One of Athens’ most historic sites continues to evolve as Ohio University seeks to repurpose some buildings at The Ridges for community use as part of its divestment strategy.
The real estate portfolio reduction plan, first put forward in April, was approved at the OU Board of Trustees’ October meeting. It aims to offset over $20 million in deferred maintenance and reduce annual costs by minimizing unused space.
Parts of the historic Athens Asylum, now called The Ridges, are included in the 21 spaces the Board approved for lease or sale. Shawna Wolfe, associate vice president for University Planning, said inclusion was part of a long process informed by the 2015 Ridges Framework Plan, which outlined potential for university use and development in the area.
The Ridges was constructed in 1868 and operated as a state mental health institution until its closure in 1993 as a result of changing attitudes toward institutionalization for mental health treatment. OU took control of the property in the 1990s, when the state transferred ownership to the university, seeing potential for both its preservation and use to further the school’s academic mission.
“We and our community saw this as a tremendous resource, and there were lots of advocates for various ideas here but, in the end, the state felt that we had the resources to take care of this as well as ideas that would help us programmatically grow,” Wolfe said.
When The Ridges was transferred to OU, the state set up the Ridges Advisory Committee to oversee the university’s use of the land and whether it aligned with strategic goals. The committee continues to oversee project action.
A report commissioned by the university in 1989 outlined plans to rehabilitate and repurpose the space. Total projected costs to renovate at the time totaled close to $30 million, which the report noted would not exceed the cost to construct the same amount of usable space.
One need the university sought to utilize The Ridges for was a designated research space.
Today, the location houses the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service and the Kennedy Museum of Art, among others.
Wolfe indicated during the Board’s presentation that the university plans to continue its investment into facilities at The Ridges that it has rehabilitated for its own use. However, there are currently unoccupied spaces the university hopes can be repurposed for community use.
Throughout the planning process, OU sought to obtain community input regarding the use of space and significance, inviting residents to serve on official project committees, attend Ridges Advisory Committee meetings and public workshops and provide feedback via a project email account.
Community input was two-fold, Wolfe said. One role included providing insight into which parts of The Ridges were most significant to community members. The second was offering ideas for the vision of further development and improvements.
Many community members attributed the lush scenery, beautiful architecture and setting and centuries-long presence in the community as some of the unique and important characteristics of The Ridges. Recommended potential uses ranged widely, including ideas such as increased natural development and trails, building an observatory, providing spaces for businesses, event venues and many more.
While no use is currently set for all of the buildings, Wolfe indicated the university has a strong vision for including senior and affordable housing in multiple buildings.
The university is currently working with Buckeye Hills Regional Council and Community Building Partners to identify recommendations for external development. The final report will be available in March 2022, guiding the university’s actions going forward.
“We're trying everything we can do to ensure that we're doing the right things here and attract partners to help us save it, essentially,” Wolfe said. “We love it, we're passionate about it and we're excited about anybody who's trying to help us.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the university is working with Brailsford and Dunlavey to identify recommendations for external development, when it should’ve said it’s working with Buckeye Hills Regional Council and Community Building Partners. This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.