Experts weigh in on Laney-Walker design

Three consultants used by Augusta-Richmond County to develop master plans say closing part of Laney-Walker Boulevard might not be the best urban design for Augusta as a whole.

A larger strategy, combining the ambitions of both the Georgia Health Sciences University and the Laney-Walker neighborhood as partners, should be considered.

"It's fine for someone to make a proposal in isolation," said John Shields, the author of the Augusta Sustainable Development Agenda, which addresses Richmond County redevelopment. "But now we have an opportunity for everyone to work up a solution in combination with one another."

Georgia Health Sciences University President Ricardo Azziz in December told an Augusta subcommittee he would like to turn the portion of Laney-Walker Boulevard that cuts through the campus into a pedestrian mall. The street closing would unify the campus and improve safety, making it more attractive to prospective students and teachers, Azziz said.

The proposal ignited a firestorm of criticism from neighbors, who said it would cut off a major traffic artery through the surrounding black neighborhood. The Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods are in the midst of their own $37.5 million urban revitalization.

Martin Melaver, a marketing consultant for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem redevelopment, said disconnecting neighborhoods goes against city planning best practices.

"Usually you want to create bike lanes and more types of transportation throughways to improve vitality and connectivity," he said. "There's not a lot to be gained by cordoning the neighborhood off and creating even more boundaries."

A possible compromise might be to convert Laney-Walker from a four- to a two-lane street, Melaver said. Doing so would calm traffic and open up areas for bike paths, enlarged pedestrian walkways and beautification.

Melaver pointed to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University as one example of where a medical college and surrounding inner-city neighborhood effectively partnered to further the interests of both.

Jesse Wiles, an urban planning consultant for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem project, said he hadn't yet focused on the Laney-Walker closing as a development issue, but did say both parties could benefit if the issue is handled properly.

"Georgia Health Sciences University is a neighbor and important to Laney-Walker's revitalization. But the integration between the two is not that well-defined," Wiles said. "It may be that what will come out of this is a better understanding of how that integration is going to work."

Shields said the challenges Azziz faces trying to keep the university competitive are very real. In recent years Charleston's Medical University of South Carolina, for example, has outpaced GHSU in growth, he said.

"Dr. Azziz is looking for a paradigm shift. He's got to attract research dollars and really brilliant researchers from places with better facilities and environments," Shields said. "It's very clear to me they need to move somewhere quickly and they see (the street closing) as the 'quickly somewhere.' "

Still, Shields said, the university needs a more comprehensive solution, designed in context with the city's master plan. There are obsolete buildings at the university that need to be torn down and university traffic patterns need to be studied, too.

He said there are several ways the university could create green space besides closing Laney-Walker.

Commissioner Matt Aitken, whose district includes the university and the Laney-Walker neighborhood, said he sees both parties moving toward a healthy conversation and he asked people to be open to change for the area's betterment.

Azziz also said a conversation with the community is under way.

"Right now, we are in the process of speaking to many community leaders, we're in the process of engaging additional individuals to hear their ideas, we're in the process of trying to craft plans that may respond to some of the concerns of the community," he said. "We're also waiting for the city to finish their engineering report, which will help guide us. And also to have the open hearings that were promised."

Azziz characterized the proposed Laney-Walker Boulevard pedestrian area as "one of many strategies" to improve the university's competitiveness and improve the community.

Staff Writer Tom Corwin contributed to this article.

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