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.
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>
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>
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.”
By Lauren McDonald
A young farmer discovered last month at the Georgia Organics Conference that his farm has formed a reputation among Georgia farmers.
“They would ask me, ‘What does your farm do?’” said Nathan Brett, owner of DaySpring Farms. “I’d tell them ‘We produce stone mill flour.’”
“Oh, you guys are the stone mill flour guys.”
Brett laughed and replied, “Yeah, that’s us.”
Customers will return to the Athens Farmers Market on April 4 at Bishop Park, and Brett is one of several young farmers who have emerged as local market celebrities.
“We heard that soon enough, instead of having celebrity chefs we would have celebrity farmers,” said Jan Kozak, manager of the Athens Farmers Market. “And lo and behold, we’ve got some farmers in our local market that are not necessarily celebrities but have done a good job of marketing themselves to where they’re really recognizable.”
DaySpring Farms is one of the nearly 100 small farms in and around Athens-Clarke County, all of which contribute to what Kozak calls a “burgeoning” local food scene.
“In the case of Athens, we have a fairly young farmer scene, and all that really contributes to the really great, vibrant local food scene that we have,” Kozak said.
Brett and his father Murray opened DaySpring Farms in 2011 in Danielsville, about 20 miles outside of Athens.
DaySpring Farms produces organically certified wheat, corn and produce. The 90-acre farm’s most well-known feature is its stone mill, which grounds wheat into flour.
“There may be a handful of other farms in Georgia that are growing organic wheat,” Brett said.
DaySpring Farms has expanded rapidly since it began four years ago.
The farm produced 30,000 pounds of organic wheat in 2014. Brett said they hope to sell 60,000 pounds this year.
But before 2011, Brett had very little interest in running his own farm.
Brett studied music business at the University of Georgia until 2008. He then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a career as a musician.
He dreamed of seeing his name up in lights.
“For the better part of my college career and afterwards, I was very intent on making a name for myself as a singer, songwriter or performer,” Brett said. “I wanted to the next Ryan Adams or Bob Dylan.”
His father convinced him to make a career in farming instead.
“He grew up on a farm in South Georgia,” Brett said. “He moved away from the farm to go to school. He says that he wishes he had never left. In about 2009, he got in my ear and talked me into moving back to the farm.”
So the Brett family bought a piece of foreclosed property in Danielsville.
DaySpring Farms sprung up on the local Athens food scene by taking part in the Farmers Market and building a client base. The farm began with just three acres of wheat.
Their biggest buyers have been Heirloom Café and the Independent Bakery, Brett said. Last month, he also began selling to The National and Five & Ten in Athens.
Chef Hugh Acheson, owner of The National and Five & Ten, buys 70 percent of food for both restaurants locally.
He said several new young farmers like Brett have sprung up on the local food scene in Athens lately, many of whom are finding ways to distinguish themselves, just like Brett has done by grinding his own flour.
“There’s a lot of new people doing some really cool stuff,” Acheson said. “As much as there’s new stuff on the rise, though, there’s also a lot of old timers that I still want to support.”
Brett said the Athens community recognizes the stone flour mill as his farm’s trademark, which he said improves his sales, as well as his notoriety.
DaySpring Farms has more control over where it sells crops, Brett said, because it owns its own stone mill. The farm can grind and store the flour because the mill is on-site, rather than outsourcing to a separate mill.
Brett keeps his business viable by storing and then selling the wheat throughout the year.
Brett did not expect to develop a passion for organic, sustainable farming.
In the past four years, though, he said his goal has become to share this philosophy with the Athens community, and he hopes to use his new-found fame to do so.
“Not only is there a need for farmers to produce real food, but it’s also extremely important to be a productive contributing member to society,” Brett said. “Farmers have an extremely unique responsibility in that. They provide one of the most essential things to the local community, and that’s food. Responsible farmers lead to more responsible communities.”
Brett no longer aspires to be a celebrity. Today, he only hopes to sustain his business, educate the community on organic farming and spend time with his wife and 3-month-old son.
“Living with that kind of mentality where you want to see your name in lights can be pretty damaging,” he said. “I’m grateful to have moved away from that, and I don’t really care if people know who I am. If I can provide a good living for my family, then I’m happy for that.”
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.
By Taylor West
The doors of the 40 Watt Club open at 9 p.m and people trickle into the dimly lit venue to buy their first drinks of the night. The opening band takes the stage, the audience grows and two acts later the headliner, Reptar, walks on stage and looks out over a screaming, intoxicated full house.
It’s a typical Saturday night in Athens.
