Committee Wants More Public Access To The Ridges

By
Sara Brumfield - Athens Messenger staff reporter

Dateline
Updated Wed, Jul 2, 2014 10:11 am
Photo Credit: 
Jasmine Beaubien
The Ridges in Athens, formerly known as Athens Mental Asylum.

Members of The Ridges Advisory Committee emphasized the need for more public accessibility at the former mental health facility as the university works to complete The Ridges Master Plan by next February.

The advisory committee is working alongside the Ridges Master Plan Committee to establish a master plan and make recommendations to OU President Roderick McDavis about future uses for the OU-owned facility. Many of the buildings — with the main portion being completed in 1874 — are currently vacant and in disrepair.

Some advisory committee members had previously expressed concern about the deteriorating condition of the facilities, particularly the main Kirkbride complex. Some said that they were concerned that the wings of the main building would be beyond repair and therefore demolished. However, the university recently hired Schooley Caldwell Associates architectural firm to aid in the development of the master plan. The consultants have said that the condition of the wings isn’t as bad as some imagine and aren’t currently in danger of being beyond rehabilitation.

On Tuesday, Ben Stuart, executive director of OU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment and chairman of the Ridges Master Plan Existing Buildings subcommittee, said that water and vermin are the biggest threats to the vacant buildings currently.

Donna Goss, who serves as the chairwoman of the land use subcommittee, talked about the main planning principles regarding the 700 acres of land surrounding the facilities. Those principles include community engagement, campus connectivity, sustainable growth, and campus architecture and capacity.

Approximately 200 acres of the land currently serves as OU’s land lab, which is home to several research projects conducted by OU faculty and students. There was discussion about how to allow public use of this lab without disturbing the research. It was suggested that the public should be further educated about the land lab so they know not to bike or walk dogs through the area.

Goss said the university also wants to make sure that visitors to The Ridges are aware of the history of the land, some of which served as orchards and farms for the mental health facility.

To build a stronger connection for the public with The Ridges, Goss said the possibility of expanding the trail system on the property is being considered. Advisory committee member Pam Callahan noted that the mental health facility was originally part of the community, not the university, when it was established. The buildings and grounds were gifted by the state of Ohio to the university in the 1980s after the mental health facility closed.

“We see it as a community resource that we're the stewards of,” Goss said.

According to Goss, the master plan committee is also looking for opportunities to make the facility more visible from campus and the city of Athens. She said there used to be pedestrian connections from Richland Avenue to near Building 21 (the Voinovich School for Leadership and Public Affairs) and that there may be an opportunity to re-establishing some of those, but with thoughtful development.

“While we want this to be a community resource, it should also support the university’s mission,” she said.

In addition to the land lab, the property surrounding The Ridges is also home to a food waste compost facility, a yard waste compost facility, the Eco House, ROTC challenge course, cemeteries, a city water tower, a cell tower, and a high-pressure natural gas transmission pipeline.

Goss said some potential uses for the property include commercial and residential development, learning labs and alternative energy research projects. She added that maintaining green space is also a major priority for the university.

Advisory committee member and Athens City Planner Paul Logue said that if further development occurs at the site, it could result in more employees and therefore an increased need in parking. He said that parking needs addressed and that the location of additional parking is crucial as to not detract from the beauty of the buildings.

Logue also stated that the university should look into “stealth technology” regarding its cell phone tower, which he described as “unsightly.” He said while the university generates revenue from the tower, it can be better disguised to blend in with the natural surroundings.

Representatives from Schooley Caldwell were in attendance during Tuesday’s meeting and stated that they are still in the data collection and assessment phase of their work. SCA President and CEO Bob Loversidge said that his firm wants to make sure that steps to implement a master plan are in place once usage is determined for the buildings. He said that identifying funding sources is also a priority.

SCA held a public forum to discuss their planning process last month. The firm plans to hold more public sessions in the future, however dates have not been set. The Ridges Advisory Committee will meet again in September.

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