Home Social Justice Sweeping changes designed to make city one-of-a-kind

Sweeping changes designed to make city one-of-a-kind

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Take any given community, and it is a safe bet that sidewalks, street corners and bike racks don’t exactly generate excitement among local residents. Luckily for Athenians, their Southeast Ohio town isn’t just any given community.

The Essence of Athens, a project that envisions sweeping goals for enhancing the city’s visual appeal, will be implemented throughout the next few years and beyond. Upon its completion, the Essence of Athens will make the city the first of its kind in America to incorporate local art, culture and history into municipal infrastructure on a widespread scale.

“What makes it unlike any other project…is that this is a hyper-local, placemaking, public planning process,” said Athens City Planner Paul Logue, one of the engineers behind the Essence of Athens. “We took a really deep dive into allowing the community to explain and define for us the key elements of Athens.”

After a month or two of initial planning, the concept was announced at the Athens Community Center on May 8, 2013 by Logue and Mayor Paul Wiehl. They asked the public to present ideas that they believed reflected what makes Athens particularly exceptional.

Throughout the following summer, over 500 photos with accompanying descriptions and essays were submitted via Facebook, Twitter and email. The city plans to use that collective input in their designs.

For those who still might be confused about what exactly the Essence of Athens entails, the city has published a helpful guide that details both the planning process and the ideal final results.

Logue has collaborated with Kyle Ezell, an Ohio State University professor of city and regional planning. Ezell is responsible, in part, for introducing the notion that this would be unlike any other artistic city planning project. Logue further elaborated specifically on why that is.

“When Kyle talks about how everyone was copying each other, the approach we were taking was that we want to come up with ideas and solutions that can’t be copied because (they’re) so hyper-local, or (they’re) so focused on what Athens is, that (they) won’t fit anywhere else. Because every other community is different. So we would be defining ourselves against those communities.

“You might be making a really nice, interesting place, but that doesn’t necessarily, and often does not, reflect the culture, the history and the community. It’s just making something an interesting place to be. We wanted to make it interesting but also all about Athens.”

Although largely still in the planning stage, residents can already see examples of the coming improvements. A crosswalk on West Union Street has been painted with the same legendary emblem that can be found on the iron grates encapsulating the windows at The Ridges. The symbol was originally modeled by 19th century Cleveland architect and American Civil War veteran Levi Scofield, who designed the entire Ridges complex.

In terms of a time frame for the project’s finalization, no specific date has been, or will likely ever be scheduled, as Logue intends to make this an ongoing effort.

“I’m working right now with the Athens Municipal Arts Commission to try to figure out what we think should be focused on for implementation,” Logue said.

He pointed out that the other half of the equation is that responsibility to bring the Essence of Athens to fruition also belongs to developers and business owners who might re-model or establish themselves in the community.

The goal of publishing suggestions in the aforementioned guide is to encourage those who are not necessarily city officials to think differently when building something so that it might better represent what it means to be part of Athens. Logue confirmed that a number of local businesses have found inspiration in the ideas and are more than willing to implement them into something as simple as an office renovation.

Otherwise, due to the varying complexity of the different ideas, it’s easier to declare timetables for some, versus others. Whereas plans like experimenting with implementing Athens bricks into sidewalks are slated to begin next year, more expensive items may not happen for five to 10 years, if ever, due to cost.

With regard to funding, Logue pointed out that most of the project will not require a significant amount of additional money. The crosswalks, for example, consisted of about a $1,000 expense for the stencil design along with the cost of paint.

“Some of these are small-ticket items. Some of them are designed to be integrated into public improvement projects that we might already be doing, and so they’re just part of that cost. They’re not necessarily an additional cost,” Logue said.

Instances of that would include building a bridge or repaving sidewalks.

In seeking financial help for bigger goals, Logue said that there are many foundations that offer grant money for projects not unlike the Essence of Athens that embrace societal cornerstones like history and the arts. The city also has experience working with several local foundations, which they plan on collaborating with again as the project is unveiled.

Because taxes are fixed on a yearly basis, the only question related to public dollars is how they are going to be appropriated. No additional taxes are expected to pay for the Essence of Athens.

Before recently passing a resolution in support of the project, members of the Athens City Council expressed optimism about the potential for generating revenue from the resulting tourism that could likely be expected from the Essence of Athens. The city has been known to attract artists from around Ohio and beyond, and this would only further inspire them to visit.

That, however, would create a new task of displaying or advertising the finished product. Logue said he and Ezell have discussed this at length, and are hoping that social media will play a prominent role in bringing newcomers to Athens.

“If you look at social media, how do you get somebody to take a picture of a bike rack, and then post that picture on Facebook or Twitter and say, ‘Look at this bike rack I just walked by, I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Logue said.

Ideally, people who are perhaps interested in cycling would then take notice to the fact that Athens, Ohio is a place that values their hobby, as demonstrated by the 21-mile Hockhocking Adena Bikeway and numerous hiking trails in the immediate area. They might then be inclined to spend a weekend here or go online and explore what makes the town appealing to them.

“I think we’ve done a good job of defining how we can do that and how we can make things interesting and special.

“We’re already doing a pretty good job of tourism, so how can we build on that. How can we get more people down here, how can we get people to come back again, but also how can we make sure we have a city that people love to live in,” said Logue. “We want high school students, when they come down here with their parents — we want their parents to say, ‘Oh what a great town,’ not just ‘What a great campus.'”

Logue complimented Ohio University’s ability to maintain such a nice campus, and said that part of the Essence of Athens strategy is to keep up with its quality.

“We engage with the university on all kinds of things, including this plan,” said Logue. “We talk all the time.”

Logue said that he would like to emphasize development around the edges where the city and the campus meet. He added that consultants associated with campus construction projects are aware of the Essence of Athens plans and have been encouraged by the university to be cognizant of them.

Whether it’s Ohio University alumni who return 10 years after graduating only to find themselves bewildered by the improvements, or artists from across the state who have witnessed the undertaking develop gradually over the course of their annual visits, the award-winning Essence of Athens is designed to impress and welcome everyone who is fortunate enough to experience this wonderfully unique college town.

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