Flagpole has initiated an interesting community conversation with its recent two-part series on the University's future plans for the South Milledge corridor and elsewhere. The author of the piece asks a thoughtful question: "Why, we should ask, is state government encouraging and financing local communities to preserve lands while allowing its flagship institution of higher education to opt out?"
But with all due respect, I don't think that's the right question. It's really not even a question: it's a statement that implies the university is not preserving land, and that the state is actually encouraging and financing green space acquisition in other communities in a meaningful way. Neither implication is accurate; according to the most recent data, the University owns 42,000+ acres all over the state, much of it used for forestry and agriculture. According to sources, UGA's land assets have been growing in recent years. And the state's support for greenspace acquisition is half-hearted, at best, especially in tough budget times (perhaps we can tackle that another day).
UGA's land holdings further its mission as a land grant institution; I think it is fair to say it has done its part to preserve land. UGA land holdings include extensive acreage in Oconee County, including new acreage for its national champion equestrian team and horticulture and crop experiment farms. It has significant holdings in Griffin, Tift County, Jackson County, Morgan county and elsewhere. However, the article's main thrust -- that there needs to be a conversation and plan for South Milledge, does resonate.
In part one of the Flagpole piece, the author takes a look at how other institutions manage their land uses. He even invokes my alma mater as an example of using (and marketing) its land resources differently than UGA. While I love Berry and its landholdings, and applaud the way it is (finally) using its land assets to better educate students, the author failed to mention a key point. Berry aggressively harvests timber from its 26,000 acres to generate revenue and allows extensive hunting on its campus under an agreement with DNR. I can't imagine hunting and logging going over well on UGA owned land in Athens-Clarke County.
One also has to wonder how much of this conversation has emerged because of the opposition of Athens FAQ to the location of NBAF along South Milledge. To me, it always seemed that opposition to the facility was driven as much by its potential location as it was by scientific reasons (although to be fair, FAQ did bring up plenty of those as well).
The South Milledge site was never the favored choice by UGA and others for NBAF -- they wanted a site adjacent to the Richard B. Russell center, where NBAF would be tucked away behind another large government building, hopefully out of sight and largely out of mind. But the controversy that emerged shows how emotional the community is about the pastoral acreage along South Milledge.
I understand why. For many in Watkinsville, south Oconee and parts of Clarke, this corridor offers a great transition from "Urban Athens" to the more pastoral Oconee County. For cyclists, it is the primary "escape route" from Athens to the rural roads of Oconee, Walton, and Morgan counties. It is a breath of fresh air at the end of a long day.
But is it realistic to expect this corridor to stay completely rural forever? Probably not. Already, "light recreational uses" have been added with new intramural and athletic fields, and more are planned (see picture). The agricultural operations that do exist out there can be relatively intense and I would imagine are not environmentally neutral. A sewage treatment plant along the corridor often adds its own special scent to the area on warm summer days.
In a conversation with Kevin Kirsche from the University Architect's office, he confirms that he is supportive of an inclusive planning effort for the corridor, which was not addressed in the University's 1998 master planning.
"In truth, I thought there were a lot of good points in [the Flagpole] articles," said Kirsche. He's right. There were.
A planning process that engages and educates the community is a positive and necessary step. However, as we learned on NBAF, it is likely that the loudest cries will come from those who want nothing to change.
Kirsche has obviously done some thinking in that regard. While he stresses that no large scale changes are planned in the immediate future for the corridor, he allows that over time, as the University grows, some change will occur.
"One thing we have discussed [at the University Architect's office] is that it is perhaps not realistic to think that as the University continues to grow over time that South Milledge will remain rural or agricultural. But we love the rural experience out there," said Kirsche. "We have talked about ways to maintain that character."
He went on, discussing the protection of view lines into natural areas, designating areas that should be preserved, analyzing "viewsheds", identifying nodes for development, and using linked landscape corridors. Heady stuff.
So, what does all this mean? In short, expect more discussion about the future of the corridor, especially in years ahead once UGA is further along with its ongoing efforts to densify and redevelop its core campus area, as outlined by the 1998 master plan.
Here's my idea. How about activating the rail line that links Whitehall Village with UGA and the multi-modal center as a double-tracked light rail system with a running and biking trail alongside?
This sort of usage might allow for small "village" type development to be built, or event better, the re-establishment of Whitehall Village (the old part, not the new subdivision) as a student and educational community. Whitehall Village includes the old mill homes and brick structures that sprang up around the old Factory on the banks of the Oconee River now known as the Whitehall Mill lofts; these homes and some older factories line Whitehall Road up and down the hill between the railroad tracks and Barnett Shoals Road. By using UGA's transit expertise and an old rail line, a car-free way for students to get to and from main campus would be created and an old town re-established.
Facilitating the redevelopment and preservation of Whitehall Mill Village as a cultural and historical -- but living -- resource for learning and student housing, all within the footprint of a historic community, would be an amazing service to the state and the community. And imagine if this village was linked to campus with light rail and a paved cycling and running trail that eventually continued to Watkinsville?
One other plus: the addition of a rail and transit corridor to the mix suddenly allows for this to happen without pressure to four-lane Milledge or Whitehall, which almost no one wants.
On-campus rail does not appear to be a new concept for UGA. In doing some research on an unrelated project, I found a web page with decades worth of campus planning maps. Interestingly, the one from 1967 (pictured) calls for a looping rail line running through campus in what is now the intramural fields and around North Campus and Sanford Stadium. According to Kirsche, this concept was designed in an effort to secure a federally funded monorail, which eventually went to West Virginia University.
While this sort of monorail is out of vogue today, the existing infrastructure is arguably better. The existing underutilized freight line runs within 1/4 mile of almost all campus assets. Even without Whitehall Village in play, one has to wonder if the community and UGA could partner to to put this rail line to work to remove cars and buses from our streets and offer a unique marketing and lifestyle option not found on many southern campuses, while preserving it as a cargo route for a few key customers.
As a final note, I would be in remiss if I didn't add that if South Milledge is going to be developed in any form or fashion, I think it is a positive that the University would be handling it. While one can disagree with the style and/or substance of what is built at UGA these days, no one can question the commitment to quality construction, aggressive and impactful landscaping, inclusion of green space, and thoughtful planning.
As someone who has lived in this area for the better part of 30 years, the gracious landscaping, additions of green spaces like the D.W. Brooks mall, and the re-greening of campus in the past 15 years is an impressive accomplishment, and continues a legacy of horticultural passion that helped initiate a campus arboretum years ago. According to Kirsche, 34 acres of greenspace have been added to UGA's main campus alone in the past 1o years. Those of us who remember Herty Field as a parking lot and the less than impressive entry corridors to campus from years past certainly appreciate the University's efforts to "green up" all parts of campus today.
Kirsche's final thought on South Milledge is this: "We would like to have a logical, well constructed plan for conservation of land as well as potential development in the future."
Agreed -- so what are your thoughts on the future of South Milledge? And Kudos to Flagpole for kicking off the conversation.