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Flint River remains focal point of downtown redevelopment

Officials say flood always part of downtown development conversation

The Flint RiverQuarium, located in downtown Albany where Pine Avenue deadends into Front Street, is one of the attractions, along with its next door Imagine Theater, that have come to downtown since the Flood of 1994. (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

The Flint RiverQuarium, located in downtown Albany where Pine Avenue deadends into Front Street, is one of the attractions, along with its next door Imagine Theater, that have come to downtown since the Flood of 1994. (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

ALBANY — As Shandon Development Properties principle Patrick Plettner announced an aggressive redevelopment master plan that would potentially change the face of downtown Albany, one element emerged as crucial to the $49 million plan.

The Flint River.

Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.

Since 1994, the downtown streetscape has changed significantly, primarily under projects through the now defunct Albany Tomorrow group, which formed in 1995. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years, resulting primarily in government and lifestyle developments.

Government facilities that were constructed include the federal courthouse at Broad Avenue and Washington Street, the Georgia Department of Human Resources building on West Oglethorpe Boulevard across from the Civic Center, the Central Square government office building on Pine Avenue west of the Government Center, and the Albany Police Department Law Enforcement Center on Washington Street at Oglethrope. The former site of Bobs Candies at 125 Pine Ave. has been renovated for space for offices and is now home to the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commissions and programs with Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.

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The Hilton Garden Inn located on Front Street following the two big floods. (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

The Flint RiverQuarium and its Imagine Theatre are at the end of Pine Avenue where it turns south into Front Street, where Turtle Park, the Riverwalk trail, Ray Charles Plaza and Hilton Garden Inn have all been constructed since the Flood of 1994. The historic Bridge House on Front Street has been renovated to house the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The designs of the riverside attractions took into account the possibility of high water, such as what Albany experienced in the Flood of ‘94. Parts of the Riverwalk, for instance, have been submerged during minor flooding and it has not affected its use once the waters recede.

Two downtown museums have seen some extensive renovations. The Albany Civil Rights Institute at 326 Whitney Ave. has been renovated and expanded, while the Wetherbee Planetarium at the Thronateeska Heritage Center at 100 Roosevelt Ave. has been upgraded to a state-of-the-art facility. Thronateeska also recently opened its climate-controlled archive center.

Part of Albany Tomorrow’s master plan for the downtown area included an entertainment district. While some restaurants have been mainstays in the area — the Cookie Shoppe since long before the flood and, more recently, a Subway and Our Daily Bread — other restaurants have opened to various degrees of success before closing — Cafe 230, the Pizza Shop, Hubbles, Georgia Fries — or moving — Harvest Moon, Riverfront BBQ, Bagel Break, San Joe’s. Chills, a nightclub, has been operating on Broad Avenue at Jackson Street for several years and Icons has been a new addition on Washington Street near Broad. Demetrius Love have announced plans to other another restaurant soon in the Riverfront BBQ site.

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After the floods of 1994 and 1998, the historic Bridge House in downtown Albany was renovated for the Albany Convention and Visitors Center. (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

Albany Tomorrow’s plan was for public money to partner with private investment in boosting downtown, but with a few exceptions like the Hilton Garden Inn, the private money didn’t follow before the organization went into hibernation in January 2009. The retail strip center on the 100 block of North Jackson where Subway is located ran into some problems when the anchor tenant, a dollar store, folded after its lease contract was caught up in a wider scandal involving then-downtown manager, Don Buie, who ended up serving time in jail. The site of the former retail store now houses the Central Library while its building across the street is renovated.

But there has been some movement of late. Downtown officials have attempted to make the area more attractive to younger residents. The Art Park at Pine has been an added attraction for creative folks and the Levee, a music studio, located on the 100 block of Pine as well. Albany businessman Bob Brooks renovated the Nelson Tift Building on the 200 block of Broad Avenue into a convention center that has hosted a number of events.

Just this month, a new phase of development by Shandon was announced.

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LaToya Wilson and her son, Emanuel Jefferson, 6, visit the downtown Art Park on Pine Avenue last September. (Staff photo: Danny Carter)

Of the eight components that make up two project development areas listed by Plettner in an April proposal to the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority, five target areas — a sports complex on city-owned land behind the Albany Civic Center, the Civic Center itself and its adjacent parking pads, “riverfront retail” along Front Street, and an entertainment venue on land between Riverfront and Veterans parks — run parallel to the Flint and lay within a matter of yards from its western banks.

