What to know about Ohio University’s plans for The Ridges

The Ridges could become a $220 milliondevelopment with housing, commercial, academic and recreational uses under a new plan proposed by Ohio University.

ATHENS, Ohio — The former site of the historic Athens Lunatic Asylum, now known as The Ridges, could become a $220 million mixed-use development with housing, commercial, academic and recreational uses under a new plan proposed by Ohio University. The project, which is estimated to take seven to 10 years, would be the largest nonstudent housing development in the city’s history, with over 700 planned units.

On Tuesday, OU will host the first two of three town hall meetings to present its new development strategy for The Ridges. The 730-acre, partially occupied complex of buildings and surrounding green space just south of the university, was first developed in 1867. OU’s plans for the site have been a continuous point of contention in Athens since the university first obtained the buildings in 1993. 

The school’s new development strategy for the complex could, if fully implemented, bring substantial investment to OU and Athens. It’s unclear, however, how widely the benefits would flow to the county, with some raising concerns about the impact of the project on historical preservation and ecological conservation. 


Here, we look at some of the major questions about the new development plan in advance of the town hall meetings.

OU’s first two two-hour town hall meetings will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 21. The meeting at 10 a.m. is targeted at the Ohio University community, while the meeting at noon will focus on the larger Athens community. A third and final town hall, planned for March 24, will be open to all. All meetings will be held at The Ridges Building 14, 2nd floor.

Who is involved?

The state granted Ohio University the complex of buildings that makes up The Ridges in 1993, when the institution then known as the Athens Mental Health Center closed and moved to a site near O’Bleness Hospital

OU’s current development partners are the Buckeye Hills Regional Council, a Marietta-based coalition of governments in southeast Ohio working on economic development and other issues, and Community Development Partners, a program of Praxia Partners, a Columbus-based nonprofit economic development consultancy.

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The Ridges Advisory Committee has existed in various forms since OU obtained the property, and is currently the official internal advisory body for OU overseeing this project.

From the presentation made to the Ohio University Board of Trustees

What does the plan hope to achieve?

The shortage of quality housing in Athens County, at both low-income and market rates, is a perennial problem. The over 700 units of new housing proposed in the strategy include housing set aside for seniors (with the most dedicated units, at 102 total), creative and artisan live-work units, affordable units for graduate students and market-rate units. 

In a presentation to Athens City Council in November 2022, Josh Recchie of Community Development Partners said that “affordable” for this project is defined as being targeted at people spending 30% of their income on rent and utilities if they make 60% or less of the area median income. He said that would translate into an average rent for the affordable one-bedroom senior apartments of $500 to $600, and said other affordable housing for artists may be priced higher. For condominiums, he said that portions of the buildings could be sub-developed into $100,000 to $130,000 units, which would be considered affordable. There would also be luxury condos priced at over $500,000.

That, along with set-aside commercial space in the complex, could  prompt further both public and private investment in Athens south of the Hocking River. The Ridges features heavily in plans for the Richland Avenue Corridor in the City of Athens’ current comprehensive city plan.

The proposal would also see the site transferred to a new governmental body, which may allow community members and local governments to have wider oversight of the complex. Community members have complained for decades that OU’s vision for the site hasn’t sufficiently included the community.

What community concerns exist?

The Ridges is currently home to a Land Lab, a biodiverse natural area used for study. While it was later removed, OU’s 2015 Ridges Framework Plan included the development of housing abutting the lab. In the 2022 presentation made to the OU board by the current development team, that area is simply marked as “a secondary site with an emphasis on conservation and recreation.” 

Former OU planner Pam Callahan, a member of the Ridges Advisory Committee, said in November after the development team’s presentation that she had concerns about the plan’s lack of specific conservation measures. She specifically noted that OU’s administration had pushed back against formally designating the complex’s well-loved trail system as a preserve. She declined to comment further to the Independent.

Those concerns were not specifically addressed in the presentation and project memo to trustees. On conservation, the memo simply reads, “Environmental conservation is a key asset to the Ridges, and where there is a consensus, we would pursue strategies to protect land at the Ridges, through tools such as a conservation easement and restrictive covenants.”

