Quite literally, alleys have long taken a backseat to other parts of town. These often-underused narrow spaces between and behind buildings are now being “activated” for public use. Efforts are under way to transform Merchant Alley in downtown Athens into a vibrant and functional space.
The Merchant Alley Revitalization Project will improve an alleyway located in the heart of town and turn it into additional space for outdoor dining, music performances and a place for people to relax, socialize and enjoy the use of free Wi-Fi in the downtown, which is known as The Square. The alley connects North Jefferson Street with public parking on Market and Madison streets.
Athens Main Street plans to create a series of murals that tell the story of Athens and expand its identity. A committee is in the early stages of creating a theme for the murals and getting input from the community. Featuring the work of a state muralist, Alabama artists and local students is also being considered.
Hardscape walking surfaces will be replaced with a lively pedestrian corridor that connects the municipal parking lot to the center of downtown as a way to encourage people to interact and spend more time downtown. Landscaping and seating will also invite people to linger and enjoy this small public space.
The design phase and the construction phase are taking place concurrently and the project is expected to be completed by early summer 2021. The side of the building where murals will be displayed was power washed to determine if the surface is viable for painting or if panels should be used, says Tere Richardson, executive director of Athens Main Street.
Merchants Alley is owned by Derrick Young, owner of U.G. White Mercantile, which since 1917 has been an economic anchor in the downtown. Young is a longtime supporter of downtown revitalization and growth, and is working with a team on the project, which is made possible through public/private partnerships.
Two historic buildings make up either side of the alley, and Richardson says Young plans to lease the southside building to Athens Main Street for a nominal fee. U.G. White Mercantile occupies the building, along with an Italian restaurant. The northside building was built in 1920 and has been used for a variety of businesses over the years. Athens Main Street occupies part of the building.
Richardson describes downtown Athens as “the heart and soul of our city and county” and the improved Merchants Alley will undoubtedly be a popular new amenity. The Merchants Alley Revitalization Project is one of several projects in recent years aimed at enhancing the downtown.
“Our courthouse was recently renovated and we have undertaken a marvelous streetscape project that improved walkability, ADA compliance, calmed traffic and restored historic looking light posts,” Richardson explains. “We have also instituted outdoor dining all around the Square to encourage dining out safely during the Covid crisis.”
Article Written by Jessica Armstrong and Images Courtesy of Athens Main Street