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athens rising What’s Up in New Development

KEVAN WILLIAMS

Last week I dwelled a bit longer on the past than I usually Instead, the Classic Center should be responsible for develprefer, specifically of the Classic Center and its tribulations on oping that area into a vibrant extension of downtown, and the the way to our present predicament. This week, I’ll get back on first stepping stone towards the river. The idea of locating the proactive track, and explore some possibilities for moving an Athens Tech hospitality program on Foundry is an excellent this project forward in a way that leads to a better result not one, and it supports the notion of a public, active, diverse just for the Classic Center, but for downtown and Athens in street life for the area. The Classic Center should be pursugeneral. ing that and other ideas which set it apart from the broad The first thing we need to do is get specific about the market of competing exhibit halls (including ones in town like design and planning questions that need answering. The the Grand Hall of UGA’s Tate Center). In the same way that a proposal so far pays only the faintest lip service to these diverse downtown that isn’t entirely dependent on UGA stuissues, despite claims to the contrary by Classic Center officials dents and the Classic Center is essential to long-term economic and staff; there have been vague reassurances, but guiding principles must be laid out explicitly and then comprehensively implemented. The process for this must be highly public and collaborative, both in the establishment of principles and goals, and in vetting the proposed solution against the initial goals. Whoever ends up preparing the design for this thing must “show their work.” Urban connectivity should be a priority, generally, but we have yet to define the parameters of that in a way that works. In the conversation about Hancock, the community reacting against the project has one definition that is holistic and systemsfocused, the Classic Center another that is more data-driven, focusing on traffic counts. These conflicting definitions are as big a problem in the conversation as anything. The economic development angle is another question that we have yet to define in a mutually intelligible way. The Classic Center has touted a figure for economic impact (produced by a consultant they Is the Classic Center really an economic development engine? Consult your local stylist. hired), and that has served as justification for the collateral damage to existing Foundry Street businesses. That figuring also fails to acknowledge stability for Athens, a Classic Center with a diversified and the ramifications of the ripple effects over the long term, unique set of facilities may be the key to its long-term future. hampering the viability of a future river district. In essence, The unique opportunities and constraints that Foundry and the Classic Center has a very good answer to the short-range Hancock create could result in a truly one-of-a-kind conveneconomic impact question. Unfortunately, the public is asking tion destination. Trying to apply the standard model to an about both the immediate and long-range implications, and unsuitable site won’t get us anywhere, though. the Classic Center’s argument falls right through the middle. What’s more, the question of the mechanism by which we The two conversations just aren’t lining up. have those sorts of conversations is unanswered. So far, comThe Classic Center has also failed to lay out a compelling missioners and ACC bureaucrats alike have seemed hamstrung vision for Foundry Street as an integral piece of downtown. by the process, with all lamenting it but few considering alterWhen connections are lost at Washington and Hancock, the native methods. The mantra of “slowing it down” is gaining street will be so isolated that it will only serve as a back alley support from our elected leaders, but once it is slowed down, for the Classic Center. How long before it, too, is claimed for we need a good plan to move forward, rather than simply higher and better and uses, and the last vestiges of private delaying the decision. In looking at each of these actions, we urban fabric are wiped out? Turning taxable private property in should also consider how they might be applied to the next the area into a liability isn’t neighborly, it isn’t good economic big controversy, be it the jail, T-SPLOST road projects, the raildevelopment, and it isn’t good design. to-trail project’s implementation, or some unforeseen issue.

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FLAGPOLE.COM ∙ JANUARY 19, 2011

The idea of a charrette (an intensive community planning process unfolding over a short time period) is viable, as it presents the opportunity to build common ground among all stakeholders and buy-in on a unified concept, while retaining the initial timeline for the expansion, more or less. Such a process could also be a good kickoff to the Downtown Master Plan we so desperately need and to conversations about the “Project Blue Heron” River District. There are already good resources in town and on campus that could be brought to bear on such an effort, making it a fiscally prudent idea as well. A new Classic Center master plan is also something we ought to consider. The convention center is a means to an economic end, and once we define our economic development goals, we should take a hard look at how not only this expansion but future phases of the Classic Center’s growth will fit in. It might also make sense to set six to 12 months aside and appoint a citizens’ committee to explore and review this and other ideas relating to downtown’s growth beyond its current boundaries. Other topics that should be a part of the conversation include the several proposals for student apartments both east and west of downtown, and how the Greenway and other SPLOST projects are reinforcing broad goals for our urban economic engine. The Athens Downtown Development Authority’s board is, by its very structure, overly focused on the day-to-day management of the existing downtown area, at the expense of long-term planning of the peripheries, and may not be the right body for such a task. We should also talk seriously about bringing management of SPLOST projects in-house, rather than contracting that service out. Such a move might save the county a good deal of money, make the SPLOST process more transparent, and ensure that individual projects align well with our longterm community goals. As we move from the Classic Center on to the next big issue, we should also be considering how to take the accumulated community interest, momentum and energy and build on it. With so many competing and often conflicting bureaucracies in this town, including ACC and its various boards and authorities, our hospitals, the Housing Authority and state entities like the university, we ought to consider how both to watchdog and integrate all of these competing visions into a unified whole. A third-party organization that can mediate and remain somewhat objective might go a long way not only toward solving this set of problems, but to moving us forward with an eye towards the long-term. But even a search through the relevant local advocacy and nonprofit organizations like Athens Grow Green, BikeAthens, Athens Land Trust, the Chamber of Commerce and the Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation reveals an equally fractured and specialized landscape. It’s hard to say which of these strategies (if any) is the best one, but at some point we have to start knitting together this fractured community. The talent is here, but we have yet to find a compelling way to create common ground on community-wide design and planning issues. Kevan Williams athensrising@flagpole.com

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