Three other areas — 100 blocks north and south (of Broad and Pine avenues) and a proposed hotel/convention center on West Broad Avenue — are on streets that run perpendicular to the river and intersect with Front Street.

“This community has an underutilized asset that makes it attractive to developers,” Plattner told the ADICA board. “You have a downtown area that is bisected by that beautiful river, a claim that very few cities can make. It gives you unique development opportunities.”

City officials are cautiously optimistic about the momentum Shandon’s involvement has created downtown, lauding the group’s recent announcement that eight separate businesses have signed letters-of-interest in leasing storefronts along Front and Pine. But nagging at the edges of leaders’ consciousness as they discuss the development is the Flood of ‘94. Many were there as the Flint left its banks and inundated much of the area being promoted by Plettner as vital to downtown development.

And they won’t discuss such development without bringing it up.

“The flood is always part of the downtown redevelopment conversation,” said Downtown Manager Aaron Blair, who announced June 19 that he would leave his position in Albany after 3 1/2 years here to take a similar position in Fresno, Calif. “You have to talk about how high water would impact any construction along the river, how the space around the river can be used. That especially comes into play when you talk about the Civic Center and that area around it.

“It’s been 20 years, but the people here will not forget the flood. They can’t. This community was too dramatically impacted.”

Of the redevelopment plans being discussed by Plettner and his local Shandon Marketplace Development team, the one that is most iffy — and probably would have the most significant impact downtown — is development of a sports complex on land that formerly was used as the First Tee golf facility. The 116 acres of land are sufficient to house baseball, softball and soccer fields, as well as a tennis complex that would be funded by Dougherty County special-purpose local-option sales tax funds.

But the property also is most susceptible to rising flood waters.

City Manager James Taylor, however, said the city would not be taking a tremendous risk by developing a sports complex alongside the river.

“Athletic fields could recover from flooding much more easily,” Taylor said. “What we’d have to consider is any permanent structure. If we built any kind of restrooms, concessions stands or storage structures, we’d have to take consideration for their location into our plans.

“That’s not to say you can’t build along a river. I visited Greenville, South Carolina, and they have apartments, condos and retail outlets all along the (Reedy) river. What they’ve done, though, is build everything so that ground-level is used only for parking. And it’s all concrete. That’s good planning.”

Blair said he’s seen an initial draft of a sports complex plan alongside the Flint, and the flooding factor figures into that plan.

“(Planners) took into account the flow of the river and how any overflow would affect the facilities,” he said. “It impacts the design of the park, but not so much that the changes would make (locating the sports complex there) a risk. I think the general idea is that, with careful planning, this could be a key element of any downtown development.”

The Kattalistt Creative Group, a collective of mostly young, mostly involved area citizens, is one of the group of eight that signed the letters-of-interest to locate downtown. The Kattalistts want to lease the 11,176-square-foot former IRS building at 110-112 Pine Ave. and turn it into a gathering place for artists and other creative groups.

Organization President James Malphrus said the Kattalistt Group would manage a consignment/retail area in the massive building and sub-lease the other 42 rooms, which range in size from 42 to 650 square feet. Kattalistt Treasurer Megan Barr said the group is not concerned about possible flooding of the nearby Flint.

“I think the Flood of ‘94 was partially responsible for our downtown area becoming pretty much a ghost town,” Barr said. “Just like a lot of people left Albany and Dougherty County for good, a lot of businesses left the downtown area and moved to the west side of town or into Lee County.

“Our group is interested in revitalizing downtown. We think the plan that’s being put in place is a good place to start. We think we can be a part of that by opening up possibilities with (the former IRS building). We’re excited about the opportunity.”

City of Albany Public Works Director Phil Roberson said improvements made by the city based on knowledge obtained through experiencing the Flood of ‘94 has helped make redevelopment of a downtown that was directly impacted by the flood waters much more plausible.

“We’ve had a decade or so to use what we learned from the flood to make infrastructure improvements that will help us better handle any similar event,” Roberson said. “I’m proud to see the city moving forward with plans.

“You can’t operate worried about what might happen. You make decisions based on what’s best for the community but with a calculated eye toward contingencies for what could happen.”