Originally created 02/05/01

Planning for tomorrow



It all started in 1982.

A group of civic leaders met to brainstorm how to revive downtown Augusta nearly two decades after suburban sprawl wounded it - four years after the opening of two major shopping malls killed it.

They called themselves Augusta Tomorrow, and they came up with a plan.

Their $116 million strategy outlined 20 public works projects, the centerpiece of which was Riverwalk Augusta, an $18 million esplanade along the banks of the Savannah River.

When it was finished, residents and visitors had their first real access to the downtown riverfront, which for decades had been blocked by the levee, a rail spur and other man-made barriers.

By 1994, the Riverwalk had spawned tens of millions of dollars in private investments, namely the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta, the adjacent Augusta Riverfront Center office building and the nearby Port Royal mixed-use facility.

The original master plan was updated in 1995 to fine-tune ongoing public-private projects such as the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and Springfield Village Park, the latter of which is a memorial to the country's oldest continually operating black church.

Last month, Augusta Tomorrow's contract consulting firm, LDR International, released the final updated version.

While the 1995 update emphasized Broad Street (instead of the riverfront, as in the original plan), the 2001 update focuses on a broader section of the central city. New projects can be found as far south as the Laney-Walker Boulevard district, as far east as the Olde Town section and as far west as the medical district.

"Obviously, the wider the area of growth, the more people who are impacted positively," said Bill Thompson, Augusta Tomorrow member and former president. "How we've expanded the plan this year represents a kind of natural progression."

NEW ADDITIONS

In addition to still-unfinished projects such as the Augusta Common (an urban park stretching from the riverfront to Ellis Street along a section of the 800 block), the updated plan outlines several new initiatives.

The most ambitious includes a proposed mixed-use development on more than 30 acres of vacant riverfront property between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

The development, whose concept has been described as a mid-rise Port Royal, is among the most private sector-driven projects in the master plan's 20-year history.

Augusta-Richmond County is currently negotiating the purchase of the property from the former City of Augusta pension fund trust for resale to any private developers who may be interested in taking on the project. Plans call for additional access to the property via extension of Monument Street past Greene Street.

"A person standing on the steps of the Municipal Building would be able to see all the way to the riverfront," said Don Hilderbrandt, design director for LDR International.

There's also plans for a $40 million judicial center complex that consolidates the county's legal offices and courtrooms into a single, updated facility, allowing far-flung branches of the consolidated government to move into the municipal building.

The preferred site is the 600 block between Greene and Telfair streets, just west of the Municipal Building. County officials trying to acquire the site are negotiating a land-swap with elders from First Presbyterian Church, which owns half the block.

The deal would allow the church to expand southward into a section of the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center's 5-acre parking lot. The civic center would replace the lost spaces by expanding the lot to the southeastern corner of Sixth and Fenwick streets.

The new judicial complex, combined with the existing legal offices nearby, would create a judicial district.

Planners hope to duplicate the same synergy in the medical corridor by creating a biotechnology research park in a mostly underutilized area surrounding the Enterprise Mill complex.

Both the proposed biotechnology district and the hospital corridor would benefit from better traffic access provided by the proposed extension of St. Sebastian Way across the Augusta Canal and the creation of a railroad overpass linking River Watch Parkway to Greene Street near 15th Street.

Both proposals would eliminate traffic congestion in the hospital corridor and act as a catalyst for the development of private-sector medical businesses.

"In today's society, economic development and financial world success is driven by access," said Julian Osbon, president of Augusta Tomorrow and medical business entrepreneur.

Augusta Tomorrow officials have identified a possible site for the city's proposed performing arts center: a surface parking lot on the 900 block of Reynolds Street.

The property, currently owned by several different parties, including SouthTrust Bank and WAGT-TV, would serve as the main venue for events that existing arts facilities cannot adequately accommodate.

On Augusta Tomorrow's conceptual map, the proposed facility is served by a parking deck located on small section of the 900 block of Reynolds Street. That land is currently occupied by Georgia Lock & Safe, the family-owned locksmith shop that has held title to it for more than three decades.

CHALLENGES

Augusta Tomorrow and the city leaders they face numerous hurdles in implementing the plan. For one, many business owners don't like being told that city leaders someday plan to turn their property into a parking deck.

Michael Rhodes, co-owner of Georgia Lock & Safe, said he has been asked repeatedly to sell his property during the last several years by various private interests looking to redevelop his family land. It has become hot property since downtown revitalization efforts began more than 15 years ago.

"They'll probably get it someday, but there will be a fight," he said.

So far, the city has avoided the politically sensitive process of condemnation to acquire the land needed to fulfill the downtown master plan.

In the Augusta Common project, for example, the city spent five years and more than $1 million acquiring one-third of the 800 block of Broad Street necessary for the project's first phase.

"This isn't something that happens overnight," points out Robert Osborne, an Augusta banker and member of Augusta Tomorrow. "The 1982 plan, for all intents and purposes, has been realized. Of course, that plan took 20 years to accomplish. The new plan is certainly ambitious."

Aside from resistance from private property owners, another challenge is finding money for the various projects. Most projects outlined in the plan involve a combination of local, state and federal government money and private contributions.

Nonprofit Augusta Tomorrow has received more than $800,000 in operational money from the former city and consolidated governments since its inception. And projects in the master plan have received millions in tax dollars.

But the "public-private partnership," as it is billed, is sometimes rocky. Not all city officials are behind the group, which they say is self-serving and does not benefit the entire city.

"A large number of Augusta Tomorrow folks have business interests downtown," said Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek. "We definitely need people to be a part of the Augusta Tomorrow effort who have an interest in ... the whole city, not just five streets from the river."

Augusta Tomorrow was initially a partnership between private interests and the former City of Augusta. Adjustments in the 1995 revision were made in anticipation of the consolidation of the city and county governments in 1996. Now the group fears a loss of commitment from the local government.

Although Augusta-Richmond County paid half the $89,000 to revise the master plan, it voted to slash its annual contribution to the group from about $80,000 to $11,000.

Mr. Hilderbrandt said the revitalization backlash Augusta is experiencing is occurring in many cities because leaders find it easier to justify spending money in suburban areas, which usually have more political clout.

"They say why should we be spending money down there when we can continue our sprawl?" he said. "So they spend all their funds chasing after developers who are making bigger and bigger lots further and further out. It's a typical kind of thing."

(Staff writer John Bankston contributed to this report.)

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or bized@augustachronicle.com.