Master plan inches forward
by Eric Johnson
Not long after work was completed on St. Sebastian Way, the road looked abandoned. Weeds were waist high and there was no sense of beauty to the road, which was supposed to be the preferred entry point to the medical district.
That’s one of the problems with road projects. As far as the Department of Transportation (DOT) was concerned, the project was finished because the DOT is only involved with the road itself, not the way it looks. They took their equipment, threw down some grass seed and called it good.
That left upkeep and beautification to the city, but the city didn’t have the funds to keep it up or mow it, which meant this important new route to one of Augusta’s major destinations was destined to a life of perpetual shabbiness.
“It looked awful,” says Camille Price, executive director of Augusta Tomorrow. “And it was a brand new road.”
That’s when Augusta Tomorrow’s Gateways and Corridors implementation team got involved.
“They said, ‘This is our gateway into the Medical District — it needs to look good,” Price says.
Working with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is also concerned with the look of the city’s gateways, they put together a fund called the Garden City Improvement Fund that allows any individual or business to contribute either to the large-scale beautification or to target a specific gateway. First used on Wheeler Road, the fund is administered by the Community Foundation, which means any contribution is tax deductible.
“It’s a wonderful way to help businesses to recoup a little bit of money through less taxes that will help improve their frontage,” Price says.
The fund pays for a private landscaping company to keep the gateways and corridors mowed and tended.
On Wheeler, the improvements extend from I-20 to I-520. On St. Sebastian Way, the improvements start at Riverwatch and extend beyond Enterprise Mill to the bridge.
Next, the implementation team would like to focus on Riverwatch, which would combine the two projects into one, which is how the small pieces grow into a completed master plan.
Gateways and corridors is just one of the projects outlined by Augusta Tomorrow’s master plan, an ambitious $275,000 plan that took over where the original master plan left off. Since its February 2009 unveiling, it has largely faded from the headlines, causing many Augustans to question the plan’s worth.
Price insists that while understandable, the skepticism is unfounded.
“The problem is, there are so many meetings and there’s so much going on, but really nothing to report,” she says. “I think that is a lot of the frustration the community has with the master plan. How do you say, ‘Well, we’ve had meetings and we’re working on it’ without it sounding like a lot of BS?”
Another problem is the scope of the plan, which is a long-range vision for the two communities.
“You have to remember it’s a 20-25 year plan, and anything you do takes a while,” she says. “There are so many layers of due diligence that you have to do, including often times acquiring property, that it just takes a long time.”
Something else complicating the plan’s acceptance is the fact that Augusta Tomorrow doesn’t really have a lot of power when it comes to the plan’s implementation. While it can help coordinate, it doesn’t have the funding to push the projects forward.
“We are sort of the keepers of the vision, because the community has looked to us for the last 25 years to make sure the master plan was completed,” Price says. “But it’s not really Augusta Tomorrow’s master plan. It’s a public-private partnership with the city and private developers.”
Unlike the original master plan, the current plan includes North Augusta, which has been an active participant, acquiring land across the Fifth Street Bridge and working toward a Town Center built around the Municipal Center.
Because of the way it connects the two cities, the Fifth Street Bridge has always been a key part of the new plan, and in spite of some difficulties, it still shows promise as a point of growth.
Since traffic flow patterns would not be fully established until the completion of St. Sebastian Way and I-520, the implementation team faced early delays. Some wanted to turn the Fifth Street Bridge, which is badly in need of repairs, into a pedestrian bridge, while others worried about the impact that would have on Augusta, since limiting vehicular access to downtown Augusta would inhibit Augusta’s ability to capitalize economically off of the residential area planned for the other side of the bridge.
However, the repair of the Fifth Street Bridge was part of the recently passed TSPLOST, and now the implementation team is compiling a developer’s packet, which would encourage developers to look at that area, called Westobou Crossing by the master plan, as a unified whole.
Other progress includes work on the 15th Street corridor from the river to Gordon Highway as well as the Sand Bar Ferry area, where separate phases of remediation have worked to help contain the area’s flooding issues.
Also, Augusta Tomorrow has worked closely with the Walton Oaks development that is replacing the former Underwood Homes public housing apartments. The master plan envisioned the whole district as single area, and Price was able to get the developers to plan for eventually opening up the Walton Oaks project when Marion Homes is renovated.
“The city really wants to do something with Marion Homes, Walton Oaks would love to see Marion Homes fixed and the people who live there want to see something done,” Price says.
Though the combined university’s acquisition of the Golf and Gardens property has temporarily stalled one of the plan’s biggest and most controversial projects, the downtown ballpark, Price says the other centerpiece project, a performing arts center, is still very much alive.
Many thought that Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s acceptance of the Miller Theater signaled an end to the performing arts center, but Price says it merely made Augusta Tomorrow more aware of the complications and pitfalls of fundraising.
“There are a lot of artistic opportunities here in Augusta that, if they’re all doing their own fundraising and we go in and add another whole layer of fundraising for a performing arts center, what’s that going to do to them?” Price said.
Conversations with city administration about creating a funding mechanism that would contribute toward a performing arts center while protecting the individual arts groups from losing their funding have been fruitful, Price says, and while the master plan had the performing arts center located across Reynolds Street from the Common, that’s no longer the location, which is all part of the plan’s flexibility.
“The same thing happened with the original master plan,” Price says. “The original elements all ended up coming together, but not always in the place they were originally planned to go. That’s the thing about the plan — it’s a plan. Nothing is set in stone.”You Might Also Like: