Ridges Advisory Committee Outlines Objectives

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The new Ridges Advisory Committee met for the first time on Friday afternoon on the Ohio University campus and hopes to bring recommendations regarding uses for the buildings and grounds of the former Athens Mental Health Center to OU President Roderick McDavis next year.

An advisory committee was first established in the 1988 legislation that transferred 668 acres of former mental health center property to the university. The committee had not met for many years, but the question of whether it should still be active was raised earlier this year by Ron Luce, executive director of the Athens County Historical Society and Museum, who was objecting to demolition of the former tuberculosis building at The Ridges. McDavis and other OU officials met in March with local government leaders, after which it was announced that the committee would be re-established to give input as the university updates its master plan for The Ridges.

McDavis appointed Stephen Golding, vice president for finance and administration, as chairman of the advisory committee. Other members include local historian Marjorie Stone, Athens City Council President Jim Sands, architect and former OU employee Pam Callahan, Athens County Commissioner Charlie Adkins and Athens City Planner Paul Logue. The advisory committee will be working alongside the Ridges Master Plan Committee, which is co-chaired by Harry Wyatt, associate vice president for Facilities, and Shawna Bolin, director of University Planning and Space Management.

The Ridges Master Plan Committee is further subdivided into three subcommittees: Academic Uses (led by Joe Shields, vice president for Research and Creative Activitiy), Land Use/Development (led by Donna Goss, director of engagement and real estate management), and Existing Buildings (led by Ben Stuart, executive director of OU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment).

The Master Plan Committee will provide information and history about the buildings, as well as conditions of the existing buildings to guide the advisory committee. The advisory committee is expected to meet every three months and provide a draft report to McDavis in December 2014. A final report will be delivered in March 2015.

The main charge of the Ridges Advisory Committee is to facilitate and plan the 2014 Ridges Master Plan through a collaborative effort that will result in guiding direction in care and utilization of The Ridges property asset. OU officials said that looking into academic uses for the buildings and grounds is top priority.

The Ridges Advisory Committee also plans to get input from the city of Athens, the Athens County Historical Society, the newly formed Athens Historic Preservation Committee and other entities throughout the process.

According to information provided to the advisory committee, of the buildings at The Ridges, 376,862 gross square feet are currently occupied, while 320,411 gross square feet of the buildings are vacant. About 300 acres of the grounds serve as the university’s land lab and will remain undeveloped.

During Friday’s meeting, Adkins emphasized that the general public needs to have more communication about OU’s plans regarding the historic landmark that overlooks the Hocking River. He said people have the conception that OU is letting the buildings deteriorate so they can be demolished.

Adkins said he was concerned that some of the buildings would deteriorate too much to be saved within the next year while the committee is working on its recommendations.

Wyatt and Golding assured Adkins that OU is doing what it can to bandage the buildings such as fixing holes in roofs and boarding up broken windows, but that completely renovating the more than 30 buildings at The Ridges is not financially feasible.

Golding said that the university has invested $48 million in The Ridges since acquiring the property in the late 1980s.

“The problem is that The Ridges is a huge complex,” Golding said.

Stone said that the university should make the Kirkbride portion of the complex its top priority as far as preservation goes. She was referring to the main building of The Ridges that currently houses the Kennedy Museum of Art along with the front wings of the structure. Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride influenced the design, construction and administration of several mental health hospitals in the late 1880s. The Athens Lunatic Asylum was completed in 1874.

Golding said that The Ridges has not been a top priority for OU since the main Athens Campus has its own facility issues in buildings that are used for academics and residential housing. He said those buildings take top priority as they are occupied by students and staff throughout the year.

Logue asked Wyatt if there are any buildings at The Ridges that are already unsalvageable.

Wyatt replied, “It would be a long stretch to say that the ward wings are OK, but I don’t think there’s a need for those to come down immediately.”

Wyatt added that the only structure the university knows that needs to be demolished is a small garage on the back of the property.

Adkins also asked if public input would be included in the development of the master plan for The Ridges. Golding said that the most useful place for public input is through the subcommittees. Bolin said there will also be some sort of public forums throughout the process, but said the university is still finalizing the format for such forums. The meetings of the advisory committee will be open to the general public, but time is not set aside for public comments during the meetings at this time.

The Ridges Advisory Committee is slated to meet again in March or April.