Athens is home to many music venues from the Georgia Theatre to the Caledonia Lounge and the Melting Point to the dozens of bars and restaurants that play live music multiple nights a week, and has produced countless bands, ranging from unknown groups to R.E.M., the B-52s and Widespread Panic.
There is no question Athens has a deeply engrained and widely known music culture that is an important part of the town’s identity. The New York Times even said the Classic City “might as well be known as Live Music Central” because of the “waves of fresh local acts and a growing number of live music sites” since the 1980s.
But what may go unnoticed is the strong presence of the music industry in the economy.
There are 52 total establishments for arts, entertainment and recreation in the Athens-Clarke County metropolitan statistical area in 2011 with a reported annual payroll of $13,209,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Athens outnumbers other comparable towns with downtown music scenes. For example, Lawrence, Kan., in the same category, has four fewer establishments and takes in $6,588,000 less annually.
David Barbe, director of the music business certificate program at the University of Georgia, said the music’s affect on the economy in Athens is bigger than most people realize.
“It is a huge part of Athens’ economy. A normal, Friday night, packed rock band show there will be 1,000 people drinking $5 Bud Lights at the Georgia Theatre… so you know that beer sales downtown, in my opinion, are quite healthy,” Barbe said. “You see what I’m getting at.”
Jeff Humphreys, the director of the Selig Center in the Terry College of Business, said there are two ways to monitor the economy of the music scene — production, or money made from music produced in Athens, and performance.
“A performance impact would consist of attracting visitors to Athens,” he said. “The big economic impacts from performance are either putting heads in beds… plus there may be some day trip visitors that don’t actually spend the night but they may drive over from Atlanta and go to a restaurant and the venue.”
Barbe said with a band like the Drive-By Truckers, who played a three-night stand at the 40 Watt a few weeks ago, it’s believed 50 percent of the attendees to the concerts are from out of town.
“It’s fair to say that these 300 people are going to spend, between a hotel room for three days and food and beer and records and gasoline, it’s fair to say that these people spend $700 while they are here,” he said.
Drive-By Truckers, though they have a larger following than many bands playing in Athens, is just one of many groups that comes to town every year. Additionally, outside of downtown groups such as the Cleveland Orchestra attract hundreds of a different crowd when they play venues Hugh Hodgson Hall.
Though Hannah Smith, director for marketing and communications for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she is “not aware of a specific study that has done an economic study that is tied back to the music scene,” the bureau does compile tourist information.
Smith in a subsequent email wrote that of people who signed in at the Athens Welcome Center and those who requested information online, 5 percent self-identified as having a primary interest in music.
“Destination marketers are most successful when they are able to promote what is most distinctive about their destination, experiences travelers can’t get closer to home,” Smith wrote despite the low percentage. “For Athens, that distinctive factor is the continuing vibrancy of our live music scene. Music is integral to our tourism product and definitely contributes to the local economy by bringing in tourists from around the globe.”
And Barbe said the music industry in Athens has been growing “exponentially” for the last 30 years.
“When I came here in 1981 there were about maybe 15 or 20 cool local original bands, now there are hundreds. There was no music business infrastructure at that time because for 15 or 20 local bands and a couple of bars you don’t need that,” he said. “[Now] with hundreds and hundreds of bands we’ve got record labels and artist managers and booking agents and concert promoters and t-shirt makers and all kinds of things.”
Click here for Barbe’s explanation of relationships between different facets of the music industry: Structure of the Music Industry
Athens is now home to the annual Athens Music and Arts Festival, which, for the last 15 years, AthFest has used to “showcase the best in regionally and nationally recognized Athens-based talent,” according to the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department website. This year, around 200 bands and artist will put on shows for the festival in local venues and on three outdoor stages.
Jeff Montgomery, an ACC public information officer and co-owner of athensmusic.net, said the music scene’s influence has grown with its numbers and the government is taking notice.
“Certainly I would say that it does affect policy,” he said. “We do things that support the Athens music scene. This office has always had a strong music tie. It’s not always official, but it’s a big interest we have, it’s a big tourist component to things, it’s a big economic boost for downtown.”
And the economic salience of the music industry in Athens, Montgomery said, is evidenced by the low closure rates of true music venues in Athens.
Montgomery said ACC pays attention to the arts in general as well — among other things, there is a public art component that is part of any capital program through our SPLOST program, which is the sales tax program, meaning a percentage of every project that’s done though SPLOST 2011, has to have a public art component to that.
