Savannah River has proven to be key ingredient in Augusta’s downtown development

The Augusta Chronicle

May 19– May 19–When it comes to creating a robust downtown riverfront, Augusta has swam against the tide for most of the past century.

Decades of master plans, studies and proposals for downtown projects along the Savannah River have far exceeded actual development. And the city’s quest to spark an urban renaissance using downtown’s most prominent feature is older than most people living today.

In 1924, The Augusta Chronicle published a full-page illustration depicting a bustling downtown filled with high-rise buildings, factories, shipping terminals and cargo freighters. Though quaint by today’s standards, the drawing and its accompanying advocacy story was a clarion call to community leaders to make Augusta the “South’s greatest port and one of America’s greatest cities.”

“We can do all this if we develop the river,” the headline said.

“This vision of Augusta is no idle dream, because the developing of the Savannah River into an actual reality can be done in the short space of a decade,” The Chronicle wrote.

The headline above the illustration was poignant and persuasive: “Where there is no vision the people perish.”

A look at downtown Augusta in 2019 shows the artist and editor’s dream of a river-based economy to rival America’s largest cities never became reality.

Becoming a major inland port city was never in Augusta’s cards, even after successfully lobbying the federal government to bolster commercial shipping to and from the port of Savannah by building New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, an 82-year-old structure now targeted for removal.

“Commerce has changed over the decades and centuries,” said Historic Augusta Director Erick Montgomery, noting Augusta’s early history as an export epicenter for furs, tobacco and cotton. “What started to change all that was the railroad … and then well into the 20th century it gets changed again with the improvement of highways and trucking.”

The decline of inland commercial shipping in the postwar years turned Augusta’s riverfront into a virtual no man’s land, thanks in part to the two-story levee that shielded the city from the flood-prone Savannah River until the completion of Clarks Hill Dam in 1954.

REDISCOVERING THE RIVER

Interest in downtown’s riverfront — and downtown in general — began to wane in the 1960s as suburbanization siphoned away downtown commerce and residents.

Plans to stem the tide came and went, including an ambitious proposal in the early 1970s known as Riverfront Augusta — a futuristic mixed-use community stretching from Seventh Street to East Boundary whose defining feature was a high-rise tower reminiscent of Seattle’s Space Needle.

The riverfront wasn’t given serious consideration again until downtown hit rock bottom in the early 1980s, after the near-simultaneous opening of two enclosed shopping malls in 1978 proved to be the final coffin nails for retail in the central business district.

A group of concerned business leaders in 1982 formed Augusta Tomorrow and immediately commissioned the sister company of a mall developer to create a new master plan for downtown revitalization. The landmark plan’s centerpiece project was Riverwalk Augusta, a riverfront park that — for the first time in two generations — would allow downtown visitors and residents to actually see the river without having to stumble across railroad tracks and precariously scale the federally mandated levee that no longer served its purpose.

With the support of then-Mayor Ed McIntyre and congressional advocacy by U.S. Rep. Doug Barnard, Augusta was able to breach the levee and begin construction in 1985. Riverwalk Augusta’s first phase, between Sixth and Eighth streets, was completed in 1988 at a cost of $18.5 million — a pricey sum even by today’s standards.

“It was a smash hit from the opening day,” said Tom Robertson, a partner in Cranston Engineering Group, which oversaw the design. “Nobody complained about the money after that.”

A spate of riverfront development soon followed, including the Port Royal condominium building in 1991 and the Radisson Riverfront Hotel (now the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center) and the adjacent Augusta Riverfront Center office building a year later. Riverfront homes began springing up across the river in North Augusta, which had just been freed from federal flood-plain regulations that had stymied development for decades.

Then riverfront development went into a 25-year slumber, waking only briefly for two expansions of the Augusta Marriott complex: the Marriott Suites tower in 2001 and the Augusta Convention Center addition in 2013.

THE CYBER EFFECT

New ground wasn’t broken along Augusta’s riverfront until 2017, the year former Gov. Nathan Deal announced the $50 million Georgia Cyber Center building in January and a $35 million phase II addition in November.

That same year, North Augusta city officials gave the green light to Riverside Village, a $240 million, mixed-use riverfront development anchored by SRP Park, the home of the Augusta GreenJackets minor league baseball team.

While the cyber center and ballpark projects spurred additional interest in downtown real estate, they also highlighted downtown Augusta’s inconvenient truth — there wasn’t much to “do” at Riverwalk Augusta besides take a walk.