The complex holds particular architectural and historical significance, too. The large former asylum at the center of the complex, the Kirkbride Campus, was built after a particular 19th century design for asylums called the Kirkbride Plan

The design was intended to treat mental illness with “moral therapy,” including access to quality air, water and open space, as former OU counseling professor Katherine Ziff wrote in “Asylum on a Hill: History of a Healing Landscape.” The complex at The Ridges is one of just a few surviving examples of the plan. 

OU’s development proposal, however, doesn’t include a historical preservation plan. Indeed, the school’s 2016 campus development plan called for “a substantial new identity [for The Ridges] … needed to counteract past associations.”

This generally mirrors longtime community complaints that OU is largely interested in the complex as a money-making development site. Even the name of the site is viewed by some as an attempt to whitewash the complicated history of the asylum. 

Many of those complaints began due to the initial plans put forward when the university was first looking into acquiring the site including the development of a research park with reduced community access. This was interpreted by some as OU “sacrific[ing] a community’s finest resource for speculative development,” according to a letter written to the school’s board of trustees.

Over the years, some Athens County community members have accused the university of  neglecting historic buildings it owns. These include the Berry Hotel on Court Street, which was demolished before the asylum was transferred to OU; the ongoing demolition of Scott Quad; and the planned demolition of the Research and Technology Center.

In 2013, as the university began plans to demolish some buildings, the Ridges Advisory Committee — which was created by the law transferring the property but never consistently met for long periods of time — reconstituted itself. It began work on what would become the 2015 Ridges Framework Plan, the first such project since a 1989 land use survey, conducted with the purpose of developing the research park.

Portions of that plan were brought into the 2016 Comprehensive Master Plan for the entire campus, which envisioned the Ridges complex as “Ridges Green” and included “careful, selective demolition of accessory and non-contributing buildings.” It also featured some modest plans to expand OU’s use of the complex as well as limited use for housing, but included little information about grand mixed-use development plans.

In the ensuing years, OU undertook some $28 million in renovations, including some $16 million into the historic Kirkbride campus, according to a 2021 report in the Ohio Today alumni magazine.

Courtesy Ohio University

How is it being funded?

The funding plan put forward in The Ridges Development Strategy that was approved by trustees in January is a public-private model. The strategy consists of multiple development incentives, tax breaks, property transfers and unprecedented coordination around the site from OU, the City of Athens and Athens County.

The plan calls for the entire complex to be transferred to a yet-to-be-created governmental body called a New Community Authority. Created to undertake community development projects, NCAs have broad powers such as levying new charges within their service areas, signing agreements with public and private bodies, hiring employees and issuing bonds. 

Initially, OU, the city of Athens and development partners would control the NCA for The Ridges. Eventually, the statute calls for elections for citizen representatives on the board. Although OU would no longer have sole ownership of the site, OU associate vice president for planning Shawna Wolfe said at a November meeting of the Ridges Advisory Committee that the school restrict land use before transferring it to ensure future developments are in line with current goals.

The plans also call for the creation of two additional programs to provide development incentives — essential because the current proposal claims it would not burden OU, the City of Athens or Athens County with any further funding obligations. 

The plan would establish The Ridges as a Community Reinvestment Area. This would encourage developers and landowners to build or renovate buildings within the defined area by allowing the City of Athens to freeze property taxes developers would have to pay. 

As owner of the land and buildings, the NCA would then be able to improve properties without paying increased property taxes. Local governments would still benefit from the new plan through tax revenue, however, as property taxes have not previously been paid on any part of The Ridges due to its history of state ownership.

The other incentive program would make The Ridge into a Tax Increment Financing district. This would similarly freeze the amount of property taxes owed on the land — which go to public entities such as boards of education — at their value at the time the district is created. As property values go up over time, increased property tax revenues would be diverted to a fund that can be used for any community development purpose. 

These strategies, in particular TIF districts, are sometimes controversial. Critics have called TIF districts “slush funds” because there’s little control or oversight of how the money (which is diverted from other local bodies such as school districts) is spent by the body controlling the fund.

The development proposal mentions several other incentive programs developers would look to use.

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1 thought on “What to know about Ohio University’s plans for The Ridges”

  1. Pingback: In Central State Hospital demolition decision, ‘in-depth’ historic preservation study was a single phone call - SaportaReport

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