“I would say there is a policy component to that,” he said. “In terms of when it comes down to laws or other things like that, sure that’s always considered when there are laws or ordinances that have the potential to affect the creative community; they tend to make their voices known. And then it is weighed against other factors, like public safety.”
Montgomery said on top of being a political consideration, the Athens government stands behind the music scene through little things.
“If you were to call City Hall, and you get put on hold, all our hold music is Athens bands. Also, the government access television that our office runs, Athens music is what plays in the background of that when we are on our bulletin board system,” he said. “We do things that support the Athens music scene.”
By Ashton Adams
When City Engineer James Barnett developed a plan to install underground piping through downtown Athens in 1914, he certainly did not expect these pipes to remain in their place a century later.
Yet, there they lie and Athens construction crews will soon be encountering them and much more underneath the city’s streets.
“Speaking professionally, our department can map out and describe what crews will be running into during construction. Cracked pipes, leaking, rust. Those types of things,” said S.P.L.O.S.T Program Administrator Donald Martin. “However, when we speculate about the downtown area, knowing it is about 200 years old, we know we are bound to run into some interesting finds.”
Crews received the green light to begin excavation underneath Clayton Street after city officials approved a $7.1 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax project last year. This year long downtown streetscape project, which began in February, will focus on repairing and upgrading the in-ground utilities along Clayton Street and will conclude in August.
With or without specialist consultation, pieces of Athens’ history remain underground and crews will soon become privy to what lies below.
Generations of city developers since the start of the 20th century have had a history of paving or backfilling entire structures in an attempt to cut back on funds. Janine Duncan, a campus planning coordinator at the University of Georgia and member of the Athens Historical Commission, believes that many of these structures remain where they stood a century ago, surrounded by inches of thick paving material.
“History shows that humans have always taken the path of least resistance. What has resulted in Athens’ case is a lot of structures getting backfilled,” Duncan said. “By working with archaeologists and anthropologists here in Athens, we can distinguish human activity from a century ago. Human activity remains as a scar.”
According to Duncan, the city stands almost a foot taller than it did in 1914 because of the countless layers of pavement that have been laid over the years.
And underneath the pavement are indicators of the city’s age.
“Chances are, what crews will find below ground are remnants of century-old paving bricks, Belgian block and entire water cisterns that horses and mules once drank out of,” Duncan confirmed.
Crews will see trolley tracks that once split the downtown area and ran down Lumpkin Street and various side streets as well. This railway service ran from 1885 until 1930 when G.I.’s returning home from WWII were hired to disassemble the tracks.
When it comes to underground utilities, both Martin and Duncan agree that the pipes installed in 1914 still remain in their place and are in good condition.
“I don’t think city developers a century ago built some of these underground utilities with an intention that they would remain there today,” Duncan said. “On the other hand, crews in the early 1900’s were using withstanding material like glazed terracotta and cast iron for the piping. I believe the city was putting more money into its projects than what today’s city would be doing.”
Smaller objects such as railroad ties, rough-stone stairs, fences, wells and outhouses from the early 20th century have been found under Broad and Clayton Streets.
Duncan, with the help of professor of anthropology Erv Garrison, has been able to scan the ground in and around downtown Athens and discover outlines of human disturbances underground.
Scanning these areas with radar and electromagnetometer equipment, Duncan confirmed that specific areas downtown also show to be areas of interest for archaeologists.
“The areas downtown where I can guarantee archaeologists will uncover human disturbances are in those small interior alley ways that run behind most buildings,” Duncan said. “They have virtually been left untouched since downtown’s original construction.”
It has been 40 years since crews have done an excavation project like this one, and one local administrator has been present for both.
“The last time Athens went underground like this, crews and officials were surprised at how well the piping had held together. Even then that was shocking to us,” said Glenn Coleman, assistant director for the Public Utilities Department. “And during our pre-construction evaluation on Clayton Street last year, we were yet again shocked. The cast iron piping below ground has evaded rusting, cracks and decay for so many years. It really is impressive.”
Per requirements of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, S.P.L.O.S.T officials had to take into account their undertakings on historic properties, above and below ground, and allow opportunity for an advisory council on historic preservation to comment on the project. Martin said the S.P.L.O.S.T department fulfilled these requirements.
“We have certainly been in coordination with the Historic Preservation Commission in order to make sure we do not impact anything from a historical standpoint,” Martin said.
However, conflicting reports from a member of the commission revealed that S.P.L.O.S.T officials had not consulted the Historical Commission as previously stated.
