NEWS ARTICLES 2009
A Futuristic View
Mike Wynn, Staff Writer & Tim Rausch, Business Editor
The Augusta Chronicle
After finishing his presentation on the city's latest master plan, one of its architects implored a standing-room-only crowd Wednesday not to be cowed by economic conditions.
"Economic lulls are great times to plan and design," said John Lane, the senior principal for Boston-based consulting firm ICON Architecture Inc. By doing so, all the pieces will be in place when the economy turns around, he said.
This broad vision of what Augusta can look like in 20 years has at least one major thing in common with the city's last master plan conceived nearly three decades ago: Each was presented to the public during a recession.
The nation was struggling to recover from back-to-back recessions when the Sept. 22, 1982, plan was unveiled. The country went into recession from January to July 1980, then after barely catching a breath, took a 17-month economic nosedive from July 1981 to November 1982.
"Let me tell you what was going in '82," said H. M. "Monty" Osteen, a co-founder of Augusta Tomorrow, the organization that implemented the 1982 master plan and is spearheading the current one. "We had a 10 percent national unemployment rate. We had a 17 percent prime rate. Downtown was devastated, and here we go with a big time visionary plan in that environment.
"I'm thinking we're in better shape now than we were then. This one is a big time vision, that one was a big time vision."
If the 1982 plan can provide any insight into what might happen with the new one, it is that some of the 45 proposed projects won't get done and some that do won't be as originally envisioned.
Of the 20 "first priority" projects in the 1982 plan, 13 were completed as planned.
Four projects -- Savannah Overlook Phase 2, the Seventh Street pedestrian mall and specialty center, the Campbell Building expansion and the Imperial Plaza Office development -- were never undertaken.
Three weren't completed as proposed: The Augusta Common was developed but not expanded from Broad Street to the levee as called for; the now-closed Augusta Golf And Gardens came on line as part of the International Golf Exposition, but the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame building was never constructed; and a surface parking lot was built on Macartan Street, but the road was never closed as suggested.
Braye Boardman, the chairman of the master plan task force, said changes to the current plan are inevitable. He said the 1982 plan went through at least six revisions in the past 25 years.
"There is no way that plan will be the same plan in 20 years," he said. "The community will change. People change, organizations will change, the community needs will change, so the document is set up to be fluid, just like the old master plan was."
The current concept -- tagged the Westobou Master Plan -- calls the next five years "critical" to getting projects under way.
The 1982 plan had a similar time frame, pushing for priority projects to be initiated in a three-year period.
That timeline didn't hold up.
Construction on the two Savannah River levee breaches at Eighth Street and East Boundary didn't begin until 1986, which eventually allowed for the first of the priority projects -- a section of Riverwalk Augusta -- to open two years later. Another key priority project, a convention center/hotel development (formerly the Radisson Augusta Hotel and Conference Center, now the Augusta Marriott Hotel and Suites) didn't open until four years later in 1992.
The last of the proposed original 20 to come on line was the Augusta Common in 2002, 20 years after the original plan was presented.
The current economic conditions could affect the timeline, Mr. Boardman said, but he expects a number of ongoing projects unrelated to the master plan to help out.
He cited the proposed Kroc Center in the Harrisburg area and the mixed-income housing development to replace Underwood Homes on Sand Bar Ferry Road as two projects that should generate momentum for master plan initiatives.
"I don't expect an entire sector to get done in five years," he said. "However, I do think that within three to five years we should start taking a bite of the apple and getting a couple of those projects done."
The Westobou plan, to a certain degree, tries to finish some of the "second priority" projects suggested in the 1982 plan. Development of the Olde Town district, Sand Bar Ferry area and Laney-Walker Boulevard are key elements of the new plan to broaden economic development beyond the city's downtown. These areas were considered secondary to the 20 original projects in the old plan, which focused primarily on riverfront development.
But riverfront development -- or rather the lack of it -- could play a role in how well some of the current proposals are implemented. Some key projects unrelated to the new master plan, but prominently mentioned in it, have been killed or are on life support.
The defunct Watermark condo/office complex is in the site plan illustration for the Westobou Crossing, which would turn the Fifth Street Bridge into a pedestrian/bike bridge that links new retail and residential development on both sides of the Savannah River.
An outline for the downtown core initiatives lists three projects -- a proposed baseball stadium, the former Golf and Gardens and the TEE Center -- that are in a state of flux because of funding issues, political maneuvering or both.
Mr. Boardman said the trade, exhibition and event center on Reynolds Street will have the most effect on downtown initiatives if it isn't built.
The project, for which voters approved $20 million in a 2005 referendum and which is expected to attract trade shows and other events that once bypassed Augusta, became a question mark last summer when an architect backed out because he said construction costs had gone up to $40 million.
"The TEE center is one of very few projects that is absolutely key for us to get downtown because so much is affected by it," Mr. Boardman said. "That is one that helps provide economic growth and development not only for the downtown corridor, but the entire community. It puts tax dollars back into the coffers of our city and it is very important that we get it done."