Building Reconstruction Nearly Complete on West Union. What’s Next?

The Next Steps For West Union Street

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Walking down West Union Street, fences are still up and construction is ongoing, despite the fact that more than two years have passed since the November 2014 fire that gutted five buildings.

The good news is only two buildings are left to be completed.

“We are no longer talking years, we are no longer talking months, we are actually talking weeks, for the residential part to open up,” said Guy Philips, co-owner of 16 and 15 1/2 West Union.

Philips said that he knew this building would take a long time to rebuild because it qualified for a historic preservation tax credit and had to be restored to resemble its original facade.

“I’ve never done a project like this,” he said. “This certainly dwarfs what I’ve worked on.”

Philips said he expects the construction to be completed by the end of February.

However, once those construction fences come down, another construction project is about to start: the building of a Union Street plaza.

Plans for the Plaza

West Union Street Plaza Plans. (Provided by the City of Athens)
Click above to view the West Union Street Plaza Plans. (Provided by Mayor Steve Patterson)

The creation of the Union Street Plaza will start this summer.

Considering the years of building on Union Street following a fire in 2014, Athens Mayor, Steve Patterson said, “let’s revitalize it and make it a place that people want to come Uptown.”

The construction of the plaza is set to begin in May and will be completed at the end of summer, in time for Ohio University students’ arrival back on campus.

The original plan reduced the street to one lane of traffic. With City Council’s final plan, Union Street will maintain two lanes of eastbound traffic while expanding the sidewalk on the north side by six feet.

Patterson said the project will cost $160,000.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Patterson, “but it’s really going to look nice when it’s done.”

This added sidewalk space will allow for features such as lamp posts that will match the ones on Court Street, park benches, planters, maple trees, solar powered compacting trash bins, bike racks and parking kiosks on both sides of the street. Union Street and the plaza will also utilize compact car parking and the Parkmobile app. Union Street will be one of the first streets in Uptown that bikes and cars will share the road.  There will be no bike lanes.

Philips said he feels positive about the plan.

“When the mayor originally produced some ideas, he threw out three or four different plans,” he said. “People said ‘yes, great’, other people said ‘no, that’s terrible’ and we all worked together to create a great plan.”

Patterson hopes the plaza will enhance economic and social development, stating, “I think it’s important for quality of life for the uptown area to enhance the vibrancy of the uptown.”

Slideshow: Examples of features to soon be found on Union Street

Opposition to the Plaza

Not everyone is on board with the changes. Right across the street from the proposed plaza, co-owner of Haffa’s Record Store, Andrew Lampela, is not as hopeful as the mayor about the idea of a plaza.

“My opinion of a plaza on Union Street is definitely negative,” said Lampela. “You know we have a very small town up here.”

According to Lampela, because of this small town environment, Union Street is the easiest route to get to town from the west side. He said adding a plaza will back up traffic even further than he believes it already does.

“I’ve seen ambulances get stuck out here and traffic backed up down the hill,” he said.

He said he believes businesses along the road will also be negatively affected.

“You’re taking away parking from such an incredibly small area of commerce up here,” said Lampela.  “It’s totally detrimental to business in Athens.”

Lampela said the mayor has good intentions, but Uptown Athens is not the town for this project.

Patterson assured that although there will be brickwork and curb bump outs, parking and driving will not be affected.

As far as safety is concerned, Guy Philips said narrowing the street will slow drivers down because “wide lanes give people the feeling that they can go faster than they probably should be going.”

Potential Court Street Plaza

Although the first brick for the plaza has not been laid yet, people are already talking about extending the concept to Court Street as well.

“We are constantly thinking about how we can take what we will be seeing in the near future, this summer with West Union,” Patterson said, “and now transposing that onto Court Street.”

After looking at old designs from 1988, the mayor and city council see an opportunity to create something similar to the Union Street plaza around the courthouse.

Suggestions include pushing the sidewalk out, eliminating the left turn lane on Court Street, and creating an amphitheater-like area for people to gather.

These plans are just discussions right now and before they would move forward, city leaders want to see how the Union Street Plaza works.

Timeline: Rebuilding Union Street