Replacement Program (Project #26), according to the project history. The project idea began in November 2010 to create safer driving paths for the community.

The S. Milledge Avenue at Whitehall Road intersection is a well-traveled and traffic heavy road. The Transportation and Public Works committee’s mission is to repair the vertical curve on Whitehall Road and improve vehicle sight distance to prevent dangerous driving. In addition to reducing the hill on the curve, the committee also plans to construct a roundabout at the intersection for efficient commuting and better traffic flow, according to the project package.

These improvements will be beneficial to college students as well as other community members who travel to Athens for work. The Mayor and Commission approved the Preliminary Construction Plan for the project on April 2, 2014, and the project was advertised for construction on December 18, 2014, according to the package.

The bid opening was scheduled for for January 22, 2015, with several companies such as Structural Resources, Inc., Pittman Construction Co., and E.R. Snell Contractor Inc., placing the lowest bids. At the Agenda Setting Meeting on February 17, 2015, committee members recommended that the Mayor and Commission award a contract of $561,700.95 for the Whitehall Road Hill Reduction Project to E.R. Snell Contractor, Inc.

The contract was the most cost efficient of the competing contractors, and the committee asked that the contract and award  be approved at the March 3rd Mayor and Commission Regular Meeting.

One concern of the construction project was that the roads would have to be closed during renovations. This would cause a couple of months of detouring through Watkinsville and Oconee County.

The construction project will begin in April 2015 and the expected completion date is by September 2015, according to the Athens-Banner Herald. Around this time, there is an expected increase in traffic with a number of detour signs placed in the general vicinity of construction.

Traffic is expected to start as early as May, while schools are in session, in preparation of construction, according to the Athens-Banner Herald. The intersection of S. Milledge Avenue at Whitehall Road is expected to be closed until late July.

Athen’s citizens can expect additional improvements such as bicycle lanes, wider roads, and a sidewalk as well, according to the project package.

For further information as well as snapshots of the intersection improvement project concepts, take a look at the following sites:

http://athensclarkecounty.com/2091/Project-26-Road-Bridge-Improvements

http://athensclarkecounty.com/5395/S-Milledge-Ave-at-Whitehall-Road


Athens taxi drivers support Atlanta Uber lawsuit, cite safety concerns

By Evelyn Andrews

“It was hard to get a ride with Uber when they first came to Athens, but now it’s easier and cheaper than a taxi normally,” said Sydney Browning, who has ridden with the service several times.

Affordability and the easiness of getting a ride with Uber is often cited as a reason people choose the service over traditional taxis, but Uber’s lack of government oversight and background checks has led to some people to question the safeness of using them.

“I did not know that Uber doesn’t have some requirements that taxi drivers have and I do feel a little more worried getting a ride with them now,” Browning, a student at the University of Georgia, said.

Uber, a ride-sharing service, has been expanding across the globe since 2012 and debuted in Athens in August 2014. Uber, a part of the sharing economy such as Airbnb and bike rental services, operates in 55 countries and over 200 cities as of December 2014.

Uber has not been immune to mishaps, including being banned from India after allegations of rape and surge pricing during the hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. Several taxi cab companies worldwide have sued Uber on the basis that they do not follow regulations. Athens Uber operations also have not been immune to these types of controversies, but no lawsuits have been filed.

“The real question should be is, ‘is it safe?’” said Ted Ledall, a dispatcher for United Taxi Cab in Athens, Georgia. “To be an Uber driver, there are no qualifications.”

Several taxi cab owners and drivers from Atlanta sued the ride-sharing service in September 2014, claiming Uber is operating a taxi service without a license. Many Athens taxi cab owners and drivers agree with their decision and are supporting them, Ledall said.

“We support them 110 percent,” he said.

But taxi companies in Athens are not planning their own lawsuit. Instead, they are relying on Mayor Nancy Denson.

“Everything is on the mayor’s table rights now,” Ledall said.

He said Mayor Denson should require all Uber drivers in Athens to adhere to the same regulation that taxi companies are required to follow. Athens ordinances require taxi cab drivers to receive a background check through the police department and to have a valid driver’s license with no points acquired in order to be issued a taxi license drivers are required to have.

“We check our drivers so much, there is no felonies, nothing in their background,” Ledall said.

However, one in five taxi drivers in Athens have accumulated a number of traffic or other violations within the last 10 years, according to The Red & Black.

No ordinances exist in Athens-Clarke County or state laws in Georgia that stipulate requirements for Uber, but city officials, according to The Red & Black, are reviewing ordinances that could be passed.

Hasan Ahmed, an Athens Uber driver, said the company does have stringent requirements for drivers. They do an internal background check, making sure the drivers have a valid license with a clean record.

“I don’t think you could make the argument that Uber is any less safe than taxis,” Ahmed said.

But some law makers argue that Uber still needs official government regulations, including Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) who is trying to pass legislation requiring Uber drivers to pass a government background check.

The government also requires taxi drivers to pass a drug test in order to obtain a license. Uber does not make drivers pass these tests, which Browning said is worrying.

Uber drivers are also required to have a car that is less than 10 years old, Ahmed said. Many people have said they feel safer riding with an Uber driver for that reason. Athens’ taxis are often in bad condition, older and poorly maintained, Browning said.

“I have ridden in a few taxis that do not even working gauges for speed and gas before,” she said.

Ledall deflected that argument by arguing that taxis still have more regulation than Uber. Additionally, Uber price gauges riders and charges them exorbitant prices for vomiting in the car, neither of which taxis do, Ledall said.

However, taxis in Athens do not have meters that measure the distant driven and assign a price for the riders. This makes the price taxis drivers tell riders seem arbitrary, Browning said.

No taxi drivers have harassed Ahmed, but he has been stopped by police several times, he said. However, he does not fault the officers, but rather the lack of awareness about the laws guiding Uber.

“Everything is so new and no one really knows what the rules are so sometimes the police just get confused,” Ahmed said.

According to an Athens-Clarke County police report, an Uber driver was stopped by a police officer on Jan. 9 and told to finish the ride and not take any more riders because Uber is not a licensed taxi.

Athens Uber operations has acquired several more drivers since beginning in the city in 2014 and will remain a competitive force against taxis, Ahmed said.

“I think everyone has noticed that they are many more Uber drivers,” Ahmed said.


Downtown Police Substation Brings Reassurance Four Years Later

 By Ashton Adams

When an incompliant man began pounding on the glass windows outside the Smoker’s Den on College Avenue last week, employees didn’t bother calling the authorities.

Instead, manager Tonya Thorne walked next door and the situation was handled in less than two minutes.

The Smoker’s Den shares walls with the downtown police substation, a building whose presence alone has brought security back to downtown.

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