Street's closing opposed

MCG wants changes on road that runs through campus

Medical College of Georgia President Ricardo Azziz faced a suspicious and occasionally angry crowd Tuesday night over the school's proposal to close part of Laney-Walker Boulevard inside the campus to create a pedestrian area that would honor the street's namesakes.

Azziz did his best to present it as beneficial to the college and the community as MCG embarks on a strategy for growth.

"A university cannot grow if its surrounding community does not grow," he said.

In fact, the two are one, Azziz said.

"We are your community," he said. "We are you, and you are us."

MCG is the community's second-largest employer, but Azziz said more could be done.

"At the end of the day, all of us want a more competitive university, a more competitive health system because it is what we have in our community," he said. "It is who provides care to many of us. It is who provides employment to many of you."

Many in the crowd saw a division by the closing of a major road in a primarily black community where Laney-Walker has historic significance.

"It interrupts a culture," said Dr. James Carter, an Augusta historian. "It interrupts a community."

Robert Cooks, of Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp., questioned why the school's plans couldn't be coordinated better with plans already under way to improve the area, and what impact the closure would have on traffic in the area.

"How can you cut the aorta and still survive?" Cooks asked.

Azziz insisted the change could encourage more interaction between the school and the area.

"We're not trying to withdraw our community commitment," he said. "In fact, we want to expand it."

The Augusta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has signaled its opposition.

"If we continue to allow everything that is important to our community to be taken away with the stroke of a pen and by way of politics and manipulation, we will never preserve the integrity of our community and never build a partnership that will unify us," branch President Charles J. Smith Sr. said.

Azziz insisted that studies on traffic impact are still being done and that the idea is still just a proposal.

Augusta Commission member J.R. Hatney begged to differ.

"You don't seem to want to entertain any alternatives," he said. "You don't sound like you're negotiating. You sound like you're telling people what you want to do."

After the meeting, Azziz said that he was still willing to listen and that more forums will be held.

"My job is to build bridges," he said.