Master plan's strides visible

Progress on urban projects touted

As Augusta prepares to adopt its newest master plan, signs are slim -- but not nonexistent -- of progress under the Westobou master plan, adopted 19 months ago.


Signs of accomplishments cited by the plan's team leaders are in two areas: North Augusta, where there are Westobou-incorporated developments around the 13th Street and Fifth Street bridges; and Harrisburg, the site of a housing development and growth of a health sciences park.

"There is so much activity on the urban area master plan," said Augusta Tomorrow Director Camille Price, whose organization's members helped pay for the first plan and serve on implementation teams that steer its activities.

The plan identified dozens of development projects in Augusta and North Augusta, including many already under way when it was adopted in 2008, such as the Augusta-Richmond County Library, judicial building, Kroc Center and North Augusta's municipal building, because they were considered pivotal to development of the "urban core" that is the center of Westobou.

"Those projects that were on the books are very, very important to the entire development of the city center," Price said. "Many of them were not started, or were still in the development stages, when the plan was actually approved."

Just this week, demolition began at Reynolds and Ninth streets for a new parking deck to accompany the neighboring TEE center being built.

The plan's implementation team members also are assisting Augusta Canal Authority with acquiring land near the judicial building on Walton Way for a park, Price said.

Still, there are no signs of life with many of the plan's projects, such as a new museum, waterfront amphitheater and symphony hall proposed between Ninth and 10th streets.

Other proposed projects along the Sandbar Ferry area at the plan's southern end, such as a multiuse recreational park, city stable and organic farm will remain on hold until the city fixes an underlying issue with flooding.

"Until the flooding is resolved, really you cannot have development down there," Price said.

Among the plan's tangible new developments is the Augusta Fuller Center for Housing's work to renovate homes for moderate-income residents, as well as North Augusta's progress on the north side of the plan's Westobou River Crossing, she said.

The project aimed to connect the two cities at the river, possibly through the conversion of the Fifth Street Bridge into a pedestrian bridge.

The historic part of North Augusta, known as Hamburg until flooding drove residents to higher ground, is where the city has begun acquiring property for residential and recreational use, said North Augusta Administrator Sam Bennett.

Using its own detailed, supplemental plan, North Augusta has purchased about 6 acres adjoining the river and an old 5.5-acre brick pond.

"The plan for us has been helpful, not so much as for making the specific moves, but allowing us to take a look at the larger picture. It really got us engaged in looking at that Fifth Street Bridge area," Bennett said.

The Westobou River Crossing vision of converting the Fifth Street Bridge into a pedestrian-bike bridge is likely on hold until vehicle traffic patterns can be ascertained, but it's not forgotten, Bennett said.

Further upriver at Georgia Avenue, the city and local nonprofit North Augusta 2000 have worked in land acquisition, streetscaping and other improvements for a decade, he said.

Just 19 months into a 20-year plan, most of the urban master plan's projects are "still in their infancy," and many remain privately funded, Price said.

And economic conditions aren't ideal.

"The last 18 months ... in this country and around the world have not been the months to getting much implementation done," said John Shields, the head of Boston-based Icon Architecture, which drafted the Westobou master plan -- and is finalizing the city's new plan, a $500,000 document detailing development projects at about 10 sites around Richmond County. "It's going to take another couple of years for people to get into harness."

Augusta Developer Clay Boardman champions the Westobou plan over the city's prior plan, developed in 1982 and revised several times.

"The masterful part of the plan this time is we formed implementation teams," Boardman said. "The last time we just put the plan out there and hoped somebody grabbed a part of it."

The plan's two areas in which Boardman is most involved -- Harrisburg's Canal Village and St. Sebastian Health Sciences Park -- have seen the most of its activity.

Construction of the Kroc Center in Harrisburg is moving along rapidly, and Augusta Canal Authority recently purchased Sibley Mill, located across from Boardman's residential developments on Broad Street.

Boardman purchased a block of mill houses on Broad that the new Fuller Center is renovating to make homeowners, instead of renters, of Harrisburg's moderate-income residents.

In nearby St. Sebastian Health Sciences Park, Boardman restored and recently sold an entire floor to a medical company.

Westobou cost Augusta approximately $95,000. North Augusta paid $31,000, while the rest of the plan's total cost of $275,000 came from private donations.

But it and similar far-reaching plans are worth the cost, Boardman said.

"Very, very, very often people can't foresee what could be," he said. "All of the sudden you show them what could be and they're like, 'oh yeah.' "

The master plan

Augusta Tomorrow, Inc., working with Augusta and North Augusta, commissioned a $275,000, 200-page study that includes nine "market creation projects" estimated to cost $1.5 billion. Those nine projects are:

- North Augusta Town Center

- Westobou River Crossing

- Westobou Arts Center

- Marbury Village

- Augusta Canal Park

- St. Sebastian Medical Park

- Harrisburg Canal Village

- Dyess Canal Village

- Sand Bar Ferry Riverside