Originally created 09/01/02

Developing interest



NORTH AUGUSTA - Lurking behind North Augusta's Savannah River tree line is an unborn, multimillion-dollar child, conceived in 1996 but, like many births, discussed for years.

Come October, city officials will approve the birth of North Augusta's first phase of riverfront development, construction of which is set to begin in January. It could alter the city's identity as much as devastating floodwaters did in the early part of the 20th century.

It's a development that will likely reshape not only North Augusta's future, but also the future of the surrounding region.

City leaders began kicking around a riverfront scheme in the early 1980s. The city's last riverfront inhabitants lived in the town of Hamburg, which was washed away by floodwaters in the 1920s.

In the decades that followed, the riverfront was home only to commercial ventures, including timber, clay, pottery and brick companies. The industry had waned by the 1960s, and the land has remained fallow since.

In 1991, the 100-year flood plain was lowered, allowing for development along the riverfront. Five years later, the River Club golf course was built east of the 13th Street bridge.

Homes sprang up on the city's riverbanks, and in 1996 city officials unveiled a plan that called for creating hundreds of homes, shopping and dining and a hotel/conference center on the west side of the bridge.

Earlier this year the city bought the last of the 200 acres it wants to develop between the bridge and Hammons Ferry Road.

"If we do the right things, and we do it at the right time, it could be one of the best places in South Carolina, or the Southeast," said Charles Martin, city administrator, an advocate of riverfront development since he was hired in 1980.

The project, which will be built in phases over several years, will include more than 1,500 homes, more than 40,000 square feet of commercial space and a 100- to 200-room hotel with a 40,000-square-foot conference center.

It will be built in keeping with what developers call a "neo-traditional" theme, with a mix of shopping and recreation within walking distance of homes.

"It's become popular because it goes back to the fundamentals of urban design," said David Agnew, a partner in Civitas, a Charleston, S.C., company that is developing the riverfront property. "That allows people to enjoy communities the way they were intended to be enjoyed. It allows people to live, work and play in the same area. That allows for a higher quality of life."

Plans call for "porches, stoops, balconies and verandas within conversational distance of the sidewalk."

Civitas is buying and developing the land one phase at a time. The total purchase price is about $2.5 million.

The first phase of development will encompass 40 acres. At its center will be the Riverfront Square. The south side of the square, which will include boutiques, restaurants and shops, will have a river view. Developers plan to make it accessible from all directions.

The plan also emphasizes public park space. The riverfront acreage will sit between the city's existing Greeneway recreational trail, and an extension to be built along the river's edge.

Several acres have been preserved for a riverfront park with an amphitheater. Two leftover clay pits will remain as ponds.

All of what North Augusta has planned makes for an attractive design, said professor Terri Farris, the director of Clemson University's city and regional planning program.

The neo-traditional theme has become popular for cities and towns across America, he said, with more than 350 such developments constructed in recent years.

"This is the kind of environment a lot of people want," said Mr. Farris, who has visited North Augusta and viewed its preliminary plans for the riverfront.

Depending on how it's marketed and executed, the professor said, North Augusta's riverfront could gain popularity equal to that of such destinations as Savannah and Charleston.

Skip Grkovic, North Augusta's director of economic and community development, said the project will be advertised across the nation.

The city's goal is to create connectivity between its downtown on Georgia Avenue and the riverfront. The plan calls for the rerouting of Georgia Avenue, and possibly West Avenue, which runs parallel to Georgia, to the development.

Creating an attractive destination on the river is likely to spark redevelopment in surrounding neighborhoods and increased interest in North Augusta's downtown, Mr. Farris said.

"It's a stimulus to existing retail, neighborhood and even existing offices," he said.

"North Augusta is able to do a real cohesive whole that a lot of other communities aren't able to do" because of the vast amount of unused acreage the city owns along the river.

The city hasn't calculated the riverfront's overall economic impact, Mr. Grkovic said, but has estimated the project's value at between $300 million and $500 million at completion.

Adding to the riverfront's potential for success is the resurgence of Augusta's downtown across the river, Mr. Farris said. Rather than compete with each other, they'll feed off each other, the professor said.

Mr. Martin said North Augusta's riverfront will create a synergy.

"What is good for the riverfront is going to be good for the whole community," he said. "It's going to be the place to be."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.

NORTH AUGUSTA CHRONOLOGY

The city of North Augusta was preceded by three other towns established for short periods of time in the general area of North Augusta. All three were snuffed out by stiff business competition on the Georgia side of the Savannah River.

Savannah Town: Established in the early 1700s by the English as an Indian trading center. Died after about 50 years.

Campbell Town: Trading center founded by John Hammond in the mid- 1700s. Prospered for about 60 years.

Hamburg: Founded by George Schultz in 1821 as the home dock of a thriving steamboat business to and from Charleston. Died after about 50 years.

North Augusta: Conceived by James U. Jackson in 1902 and incorporated in 1906.

Source: City of North Augusta