OEDEL: Turning downtown around

October 27, 2013 

Last week’s news about the empty Ramada Plaza skyscraper on First Street going into foreclosure yet again was contrasted the week before by NewTown Macon’s enthusiastic walking tour and pep rally for a three-block section of downtown in the area roughly between Cherry Street and Poplar Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Second Street.

By its own words in its 2013 annual report, NewTown has been working hard to “turn around” Macon’s downtown. NewTown has resolutely been hard at that daunting project for 17 years. Though the tide hasn’t turned yet, one can only imagine what downtown would be today without NewTown’s service as a diligent shepherd in conjunction with other stubborn, public-spirited partners like the Peyton Anderson Foundation, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, the Downtown Corridor, the Knight Foundation, Main Street Macon and the city itself. There’s no shortage of goodwill and good intentions for downtown.

The latest effort by NewTown is a thoughtful five-year plan to draw new investment and residents in or near the three-block target zone that NewTown showcased at its recent annual meeting. With NewTown, the Macon-Bibb Urban Development Authority is also committing more than $5 million in low-interest public financing to help bridge the difference between what banks and private investors are willing to commit to loft-type development.

The greater community has a vested interest in helping spur downtown revival, so the commitment of public funds to downtown projects makes some sense. Visions of a vital downtown are tantalizing for many of the people who attended NewTown’s recent annual meeting, and if the dreamers can be enticed through public seed money to make their own commitments, so much the better. Perhaps a critical concentration of development in a confined area can make some difference there.

NewTown’s inventory of residential units in the downtown area suggests that there are about 500 rental units in the greater downtown area, not counting the St. Paul Apartments, The Dempsey and some single-room-occupancy hotels, but counting the law school area including the The Massee. NewTown says that 136 more units will be added with the new loft initiative, 77 in the three target blocks. That will add about 25 percent to the total of higher-end rental properties in greater downtown.

But those statistics don’t tell the whole story, because they don’t count low-income rentals, nor do they account for the blight of unoccupied properties. The Ramada is a prime example. Outside NewTown’s small target zone, with its 297 rooms presently unoccupied, the Ramada could end up as yet another single-room-occupancy “extended stay” welfare hotel. In one fell swoop, the Ramada could add more than twice as many units as all the new loft housing being carefully cultivated by NewTown and its partners.

Such a use of the Ramada would concentrate yet more poverty downtown, further discouraging the so-called “creative class” from stepping in, and forever damaging the potential for riverfront development.

One intriguing alternative more in the domain of government than NewTown might be to recapture much if not all of Riverside Drive in that area for a walk-able park and more parking on the periphery, opening up all area properties to higher-use private development. Riverside Drive in that area is now radically under-utilized by cars anyway, and the massive, overblown road effectively cuts off the riverfront from downtown.

If the Ramada were on the edge of a park leading to the water, it might be reclaimable as a real hotel again. A calmed Riverside Drive could also make the riverfront property more attractive for development. Kirby Godsey has been struggling to get some takers for his Riverside Renaissance mixed-use development across Riverside from the Ramada without much apparent success. The Ramada’s new woes aren’t going to help that effort one whit.

Loft rehabs can be charming, but can’t alone rescue a downtown perennially struggling to turn around. NewTown is spunky, but it’s still just a small nonprofit.

It’s time for the public’s official planners at Planning & Zoning and Macon Area Transportation Study (MATS) to get serious about what they should be doing to rescue downtown Macon from drowning in poverty, blight and empty asphalt.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University Law School.

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