“From my standpoint, city officials have commonly avoided approaching the Commission about local projects because they regard it as a pain or a waste of time,” Duncan said. “There is a preconceived notion with developers that if they consult the Historic Commission, they will not be able to proceed with their work and that is not the case whatsoever.”
Amber Eskew, Preservation Specialist for the city’s Planning Department also said she knew nothing about the S.P.L.O.S.T-funded project and had not been consulted or involved with the project in any way.
This Clayton Street underground construction will be the last of its kind for decades. Any replaced piping will remain where it is for another 60 to 70 years. Construction will be done on a block-by-block basis beginning on E. Clayton Street. Work will be minimal, non-disruptive and nearly invisible to the common passerby.
By Taylor West
Downtown in the Classic City — comprised largely of curbside parking — is making it easier for people to get where they are going.
A move to make simpler by replacing the old coin meters with modernized digital IPS meters had been on the table since before Downtown Athens Parking Director Chuck Horton took the helm, but it really gained momentum last year.
“It wasn’t anything new I just brought it back up — it was just something that needed to be done,” Horton said. “The machines that were on the street were just way past their time.”
Now, finding an old school meter in downtown Athens is next to impossible, a reality that will streamline the parking process for anyone who ventures out to one of the many bars, shops or restaurants.
Athens, however, is not the first city to follow the trend of convenience through modernization with the IPS meters.
San Diego introduced 51 of the high-tech devices for a four-month trial in 2009, according to the San Diego government website. And according to the City of Berkeley website, North Berkeley, a neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., ran a pilot program with 30 of the meters in January 2010.
These new solar-powered meters, which made their way through downtown over the last couple of months, take credit and debit cards as well as the traditional pocket change. Now those who find themselves in the historic city center can use the new meters on most streets.
Even the pay and display boxes are on their way out. Horton said it is in the works for Clayton Street and Broad Street to follow the lead of the rest of downtown and replace the boxes with the new IPS meters.
Horton said the boxes are a real problem for downtown Athens parking — just the act of having to find a box, pay, get a ticket and return to your car generates complaints.
“A lot of the folks don’t like them. It is not uncommon to have five complaints in a morning based on what happened the night before,” he said. “I just don’t get those kinds of complaints from the IPS meters.”
John McArthur, a downtown Athens attorney who works across the street from the courthouse, said he likes the new meters better than the old ones and better than the pay and display boxes.
“[The pay and display’s] are OK. I kind of like [the IPS meters] better because you don’t have to go looking for the box and print the receipt,” he said.
Scott Cassady, a retired Athenian, shares McArthur’s distaste for the pay and display meters, saying they are “a pain in the butt.”
“Whatever happened to where you just walked up and stuck your coins in and walked away?” he said. “[The IPS meters] actually look like they make sense. It’s way better than the other one.”
And on top of being a grievance for those who frequent downtown, the pay and display boxes are difficult and costly to fix when they break. Horton said Athens doesn’t have the in-house tools to fix the machines so the city has to call in people from Norcross.
The IPS meters pose much less of a problem. Horton said they break less frequently and are easier to fix and to monitor.
“It will send a message to my email if they are jammed if they are having some problems,” Horton said. “For us its easy to trouble shoot them you can switch them out pretty easy.”
In addition to the ability to pay with credit and debit cards as well as the traditional coins, users can pay for the new machines by calling in on an app and paying on the phone.
“I can pull up on their software and check the amount of money that’s coming in,” Horton said.
A given meter’s income varies by location — the area by the courthouse doesn’t get as much business until court is in session or there is an event at the Classic Center. On the other hand, Horton said the meters on Lumpkin Street, Jackson Street and S. Washington Street “really get used.”
Athens-Clarke County purchased 510 IPS meters at $465 a piece — a total of just over $230,000 — that arrived in the middle of last October. Horton said of the vote in favor of the purchase, “I think it was unanimous.
And the opinion on the amendment to the downtown landscape met with positivity from Athens’ citizens, too.
“They are well received,” Horton said. “I like them and I think the customers like them because … they can read them and it’s easy to use them. Your generation is going to use plastic; the older generation may not want to do that.”
Barbara Brown, an employee of Downtown Athens Parking, has the job of writing tickets for the vehicles which are illegally parked — whether in an off-limits parking space or with an expired meter. She said the dual nature of the meters makes them easy to use for Athenians of all ages and backgrounds.
“They are easier for the older people and easier for the students, you know, it’s old school and new school,” she said. “Credit cards, five cents, ten cents and quarters — you can still get by with it.”
McArthur said he supports the new, high-tech meters’ downtown takeover because they are convenient and good for the price. His only complaint — “I wish they would take dollar bills too.”
