Downtown Macon alleys get expensive treatment

Work wins state prize, but some say results are hardly visible

jgaines@macon.comSeptember 24, 2012 

Michael McNeill has been walking Mulberry Street Lane for three or four years, going to lunch from his job at the Bibb County Courthouse.

He has often stopped at Tokyo Alley, but recently decided to try Ninja Japanese Sushi & Steakhouse, which sits across the alley from Tokyo Alley.

Both restaurants and the nearby Downtown Grill depend on walkers like McNeill to come down Mulberry Street Lane and in their doors. Macon recently won an award for its efforts over the last few years to increase that traffic, by improving several blocks of downtown alleys including Mulberry Street Lane.

The cost has been about $600,000, said Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority. But to the casual observer, the results along much of the targeted alleys aren’t immediately obvious.

“I guess I don’t really notice it that much,” McNeill said. “I’ve seen a lot of trucks and stuff in here, like they’ve been doing something. But I’m not really sure what.”

Mechel McKinley, the city’s Main Street Macon manager, said the impression of little change may come from not remembering what the alleys were like before.

“Some of the improvements have been in place for several years,” she said.

Six years ago, after McKinley began working downtown and walking from Poplar Street to Cherry Street for lunch, the alleys were strewn with garbage and broken glass, and lined with rusty fences or unwelcoming doorways, she said.

Now some repaving has been done, ornamental fences and gates have gone up, and commercial garbage bins are hidden behind enclosures, McKinley said.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of work,” she said.

The changes are scattered along several blocks of Mulberry Street Lane, Cherry Street Lane and Second Street Lane, with work continuing on a section of Cherry Street Lane behind the unfinished Tubman African American Museum. At the Georgia Downtown Association’s annual conference in August, the alley work won an award in the Design Improvement Program category.

“I think the idea came form a combination of the Urban Development Authority and NewTown Macon and Wimberly Treadwell,” McKinley said.

Treadwell, a landscape architect, had worked on the Cherry Plaza project, in front of the new Tubman African American Museum location. So it made “logical sense” to continue that work into adjacent alleys -- especially since the alley by the Tubman was torn up when building construction halted several years ago.

The most expensive portion of the project was new lights, bringing the alleys up to the overhead-lighting standard of a shopping mall, though without “storefront lights” adding to the glow, Treadwell said.

“That was such a subtle thing,” she said.

“People didn’t really notice what was going on, but suddenly they liked being in the alleys a lot better.”

Many of the lights were hung on the sides of businesses, and businesses that benefit from alley traffic are paying the utility bills for those lights, Treadwell said.

That “public-private partnership,” as she describes it, works both ways. Treadwell said the alley project followed the example of Greenville, S.C., in using “recreation easements” to build improvements on private property.

The new landscaped and fenced patios behind the Hummingbird Stage and Taproom, 430 Cherry St., and Jenoelly’s Olde Style Pizzeria, 321 Cotton Ave., were built with bond money but are the owners’ responsibility to maintain, she said.

Another such “unique space” is still to come behind the 567 Center for Renewal, 533 Cherry St., Treadwell said.

Peter Jung is owner and sushi chef of Ninja at 575 Mulberry Street Lane, sitting between Jenoelly’s new patio and the planned patio for the 567 Center. He said he has seen some positive results from the alley work since his restaurant opened in May 2011. Business had dropped a little in the last year, but he attributes that to the overall economy, not the state of the alleys, he said.

Kyle Tucker, a cook and server at Ninja for the past six months, said he doesn’t know what Mulberry Street Lane looked like before, but he finds it well-lit at night and inviting for passers-by.

“People cut through this alley a lot. It’s a really high-traffic area,” he said.

Tucker said he occasionally gets calls asking for directions to Ninja, but actual access isn’t a problem. He has seen “huge changes” recently, noting a new metal fence next to Ninja and the new terrace behind Jenoelly’s.

Morrison said a 2002 bond issue for $1 million was intended for work around the new Tubman. When that stopped, the Macon City Council allowed the remaining $600,000 to be redirected to the alley project.

“We were the project custodian,” he said. “We issued revenue bonds that were used for the project and managed the fiscal aspect of it as well as the overall project oversight, though Treadwell was the project manager.

“We’re down to the last few thousand, with the remaining contracts that Wimberly’s still working.”

Despite the cost, little improvement is visible to John and Elizabeth Francisco on their frequent walks through the alleys. They’ve been walking to lunch in the downtown area since 1978, Elizabeth Francisco said.

The area has come back somewhat from its near-emptiness a few years ago, but that’s mostly evident in the evenings when younger people go to bars and music venues, she said.

In broad daylight, however, they were unimpressed.

“The alley isn’t that clean,” John Francisco said, also pointing out clumps of weeds poking through still-rough pavement. Many of the buildings are dingy, and some of the visible new features -- like the fence beside Ninja and ornamental bollards blocking cars from Second Street Lane -- don’t do much to help, he said.

“It hasn’t succeeded,” John Francisco said.

The patchwork pavement is intentional, Treadwell said.

She agreed the alleys aren’t smooth, but she said existing pavement -- including patches of old stone and brickwork -- was kept wherever it didn’t cause “real, real problems.”

Some of the work, including particularly expensive parts, is indeed invisible, McKinley said. A drainage project behind the Tubman fixed a long-standing problem in that block, and Treadwell got many overhead cables out of public view, she said.

“She has worked with utility companies to bury wiring and conduits,” McKinley said.

Morrison said there’s no more bond money available soon to continue the work, but McKinley said she hopes the state award will help in getting grant funds.

“What we’d like to do next is Poplar Street Lane,” she said. In particular, planners want to build another patio behind Grant’s Lounge at 576 Poplar St., similar to the new one behind the Hummingbird, McKinley said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service