“Connectivity to the river — we’ve talked about it for decades,” said Barry White, a former president of the Augusta Convention Visitors Bureau, whose organization’s 2017 “Destination Blueprint” tourism plan made “engagement” with the river a priority.

The most ambitious project in the plan, an amalgam of dozens of existing master plans, called for a floating “river destination center” at the end of an expanded Augusta Common, a place where visitors and residents alike could enjoy a drink, a meal and even rent kayaks and paddleboards.

The destination center aims to funnel the central business district’s resurgent vitality by extending the urban greenspace in Broad Street’s 800 block across Reynolds Street, a concept envisioned by Augusta Tomorrow more than two decades earlier.

TURNING THE TIDE

The old idea is generating new interest now that the riverfront property’s majority owner, the family of William S. Morris III, is ready to move forward with a development that complements the Common expansion.

The family, whose Morris Communications media company previously owned The Chronicle, envisions a riverfront development featuring a variety of mixed-use buildings that could house restaurants, retail and up to 400 apartment units. The proposal also calls for a 1-acre tract across the street from the city convention center, once slated for an additional Marriott-branded hotel, would become a 90-unit apartment building.

Bob Kuhar, Morris Communications’ vice president of properties and facilities, said the project would need to be a public-private partnership with the city, given the amount of greenspace and other public infrastructure involved in the development. Informal meetings with city officials have so far yielded no commitments.

“We truly hope we can move forward with the city on this project,” Kuhar said.

Bennish Brown, the CEO of the Augusta Convention Visitors Bureau, said Morris’ development plans would augment the vision laid out in the Destination Blueprint plan and the other studies on which the city-approved tourism plan is based.

“I’m encouraged by the vision for it,” Brown said. “We just have to continue working and not let this stall. We have an opportunity for investment and we have to provide the support and make the connections to make those things happen.”

Morris’ Common-extension project is similar in size and scope to the proposed Riverfront at the Depot development, which is slated for construction on city-owned riverfront land along Reynolds Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. That development, a $94 million public-private partnership between the city and Birmingham, Ala.-based BLOC Global Group, includes a 140-unit market-rate apartment community flanked by the historic train depot building, whose 16,000 square feet will be renovated into retail and restaurant space.

The property also will include a 100,000-square-foot “class A” office building and a public plaza along the riverfront. The company’s financing plan includes $14 million in support from the city — primarily for parking structures. BLOC Global is scheduled to close on the property in June.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

Both the Common-extension and Depot property proposals — as well as North Augusta’s new Riverside Village development — would be imperiled if the Army Corps of Engineers moves forward with its preferred plan to decommission the lock and dam, the structure responsible for creating downtown’s aesthetically pleasing river “pool.”

The Corps’ preferred option, replacing the dam with a static “rock weir,” would lower river levels by two to four feet depending on drought conditions. A dam drawdown in February that simulated the effect of a rock weir created unsightly mud flats and exposed rocks and old wooden piers.

With new investment pouring into the urban core at an unprecedented level, the loss of the once under-appreciated river has galvanized local officials against proposals that would lower its levels.

“Thousands of jobs as well as millions of dollars and product depend on the level and use of water from the pool for process-water,” Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Sue Parr wrote to the Corps. “Hundreds of millions of dollars in development have been created along the banks of the Savannah River because the pool of water created by the lock and dam creates the environment that makes them attractive and viable.”

Montgomery said the present and future river economy is the “quality of life” it creates for the region, which is somewhat ironic given the specter of permanently lower river levels downtown.

“If the Corps of Engineers has decided that (the lock and dam) is no longer a viable resource, I don’t think they’re using the measurement of quality of life. If they are, it’s very low on their priority list,” he said. “The general population in Augusta has altered its thinking on the river to ‘It’s a quality of life thing.’ The Corps is still saying, ‘Well, there’s no barges, there’s no boat traffic, let’s just get rid of it.’ That’s very shortsighted.”

Assuming both the Depot and the Common-extension projects come to fruition, downtown Augusta’s riverfront will be nearly fully developed between Fifth and 13th streets. And, assuming the river pool is maintained, downtown could look much different than the industrial seaport envisioned by The Chronicle’s illustrator nearly a century ago.

But its future appearance arguably evokes the spirit that guided the artist’s hand, a vision The Chronicle deemed to be a “new Augusta with its wealth and prosperity based upon proper development of the Savannah River.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.