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.”
Sweaty and tired, Angela Gao walked across downtown at 4:55 p.m. to the parking lot after her regular Friday shift. She looked around for minutes until her worst fear was realized.
“I parked downtown across from SunO’s before work,” Gao said, an employee at Transmetropolitan. “When I came back, it was gone.”
Cars of all sizes fit like puzzle pieces across the squared streets of the downtown area. Dozens of people can be seen pumping quarter after quarter into the five feet tall meters emerging from the concrete along each street. A young male walks back and forth on the driver’s side of his SUV, possibly considering and reconsidering parking in the W01 lot, before pulling back out and leaving.
This scene exemplifies the state of fear many have when parking in downtown. All are uneasy without sufficient pocket change or permits in a city with limited parking, facing a slew of towing service with varying fees and practices.
Gao says that she called the towing agency, Oldham’s, listed at the front of lot, who told her that if she could get from Broad Street to Oak Street in five minutes, it would only be $150 – only in cash — to release her 1998 Toyota Solara. If she couldn’t, her next option would be the following day for $165.
Others like Gao have also faced large prices concerning wrecking fees. The Athens-Clarke County police released a statement concerning the “recently fielded inquiries in regards to regulations upon what a wrecker service may charge” in November 2010.
The statement later quotes section 6-15-6 of the Athens-Clarke county Code of Ordinances, stating a $100 maximum on wrecking fees for police nonconsensual tows, when lot owners or towing companies spot an illegally parked car and take action. Municode, the online library for Athens-Clarke County code of ordinances, states that the ordinance is still in effect today, but several other ordinances added in 2004 were not followed in Gao’s experience.
The new ordinance says that a “wrecker service must accept credit cards or bank debit cards at its place of business for payment of the fees,” a rule that didn’t seem to apply to Gao, who later had to “pool all [her] tip money and withdraw to get the car out for work the next day.”
There are more than a handful of towing services that service the downtown, each with their own separate prices and locations. While some offenders on Clayton Street may face a $100 fee from Barrett’s Towing, others are slapped with a $150 or higher charge from Oldham’s Wrecker Paint and Body Shop.
“We parked in the 909 lot overnight and when we came back, [our cars] were gone,” Monica Flamini said, a student at the University echoing Gao’s statements. “We hadn’t known that they were towed. We had to pay $175 for each car. Their place is in the middle of nowhere and it really put a damper on our day.”
The revenue from fines and forfeitures total $4,748,100, which is a 5.6 percent increase since the last fiscal year, according to the Athens-Clarke County budget. It is the one of the largest increases, percentage wise, despite being only two percent of total revenue.
The Athens-Clarke county ordinances create a conflict between police consensual and nonconsensual tows. “Fees for removal, storage, etc., of authorized vehicles from private property,” section 3-4-43, states that the charge for towing is $60 in the daytime and $70 in the nighttime, with the decision depending on the time the dispatcher calls the towing service. In the case of Gao, if the police had called instead of the lot’s owner, it would have saved her $95.
George Maxwell is the commissioner for the district encompassing downtown. Maxwell could not be reached for comment on the issue at the moment.
Oldham’s has also not followed the ordinance in regard to being “staffed and operated … from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.”
“They told me to call after 10 a.m.,” Gao said. “When I called around 11:30 a.m., they told me I was too late.”
The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America(PCI) tracks the hassles of towing across the country through national surveys. The 2011 National Towing Survey created a list of “the 149 worst areas for aggressive towing practices,” listing Atlanta, Ga. as No. 4 in the country among Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Houston.
“While there are many honest, well-intentioned operators, a few bad players have created widespread problems,” PCI said in a press release. The biggest issues found by PCI in the survey were those faced by Gao: towing/storage charges and miscellaneous Fees; inconsistent and difficult release process; lack of transparency and communication from towing companies; and access to vehicle for adjustors.
Many park illegally due to the heavily pedestrianized state of downtown. The conflict lies between where people want and where people can park. The new Washington Street deck hopes to alleviate the issue of illegal parking in downtown.
“If someone would like to park for a longer period of time, that’s a matter of choice and the new deck would allow them to do that,” Laura Miller said, director of parking operations for the Athens Downtown Development Authority, to the Civic Life in Downtown Athens blog.
Gao must continue to park downtown for her job despite the giant, red $165 mark on her bank statement.
“I now have to be more vigilant about the situation,” Gao said. “I sometimes have to move my car around during my break if I feel like I might get towed. I am just paranoid.”