By Martin Melaver
Here’s a quiet story in the making. Two historic, predominantly African American neighborhoods in Augusta, Georgia (Laney Walker & Bethlehem) coming together to regenerate not only their community but, in the process, transforming Augusta’s entire urban core into a place few people ever imagined was possible.
It’s a story that should resonate among most cities in the U.S., which, like Augusta, are trying to reinvent themselves in the wake of a half-century or more of blight and disinvestment. And it’s a story that is timely, given various studies by ULI, the Brookings Institute, Harvard, Gallup, and others that project a large-scale movement back into cities over the coming generation.
First, the bad news.. The revitalization of Laney Walker/Bethlehem could not have begun more inauspiciously. Back in 2008, city leaders were trying to push funding for a new Convention Center downtown through a hotel/motel fee. It was largely viewed as a “white” project. And the black community wanted funding to revitalize some of its blighted neighborhoods. And so a “split-the-baby” proposal made its way through the Commission, with half of the hotel/motel fee going to the Convention Center, half to Laney Walker/Bethlehem. A few in town still refer to that moment as “the great extortion.”
From that unpromising beginning, however, a visionary program has emerged. The hotel/motel fee was used to create 50-year bond financing for the community. A 16-month-long community charrette process proceeded to inform an overall master plan, which was then created. A Pattern Book, linking historic designs to new construction was developed, as were Green Strategies guidelines. Over two dozen private firms (architects, engineers, builders, realtors, etc.) were selected to work collaboratively on key priority areas within this 1100 acre revitalization area. Key social programs were teed up around public safety, health, transportation, and heritage tourism, all of which helped knit together various stakeholders in the city.
William Sankey, writing in the Spring 2011 issue of the Harvard University Student Journal of Real Estate, described this effort as a “game-changing” national model for public-private redevelopment. The AIA Foundation has highlighted Augusta’s revitalization effort at several of its workshops over the past year. More recently, the Georgia Planning Association at its annual conference awarded Heritage Pine, the City’s flagship development in Laney Walker/Bethlehem, with its annual Outstanding Plan Implementation award.
It’s way too early to claim victory on this revitalization effort. After all, a city doesn’t turn around a half-century of neglect over night. There’s still major work to be done: a few banks in the area still need to be convinced to provide construction lending in this area, despite the under-deployment of CRA funds here. There’s major capacity that still needs to be built up from within the community, as the urban core faces an in-place aging population. And an innovative economic development plan is still called for, one that supplements (or replaces!) the old tried-everywhere model of attracting race-to-the-bottom manufacturing companies and call-centers. As the President of the Georgia Health Sciences University, Dr. Ricardo Azziz, noted recently, Augusta needs to up its cool factor.
Even so, city leaders – from the Mayor, City Administrator, and city-county Commissioners, to civic and business leaders under the guidance of Augusta Tomorrow, to various non-profits such as Historic Augusta – should be acknowledged for playing a championship round of urban planning and development. They’ve succeeded in creating a collaborative ethos involving broad stakeholder engagement. They’ve patiently created five overlapping master plans over the past decade and are beginning to integrate those plans into a vision for a sustainable, work-live-play environment. They’ve figured out how to shape an innovative financing program to catalyze early efforts. They’re the recipient of a HUD/DOT Sustainable communities grant to develop a multi-modal corridor around a handful of transit-oriented, mixed-use, green affordable developments – one of only 16 cities in the U.S. to be awarded such a grant. The so-called “great extortion” seems to have given birth to the “great embrace.”
Martin Melaver is a principal and founder of Melaver McIntosh, a sustainable development and consulting firm focused on transformative approaches to regenerating communities and businesses. He is the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community, foreword by Ray Anderson.