MCG compromises on Laney-Walker proposal

Medical College of Georgia President Ricardo Azziz says a pedestrian mall on Laney-Walker Boulevard would make the school more attractive.

Medical College of Georgia has compromised on its proposal to create a pedestrian mall on the portion of Laney-Walker Boulevard that runs through its campus, MCG President Ricardo Azziz said. But the school is considering potential alternate routes to help with the increased traffic that could result.

Azziz met Tuesday with The Augusta Chronicle Editorial Board to talk about the proposal. In its only public hearing so far -- though others are promised -- the idea was met with a storm of protest from many who live and work in the adjacent historic black neighborhood. Azziz said it has been turned into a racially charged issue and it should not be.

"This is not about race," he said. "This is not about one community. This is about the prosperity of Augusta. This is about doing the right thing for Augusta as a community and for the university, the No. 2 employer in the area of Augusta and the state's health sciences university.

"And those who play segregation politics are bringing the city and the region to an era that is bygone and are forgetting to see the future of our city as we work united."

In fact, the proposal would create a pedestrian mall that would allow emergency vehicles to still cut through but would also honor the road's namesakes, Lucy Craft Laney and the Rev. C.T. Walker. That would make for a more fitting beginning to the historic road, Azziz said.

"This is truly where Laney-Walker begins, begins at a university, at a pedestrian mall that recognizes the civil rights leaders," he said. "That is what Augusta deserves to have."

The mall would not only ensure safety on a road that now cuts the campus in half but would also make it more attractive and more competitive for students and faculty, allowing more growth, Azziz said.

Some have wondered if there can't be a compromise. Chester Wheeler, the director of the Augusta Housing and Community Development Department, whose office is on Laney-Walker, proposed making that section two lanes to cut down on traffic.

Azziz said the proposal "has changed dramatically already. What has also become lost in the discussion is that in fact we have already modified our plans significantly according to our initial discussions with the community. We went from having a complete green space occluding Laney-Walker to converting it to a pedestrian mall that would allow emergency vehicles to go through that area to provide rapid and safe transit for members of the Laney-Walker community when they had to seek health care."

The school is looking at potential alternatives for any increased traffic on other nearby roads, such as changes to the 15th Street bridge that crosses over Wrightsboro Road, Azziz said.

"We are actually looking at a number of alternatives to ensure that we impact on traffic the least," he said.

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Coming Sunday

An enormous investment is going into the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem communities to turn blighted or vacant housing into attractive new homes, some on the edge of Medical College of Georgia. Both the university and the community want to reach out to the other but could be divided by a road closure proposal.