The West Broad School was considered the center of the neighborhood until it closed in the 1970s, and has recently taken on that role again as a community garden and farmers market.
An effort to protect and improve the West Broad neighborhood is at a crucial point. But first, a word on why the neighborhood—and the school building it’s centered around—are worth protecting.
“Outside of the church, West Broad School was the center of the black community,” researcher Kimberly Davis told Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation members at a brown-bag luncheon Mar. 15.
Built in 1904, it was added onto in the 1950s but closed after integration in the early 1970s, when white students flocked to private schools like Athens Academy, reopening as alternative school Rutland Academy but closing again about 10 years ago. It was particularly well known for its maypole, and local artist Harold Rittenberry is making a new one that will be installed this May, Davis said.
“All of the other buildings where black children went to school have been torn down,” said Elizabeth Platt, who attended West Broad. “Burney-Harris [now the Athens Community Career Academy, in the renovated H.T. Edwards building] and West Broad School, those are the last two buildings. So I feel very strongly about saving them.”
Debate about what to do with the West Broad School—the Clarke County School District has proposed renovating it into administrative offices, which could involve paving over the Athens Land Trust’s community garden on the property—led to the formation of a committee made up of CCSD, Athens-Clarke County, ALT, Athens Housing Authority and neighborhood representatives that’s looking at the neighborhood as a whole.
A draft “feasibility study” prepared by consultants Lord Aeck Sargent suggests a number of small projects to improve connectivity and walkability in a neighborhood filled with sharp corners and dead-end streets. Big-ticket items could include a greenway along Brooklyn Creek—which could be done in conjunction with an upcoming sewer replacement, ACC Manager Blaine Williams said—as well as redeveloping the Rocksprings public housing project with market-rate units alongside subsidized ones, similar to what AHA did with Pauldoe a few years ago.
The study includes several ideas for the West Broad School, some of which involve moving the garden and some that would expand it; and some that include solely offices, and others that include space for nonprofits and community activities.
Such improvements, though, could speed up gentrification in a neighborhood already under development pressure, and the study doesn’t really address it. “The point is to redevelop a community that’s affordable and lovely, but people do need to be able to afford to live there,” school board member Ovita Thornton said at a Mar. 16 meeting.
Another issue is the timeline. AHA Executive Director Rick Parker said people will need time to digest the study after the final version is released. But ALT Executive Director Heather Benham advocated moving quickly to secure funding, because the ACC Commission will soon select projects for a potential transportation sales tax, and another SPLOST won’t be far behind.