Improved Laney-Walker/Bethlehem still has challenges ahead

 

Recently, I had the privilege of presiding over our first annual meeting on the revitalization effort taking place in the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem neighborhood.

It was a festive evening. We recognized our “community heroes,” members of the original steering committee responsible for launching this visionary project: Marion Barnes, Betty Beard, Cedric Johnson, Fred Russell and Mayor Deke Copenhaver. We showcased some of the work of our community partners, such as Historic Augusta; the Lucy Laney Museum; and the wellness program conducted by Georgia Health Sciences University and A.R. Johnson High School. We also premiered a short film, We are Laney-Walker/Bethlehem, which documents activities since the launch of the project.

 

BUT MAINLY, IT was a chance for my team and me to step back from the nitty-gritty details and share with the community the broad picture of what has been accomplished and some of the challenges we still face.

Augusta needs to understand that the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem revitalization effort, while a huge undertaking, is part of a much larger opportunity.

A few years ago, the Urban Land Institute conducted a study projecting that 60 million Americans will be moving to cities providing a complete live/work/play environment. That’s huge. It’s also challenging, coming at a time when most cities in America, coming off a half-century of suburban growth, are ill-equipped to handle this type of urban renaissance.

In years to come, some cities will be big winners in this urban movement. Others won’t. If Augusta manages to capture just one-tenth of 1 percent of this growth, we would see 2,000 new residents in our city each year for the next 30 years. That’s a jump in population from 90,000 to 150,000, or 1.6 percent annual growth. We need to be poised to handle this rejuvenation.

The Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization effort is simply an early-stage effort to help catalyze growth for all of Augusta’s potential resurgence. It goes hand-in-hand with the master planning of Augusta Tomorrow’s Westobou Vision and the city’s Augusta Sustainable Development Agenda. It meshes with the soon-to-be-launched 15th Street Corridor redevelopment.

It ties into notions by GHSU and others to develop a biotech campus in the downtown area, and efforts to renovate our existing historical structures. It is linked in spirit to the mayor’s recently launched development program for a “collaboration center” to drive economic growth.

Forgive the cliché, but it really does take a village – a cooperative village – to implement these far-reaching objectives.

Laney-Walker/Bethlehem has been very much a product of such broad collaboration – with a vision coming from the community; funding and political support provided by city leadership; two years of master planning involving all facets of the community; partnerships with more than two-dozen private-sector professionals to build out the community; and partnerships with numerous community organizations to help us shape much-needed community programs.

 

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, 2011 was a good year for Laney-Walker/Bethlehem. We built out about 50 percent of Heritage Pine, the first of six key priority development areas. Quality of construction is high while we’ve managed to keep prices relatively low ($90,000 to $200,000). We are delivering a house every 20 days; have added $3.3 million to the city’s tax base with an overall investment of $5.2 million; and have generated about 44 jobs.

Our activity has not gone unnoticed.

The Georgia Planning Association designated Heritage Pine as the 2011 recipient of its Outstanding Implementation Plan Award. We have been asked by national organizations such as the American Architectural Foundation, New Partners for Smart Growth and the American Planning Association to present a best-case study at their national conferences.

The American Institute of Architects has just selected us to partner with them on an innovative sustainability program, just one of seven cities in the United States to be in this program. And Harvard University’s School of Design designated Laney-Walker/Bethlehem as a potentially “game-changing” model for public/private partnerships for urban revitalization.

We are proud of these accomplishments. And I hope all of Augusta will join me in celebrating how far we have come in such a short time. But we still have a long way to go.

Four-plus decades of blight and disinvestment in our urban core do not get turned around overnight. If Laney-Walker/Bethlehem is indeed going to serve as a catalyst for an urban renaissance for mixed-use, mixed-income, sustainable living, we will need increased underwriting from the financial community – not an easy challenge in our current economy. We need to be able to double our housing production this year, and do it again in 2013.

We will need to reach out and respond to ongoing demands for housing from teachers, city employees, faculty and staff who work in the medical district and local colleges, and folks stationed at Fort Gordon. And we need to find ways to renovate historic structures within market constraints. Those are some of the challenges we face in 2012.

 

LANEY-WALKER/BETHLEHEM is not just about building houses. It’s about regenerating two historic communities and leveraging that activity as a catalyst for transforming our entire urban core.

A year ago, City Administrator Fred Russell challenged our development team to “create a community that knows no bounds.” It will take this whole village of Augusta, coming together around a big vision of urban regeneration, to make good on this challenge. Come take a look at the new/old neighborhood on Pine Street. Glance through our new website at www.laneywalkerbethlehem.com. Come participate in our quarterly community meetings.

Celebrate many of the good things that have happened this year. And roll up your sleeves and help us with the challenges ahead.

 

(The writer is director of the city of Augusta’s Housing and Community Development Department.)

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