By Bertis Downs
Today is a big day for the Cobbham neighborhood: the Cobbham Triangle Park is being dedicated after a couple of years of intensive planning and work to make something pretty special out of an oft-overlooked small piece of land in our midst. It was worth the trouble, believe me.
A quick search only led me to one reference to some of the origin story of the park which is located at the northeastern edge of the historic district where Cobb Street angles off of Prince Avenue just west of downtown a couple of blocks before Milledge.
“Athens even has its own Piedmont Park, located at the corner of Church and Hill streets. The lot was once the location of two historic homes, demolished after Prince Avenue Baptist Church bought the properties to build a parking lot. Collaboration between Piedmont College—which has bought, restored and maintained several historic Cobbham houses—and the Historic Cobbham Foundation returned open green space to the neighborhood.”
–Flagpole article by Martha Michael, Tour Reveals Surprising Facts About the Cobbham Historic District: https://bit.ly/36Tjhe3
So here’s a little more context that I remember from the mid-late 1980s when I was a young lawyer and an adjunct law instructor at the UGA law school. One of the first times I ever went to a City Council meeting downtown was to speak against a proposal by Prince Avenue Baptist Church to close the one block stretch of Cobb Street between Prince Avenue and Harris Street. Their reasoning was that since they owned all the surrounding land it would be no big deal for the city to deed over that strip of asphalt to be incorporated into a larger development, which by then it had started to slow down on but over the past few decades had resulted in the loss of many residential properties in the eastern part of the neighborhood.
That was back in the days when I wore a tie every day partly to be sure the budding lawyers knew I was a teacher and not one of the students or whatever. Anyway, I nervously approach the lectern at City Hall and told a story that I’d read a few years earlier in preparing for some law school class. It involved the venerable London accounting firm known as Cooper Brothers, which later became Coopers and Lybrand, when they attempted to change the name of the tiny one-block street in the City where they were the sole address. Instead of #1 Gutter Lane, they petitioned the Westminster City Council to change the name to Cooper Street so that their address would be more fitting of their name and status: #1 Cooper Lane. The story goes that the council quickly dispatched with the petition suggesting that they instead consider changing the name of their firm to “Gutter Brothers.” It was the city leaders’ good-humored way of reminding the accountants of the public nature of city streets and that just because they owned the land on the street, the streets themselves belong to the public and are not subject to every whim of even powerful property owners. Young lawyer Bertis made this same point about that little one block stretch of Cobb. I don’t remember all the rest of the dynamics of the meeting but I knew do know that the church was denied their desire to gobble up even more land than they already owned in that part of our neighborhood. And their paving aspirations in our district were at least slowed down.
Over the next several years the area became an unofficial parking lot anyway, especially on Wednesdays and Sundays, although PABC had agreed in some sense not to allow parking on the little triangular lot, the one where two perfectly nice houses had stood before they were demolished by the church, which had that annoying habit for a long time before they finally moved out to Oconee County, although still called “Prince Avenue Baptist.”
So anyway, the denial of the street closure was one of the first times I remember that the neighborhood, which was still becoming somewhat organized as a group advocating for historic preservation and smart planning and development, prevailed over the big property owner that had already done so much damage. And once the church had moved, within a few years Piedmont College from north Georgia had purchased the property and converted it into a small college campus. They have been really nice neighbors and have arranged with Historic Cobbham to maintain two parks, one on Hill Street, at the corner of Church Street, and the one that is being christened as Cobbham Triangle Park today. Our neighbor, the gifted landscape architect Josh Koons, has designed the space and several artists, including Harold Rittenberry, Jr. and Krysia Ara, have provided special works of site-specific public art. A committee of Cobbham denizens, led by Gwen O’Looney and Margie Spalding, with Lewis Ernest, Kathy Kirbo and others, have seen to every detail and solved every problem in such an undertaking, as some of them have done dating back to the 1970s when Phinizy and Margie first had their vision that has materialized into the vibrant, family-oriented the district has become today.
The park dedication itself is going to be quite something with food and family fun, a few relevant and short-winded speakers, singalong music with Jay Gonzales, chess on the stone chess boards with Life and his proteges from Chess and Community, ping-pong on the stone ping-pong table with whomever wants to play and an unlikely but possible visit from the Cobbham Coyote. The celebration will be short but sweet, from 2-4 pm this afternoon, and a good time will be had by all.
As a family who moved here more than 30 years ago as one of the young couples in the neighborhood, now that we are an older couple in the neighborhood it’s fun to look back at all the corners of our surroundings like this one. It has evolved from an oddly-shaped lot with two single-family residences, to a frequent bootleg parking area, to a couple of decades of unused vacant lot, to what it has become as of today, a little jewel of a vest pocket urban park to provide solace and respite, all thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated people including some talented artists, and a generous neighbor that owns the land.
So come on out to celebrate Athens’s latest public park— it’s small but special, and we hope it becomes a mainstay of interesting public experiences in our little city. And it’s still called Cobb Street all the way to Prince!
— Bertis Downs
“Learn from every single being, experience, and moment. What joyit is to search for lessons and goodness and enthusiasm in others.”
— Eve Marie Carson
(Bed. note: I wrote this early this Sunday morning after not enough sleep and too much tea, so as with anything like this based on fallible recollection, some details might be a little off or I might have left off some deserving names. If you notice something I got wrong, please just let me know and I will correct appropriately)
UPDATE thanks to Kathy Kirbo’s Facebook post yesterday– this fills in some major blanks.
The opening celebration will include speakers, ribbon- cutting by mayor Kelly Girtz, light fare and music by Jay Gonzalez (park songs).
Since 2015, Harold Rittenberry’s “Spirit of Inspiration” has defined the center of Cobbham Triangle, but now as a completed project the park will include: Entranceway designed by St. Udio, chess and ping pong tables designed by Stan Mullins, find Georgia rivers in Krysia Ara’s “Flow” mosaic or be inspired by Eve Carson’s words displayed on the seating walls, a free library and solar charging station mixed among garden plantings including a certified Connect to Protect pollinator garden which promotes the use of native plants sponsored by the Ladies’ Garden Club, America’s first garden club, founded in Cobbham in 1891.
This community project is brought to you by the Historic Cobbham Foundation, Piedmont College, The Riverview Foundation, Koons Environmental Design, Cultivation and a whole bunch of other great people from Athens, Georgia.
The park opening will also kick-off Cobbham’s new neighborhood initiative-The Ecohood Project. Tomorrow’s environment begins today. Cobbham supports personal, neighborhood and community improvements to our environment through purposeful education and action.
Bertis Downs is an Athens resident and attorney