The ACC Commission has voted to keep College avenue from Broad to Clayton street closed to car traffic (and open to pedestrians) permanently.
This section of downtown, known as College Square, has been closed to car traffic since late last summer to provide more outdoor seating space during the COVID-19 pandemic. The experiment has been a huge success, providing downtown shops with extra business while not significantly affecting traffic in the area, according to a traffic study done by the ACC Transportation and Public Works department.
In fact, the study shows that closing College ave has actually had a positive impact on Broad street traffic and also for pedestrian safety.
It’s been a big hit with the public as well if an online survey by the ACC Public Information Office is any indication. 76 of 78 respondents supported keeping College Square open to pedestrians, with most supporting it enthusiastically (“Love it!!” seemed to be the most common response). Downtown businesses may have reason to support the plan as well, since they’ve seen an estimated $78,000 increase in sales attributable to the reconfiguration since January 7, according to the ACC Central Services department.
None of this is a surprise to Commissioner Melissa Link, who has championed this idea for years.
“We need this space. Collective outdoor public space is good for democracy and civic life. You can’t be a proper downtown without that civic space,” she said in a comment to APN.
When ACC staff asked for permission to extend the experiment and keep College Square for pedestrians only until at least July 31, Link proposed an alternate plan along with Commissioners Russell Edwards and Tim Denson — why not open it to pedestrians permanently?
While most commissioners enthusiastically took to this idea, some did express concerns during the discussion. For example, Commissioner Patrick Davenport noted that some downtown business owners were wary of closing the square permanently to cars, mostly out of a desire not to lose the parking spaces on College ave. Commissioner Ovita Thornton, while saying she had recently come around to support the idea, asked for a more extensive public input process to ensure no one’s voice was being left out.
When it came time to vote, all commissioners voted in favor of Link, Edwards and Denson’s plan.
For the time being, College Square will remain exactly as it is now — an open car-free space where downtown-goers can shop, mingle or just sit and enjoy themselves at socially-distanced tables. Looking to the future, Link envisions a more thorough transformation of the square to be conceived and guided by the public.
With this vote, the commission authorized the creation of a visioning committee made up of Athens residents to start planning the next steps for College Square. The planning will include a “comprehensive” public input process including a survey of downtown business owners.