Union Street construction continues. ( John Noble / WOUB News)

New Union Street Plan, Fast-Tracked Process Unveiled

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A new and some say “improved” version of a Union Street streetscape was unveiled Tuesday, along with the introduction of a fast-tracked approval process.

At a special meeting Tuesday, Athens City Council members heard and commented on a fourth plan for Union Street’s sidewalks and parking, which includes two narrowed, 10-foot lanes of traffic, parking spaces for full size and compact cars, loading zones and a pay kiosk next to bike racks.

In the new plan (which can be seen here: BDT West Union Option 4), the narrowed lanes are the minimum size to allow space for expanded sidewalks.

The fourth plan came after a public forum last week in which three other plans were introduced, with only one lane of traffic and limited parking to allow room for an expanded sidewalk/patio area for restaurants. The plan was given mixed reviews, with some praising the pedestrian-friendliness and some criticizing the lack of loading zones for businesses and calling the plans “non-starters” due to their negative impact on parking uptown.

Mayor Steve Patterson said after reviewing the written comments on the plans, the city “re-engaged” with BDT Architects to form “a scaled-down version of a broad sidewalk which will have some enhanced amenities,” Patterson told council on Tuesday.

“This is a major compromise,” he said.

Guy Philips, a West Union Street building owner that attended the meeting, said he met with business owners about the new plan and “the vast majority” of the 40 people at the meeting approved of the new plan, including one person who was strongly opposed to the other three plans.

The mayor said he plans to ask council on Monday to both introduce the plan for first reading and suspend the rules to allow for quicker approval time. He said “time is of the essence” on the project to address the storm drain issues as the construction on the street continues.

The changes to the schedule are in line with storm drain improvements that are necessary for the infrastructure, and repairs to the sidewalk that will be necessary once construction on the Union Street buildings is complete, Patterson said.

“I would like to keep pace with this project to where we are pacing with what happens with those buildings coming back online because we’re going to need infrastructure under the ground as well as sidewalks on top,” Patterson said.

Members of council mainly said they agreed that the plan was a better choice based on input they had heard from the community.

“I appreciate the compromises that you’ve made, I think it was just too quick for some people,” Councilwoman Chris Fahl told the mayor.

Fahl also said she was encouraged by the “pedestrian friendliness and bicycle friendliness” that she said would improve the uptown. She said parking should be less of a priority for the uptown area.

“I have less concern about parking because I think that there’s other options that we are starting to explore uptown,” Fahl said.

Other councilmembers spoke favorably of the bike racks, and Councilwoman Jennifer Cochran suggested the bike rack be “uniquely Athens branded.”

Councilman Peter Kotses, however, argued the benefits the plan would have for bicyclists.

“Please don’t call this bicycle friendly,” Kotses said. “I mean, you could put the best bike rack in the world on U.S. 33 and I’ll never access it, and the majority of people are not going to want to travel on West Union on a bicycle if the lanes are shrunk.”