Clark Stancil, a Nelson native and 2008 graduate of Pickens High, admits that since he was child, he’s had a quirky interest in land-use, urban planning and preservation.
Now one of three Georgia Downtown Renaissance Fellows at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Stancil traces his early interest in streetscapes and public places to growing up in Nelson, where the town retains a preserved-feel from the marble mining heyday.
While finishing his degree in landscape architecture at UGA, Stancil has been assigned to work in Fitzgerald, a town that boasts being the geographic center of South Georgia.
But on a weekend home, the Progress asked Stancil to apply some of his training and class lessons to Jasper and its downtown.
“I love Jasper,” he said during a short walking tour of town. “It is the perfect-size. I am terrified we will follow every model of growth we are surrounded by.
“The idea of an Atlanta area retreat is a good thing for us. We can do this,” he said. “But we can’t mix that and other models. We can’t do it all.”
He said when allowing anything in town, especially downtown, it is important to see that they develop to certain standards to preserve Jasper’s unique sense of place.
Among the highlights in Jasper noted on the tour is the presence of marble, which with Stancil pointing it out, is more prominent than you would think.
“A tremendous strength is the overall quality and number of historic buildings in the downtown core, the use of fine local materials, and high level of architectural detail on many buildings in our downtown core,” Stancil commented by a later e-mail. “We have an amazingly unique and beautiful asset in the wealth of Georgia marble visible throughout downtown. We can do more to encourage the use of marble and other local materials in new construction and future development downtown.”
He suggested a future building code, requiring some percentage of any new building’s façade be marble.
The courthouse with the preserved portion of the older structure makes a great centerpiece for town. But he also pointed to the marble exterior on the Richards building, originally built in 1898 and now housing the Mark Miller Law firm, “the details are incredible. It’s my favorite.”
He also gave favorable nods to the McHan building, the renovated two-story on the corner of Stegall Street originally built some time prior to 1880. This building drew even more praise considered it was covered with a giant plastic awning when it was a discount store in the 1980s. The renovation work there is to be commended, as it is across the street with the building that houses Ed Marger’s law firm.
“There are a lot of strengths in town and in the details,” he said, pointing out the marble seats on brick tree islands in front of the courthouse and numerous buildings with marble accents indicating the year they were built. Stancil also judged the Oglethorpe monument on the north end of town, “terrific” as it creates a focal point and tie to the past, even if it was moved from its original location on Burnt Mountain. It makes a northern gateway to downtown.
Stancil didn’t criticize any of the buildings, but noted that the water feature at the north end of town falls a little short of what it could be. He did commend the effort of turning an unused space into a public area. Among the small suggested improvements would have been considering a more appropriate feature than the gazebo, a feature he noted is often underutilized in other cities as well. Giving more thought to the placement of benches and brick paths would have likely made the space more user friendly.
Stancil also gave positive notes to the shade trees along Main Street and brick work on the sidewalks. While the use of Honey Locusts has drawn some criticism, Stancil said they are actually make very good street trees as they create very little mess and offer a filtered shade that allows signage to be seen through them.
He mused that with the shade trees providing a canopy, maybe some building owners would re-think their awnings, which obscure historic details. “Metal awnings really suck the life out of historic buildings,” he said.
One of the biggest deficiencies that Stancil cited was the lack of sidewalks connecting Jasper to any outlying area. He noted particularly that the sidewalks going down South Main stop well short of a middle school further down the road.
“There are grants for sidewalks. Sidewalks are easy to add,” he said. “Nelson has done it [and Jasper could to].”
Stancil also cited the loss of public/civic institutions from downtown as a troubling change.
“Since the mid-90s, the Post Office, Library, Tax Assessor’s Office and other government offices have all moved outside Jasper’s historic civic core,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “All of these civic institutions were once in convenient walking distance of one another and contributed to the health and vitality of downtown life. The movement of these public institutions is a discouraging development that weakens downtown’s civic fabric and our community as a whole. When we have to drive from institution to institution, not only do our public spaces become inherently more inaccessible, we become further disconnected from one another and retreat into the personal sphere of our private automobiles.”
During his studies at UGA and with the fellowship, Stancil said he has traveled to many of the Georgia cities and there are clear winners and losers in downtown preservation.
Unquestionably, the best example of downtown preservation is Savannah, where the need to create more affordable housing in the 1970s, led the city leaders to renovate older buildings, rather than tear them down. He said over the years, the city has recouped all the expenses a number of times over. Fitzgerald, where he is working is an example of a city that is well-preserved, not so much out of design but by just leaving things alone. For example the city still boasts some brick streets that were never re-paved.