Plans for the Southern Mill preservation move forward

Mold, vermin, vagrants. This is what has become of the 18 acre Southern Mill property off of Oneta Street. To the naked eye, the turn of the century mill seems to be a dilapidated eyesore. Water damage leaves the insides rotted and the outside decrepit.

To the students of UGA’s Center for Community Design and Preservation (CCDP), however, the mill holds the potential to become the preservation community’s next big thing.

Students of the community design program gathered together for what architects call a charrette. A charrette is a collaborative effort in which designers unite to draft a solution to a local problem. The design students participated in this charrette in the name of creating a new vision for the rotting industrial structure.

The charrette occurred on February 24-26 under the leadership of Jennifer Lewis. She works for the university’s renowned community design and preservation program. Lewis asked students from her program to create innovative ideas for the renovation of the Southern Mill property. The students then presented their ideas to a group of 20 people, including civil servants and civilians.

The charrette was the next process in preserving the mill. It stemmed off of the symposium in early February, in which the community came together to hear speakers address the benefits of historic preservation.

“Student teams will explore creative ways to present the material in draft promotional packages for potential investors and the general public,” Lewis said. Lewis instructed the student teams to make their visions economic, suitable and friendly.

The students used other historic preservation projects of mills to discover the characteristics of successful redevelopment projects. Many mills in Georgia, including the Lee and Gordon’s Mills in Chickamauga and Banning Mill in Whitesburg, have been repurposed into profitable tourist locations and community hot spots.

Lewis noted that the students also had to be realistic when creating their ideas. The students need to take “into consideration the age, condition and restrictions on the property,” she said.

The preservation foundation in Athens currently holds a façade easement on the property. The foundation must approve any changes made to the property. Furthermore, the changes must resemble the building’s previous appearance. Lewis said that the façade easement made students have to consult the mill’s owner and real estate agents, along with the foundation’s legal committee.

The students had to consider the economic side of historic preservation. Lewis said the students researched “additional funding strategies beyond historic preservation tax credits.”

In the state of Georgia, the owner of a historic property receives tax benefits if he or she chooses to preserve their structure. Such benefits are key in attracting developers. The tax credits, however, have not been enough to attract a buyer. The students had to create new financial solutions that would drive developers’ incentives to buy the property.

Georgia, for example, has given tax breaks to film productions teams. As a result, moviemakers are coming to Georgia to film their movies for less money. This sort of relationship is one that Lewis would like to see emerge with developers and historic properties.

Developer interest in the property is increasing according to Geoff Wilson, a member of Barbara Dooley’s real estate team at Coldwell Banker Upchurch Realty and one of the listing agents for the Southern Mill property. Wilson noted both the charratte and the symposium sparked some much-needed attention for the mill. “There have been several showings since those events, and we’re confident we will see some movement soon,” Wilson said. With a project of this size, however, Wilson knows that selling the property to a developer will take time.

Students presented their ideas in the forms of maps, master plans and vignettes. They focused on walkability, demographics and transportation options when displaying their creations. Lewis said that it was important for the presenters to be “flexible enough to meet the changing needs.”

Hattie Johnson is a 5th year in Lewis’s program and presented her ideas at the charrette. Her team proposed the mill site be used as an artist community with supplemental work force housing. Johnson said that her team stressed the need of survivability and economic welfare. The housing would be affordable and close to the residents’ place of work. She said, “we did not feel the need to reinvent the wheel, the workers of the mills originally lived in the nearby neighborhoods.”

Johnson enjoyed the process of discussing how to battle poverty and unemployment through historic preservation. “Presenting to the community members was the most rewarding part,” she said.

For both Lewis and the preservation foundation of Athens, the key element when repurposing a structure such as the Southern Mill is to make it into a multi use space. Students examined services that were lacking in the community when considering what to create out of the Mill. Lewis found that the best ideas from the students included ones that allowed for the mill to be used in a variety of ways.

“The two of greatest interest were affordable housing and studios for artists combined with a performance venue, and assisted living apartments for seniors with accompanying units for their caregivers,” Lewis said.

The charrette was ultimately successful in moving along the process of preserving the mill. The students and preservationists inspired hope within the community that change was possible. Amy Kissane, the executive director of the Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation, said the symposium was about education while the charrette was about brainstorming and gathering public input. She was pleased that the presenters were able to assemble useful information for potential developers. “The charrette was very successful and a great next step,” Kissane said.

With a project of this scope and such limited funds, the students and preservationists face a difficult reality. Preserving the Southern Mill is no simple process. The building has significant water penetration and damage. The façade easement requires the special attention of all parties involved and adds additional governmental involvement. Lastly, the real estate market is in shambles.

Athens, however, is a strong and determined community of dreamers. Jennifer Lewis and Amy Kissane are not letting governmental red tape and economic woes deter them from their goal of preserving the Southern Mill. They are using new and diverse ways of spreading their message to the community.

The two leaders are hopeful in brining a new focal point to the local community. With such people heading this preservation project, their dream just may become a reality.

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