A consultant ranked Augusta’s Mills District proposal last among options for the future expansion of Georgia Regents University. But university officials plan to start from scratch in an upcoming comprehensive master plan, which could put the mills back in play along with many other properties.
The study looked at three distinct university campuses each separated by two miles, a downtown health system and even foundation-owned real estate. The many parts in play leave the potential configuration of the consolidated campus, or campuses, wide open and have the potential for substantial change, including the sale or repurposing of substantial assets.
The city wants to renovate two enormous former textile mills on the Augusta Canal into facilities to support the university’s growth. Mayor Deke Copenhaver has said he’ll make the plan the focus of his final year. The city has funded Copenhaver’s Augusta Regional Collaboration Project with $300,000 to advance the mill district proposal, along with several other projects, including a downtown arts and innovation district initiative.
Sasaki Associates’ Campus Development Assessment Strategy offered a preliminary glimpse into the options, though GRU and city officials say the short-term study will carry little weight.
The scenario ranked highest by the study proposes consolidation of all activities around the Health Sciences campus downtown. That would mean “repurposing” the former Augusta State University campus in Summerville, selling former ASU student housing off Wrightsboro Road and retaining only the Forest Hills athletics campus, which includes Forest Hills Golf Course and Christenberry Fieldhouse.
“The long-term optimal outcome is for GRU to operate one consolidated campus (in addition to the Forest Hills athletics campus),” the study authors wrote. “The chief barriers are the recent Summerville (development), the replacement cost of Summerville facilities, and the market value of the Summerville campus.”
Located in the heart of Augusta’s historic residential district, the Summerville campus has enjoyed substantial physical development over the past two decades.
The study’s sole mention of the mills proposal – “the creation of a single consolidated residential zone with supporting amenities at the mills” – calls it the “least attractive” of the three scenarios.
However, the mills plan “would be an improvement over current conditions if the deal is appropriately structured and includes the satisfactory disposition of the Forest Hills housing,” according to Sasaki, the author of several studies for the state university system.
Relocating all Summerville facilities to the mills, also examined, wouldn’t work because the cost of replacing Summerville is “only justified if it results in a single campus,” the study says.
Despite the less-than-favorable treatment of the mills proposal, GRU Vice President of Facilities Support Services Phil Howard said the plan remains an option as school officials begin anew the process of campus planning.
Plenty of property
GRU recently began a search for a consultant to conduct a comprehensive master plan for the consolidated university, to start next year and expected to last nine to 12 months. It has narrowed its list of candidates to four: Sasaki, Perkins & Will, ASG and The Smith Group, Howard said.
“The difference between this project and many of the other University System Master Planning initiatives is we are actually starting this one from scratch because we are a new university,” Howard said.
Little will be off the table, and GRU has dozens of options, including vacant, system-owned land such as the 17-acre riverfront tract once home to the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, Howard said.
“Certainly we have interest in the mills properties as a possible site for development,” Howard said. “But until we understand what our true needs are going to be and we get more definition around what we want to be as an enterprise, that will just be a consideration, as will be a lot of other properties around the city, some of which we own, some of which are adjacent, some of which are owned by foundations.”
Other options in play include university-
owned properties along 15th Street and the Medical College of Georgia Foundation-owned Kroger shopping center on 15th Street. If developed into GRU facilities, they would extend the campus nearly to the Augusta Canal edge of Harrisburg, where the mills are located, Howard said.
The mills proposal offers more for student life than the 1 million square feet available in Sibley and King mills, he said. That includes hydroelectric capabilities, a solar farm and nearly 50 acres of river- and canal-fronting greenspace already popular for recreation.
Work in progress
While the master planning process could embrace or eliminate the mills proposal in its first few months, what is needed now is for the city to provide more information about the proposal, and GRU to continue its assessment of its options and plans.
“We’re still working very closely with the city and trying to understand what their vision is a little bit better and how we might be able to dovetail into that if it works out that way,” Howard said. “We just don’t know at this point.”
He said the mills proposal will be given consideration like all the other ones.
“We’re going into this whole master planning with a very open mind,” Howard said. “We know that we are not going to get a different type of student than we have now without creating student life on campus. I think that will be the biggest game-changer for us.”
Matt Kwatinetz, the executive director of the ARC Project, echoed Howard’s sentiment about the study and said his group is helping develop a proposal and garnering support from Harrisburg, which remains a blighted area years after the mills closed.
“Right now we are very focused on convening the citizens of Harrisburg and trying to help them organize to determine what such a development could mean for the neighborhood and how they can participate in the vision for improved social services – health, education, jobs – without increases in taxes,” Kwatinetz said.
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