There is a vision for a new Newtown that community organizers hope makes the Gainesville neighborhood a healthier and more beautiful community.
That vision involves more green space, a community garden and no junk yard.
"Imagine that you’re driving into Newtown, whether you’re driving in from the Martin Luther King side or the Athens Street side, and when you drive into the community up to Mill Street, you’ll see a sign that says — a beautiful sign that says — ‘Newtown: a proud community, a nice place to live,’" Newtown resident Rose Johnson Mackey said.
For years, residents in the neighborhood on Gainesville’s south side have complained about the noise and air pollution caused by their neighbors — heavy industrial sites that reside next door with no buffer between their noise and Newtown homes.
But on Monday, Alfie Vick, an assistant professor with the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design, unveiled a number of concept designs for how the Newtown community could look in the future. Those plans, shown to a room full of community members who gathered at the Senior Life Center, did not include Blaze Recycling & Metals, a recycling facility that is the subject of many Newtown residents’ complaints.
While Vick showed a number of possible designs, he made a proposal to turn the abandoned railroad property that passes through the Blaze property on Athens Street into a greenway that would connect Newtown to Gainesville’s midtown and downtown districts.
If Blaze were to leave its current site, Vick also offered that the Newtown residential community could be extended toward Athens Street, and residential development could be mixed with some commercial development on Athens Street.
"To just convert it all to park land probably doesn’t make a lot of sense," Vick said.
Possible ideas for the area also included a hub for Hall Area Transit adjacent to Burger King on Athens Street and relocating the basketball court at Desota Park to a more central location. The rest of the park could be used for a community garden and more passive recreation.
Nik Heynen, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s geography department, is leading efforts to start a community garden in Newtown. Heynen called Newtown a "food desert," because he said fresh produce is difficult to obtain near the community. Heynen said soil tests have been performed and community organizers hope to get area youth involved in the planting of the garden.
"It’s coming together quite quickly," Heynen said.
At the least, Vick said the buffer between operations at Blaze could be moved 50 feet away from property lines, and city officials could ask the company to limit the use of some its property, much of which is directly adjacent to residential properties.
And industry’s proximity may be exposing Newtown’s residents to unacceptable levels of pollutants, said Marshall Shepherd, an associate professor in the atmospheric sciences program in University of Georgia’s Department of Geography. Since July, Shepherd has been monitoring air quality and meteorological conditions in the Newtown community.
While Shepherd said his research has not been conducted long enough to get a sufficient picture of the air quality in Newtown, during 10 days in September there was evidence of particulate matter that exceeded standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But he said only a long-term analysis will provide enough data to draw conclusions, and there isn’t enough data in Newtown yet, Shepherd said.
"We’re already collecting data that exceeds EPA standards, but we need to do this over a longer term period to really be confident," Shepherd said.
The centennial anniversary of the creation of Newtown, 2036, would be a good target for any goals set for the community, Vick said.
But none of the ideas Vick presented Monday were definite, he said.
"We’re prepared to revise these plans to reflect the input you can provide," Vick said.
One resident, Berlinda Lipscomb, asked how Newtown’s plans fit into the overall plan with the Fair Street Neighborhood Planning Unit. The planning unit, a residents-based approach to city planning that is the first of its kind in Gainesville, was established for the Fair Street and Newtown neighborhoods in 2007.
Lipscomb said she hoped the planning unit would be involved in any plans of change for Newtown. She said she was excited about plans for a "rails to trails" project, but she didn’t want other parts of Gainesville’s south side to be left out of those plans.
"I’m going to tell you we’re all a part of Newtown, no matter where we live," Lipscomb said.
But Newtown Florist Club Executive Director Faye Bush said she felt like the Newtown community was left out of the neighborhood planning process. The first action of the planning unit involved a massive rezoning of the residential area around Summit Street that would preserve the area’s residential character, but did not include Newtown residences.
"We went to all the meetings, and we was kind of left out, and, when we asked what happened to Newtown, they said that we would be recognized next year," Bush said. "... We were just left out of the loop, to tell you the truth."
But planning for a better Newtown started before the neighborhood planning unit, Bush said. And Vick said the preliminary ideas discussed earlier in the evening could be the seed for expanded ideas to improve other areas of Gainesville, too — not just Newtown.
Mayor Myrtle Figueras said she was "disappointed" and "really kind of hurt" that Bush would say Newtown had been left out of the Fair Street Area Neighborhood Planning Unit.
"I’ve worked for Newtown as hard as anyone else," Figueras said. "... You’re now separating Newtown, OK? ... You’re separating Newtown right now from the rest of the city."
But Mackey said that when nobody heard Newtown residents’ voices, the Newtown community continued to work for change on its own.
"I’m not saying you. I’m not saying you, and I’m not saying the City Council, because we really appreciate everything that’s been done," Mackey said. "But don’t hold it against us if we have a vision for this community that we love so much; because we know that all of the rest of the south side and all of the rest of the city of Gainesville is going to come together. But to have a vision for a better way of life is an important thing."