By Maria Saporta
New concerns exist on the fate of the historic Crum & Forster building — which recently had seemed safe from the demolition ball.
Preservationists and neighborhood leaders are sounding an alarm that a deal could be in the works to remove the “landmark” protection status of the building at 771 Spring St. in Midtown.
“My concern is that the landmark status of the building has not been finalized,” said Anthony Rizzuto, land-use committee chair for the Midtown Neighbors Association.
“The concern that I would have is that a deal might be struck that would not honor the position of the community, which is to preserve the entire building.”
Georgia Tech apparently has solidified plans for what it would like to see on the block — a High Performing Computing Center, which would take advantage of a major fiber optics trunk line that travels underneath West Peachtree Street.
Now there’s a growing concern that Georgia Tech has not given up its desire to demolish the entire building, with the possible exception of just keeping the architectural facade.
Update: Georgia Tech did provide further elaboration of its plan after this column appeared. Click here to read Georgia Tech’s response.
The saga to save the Crum & Forster building began in 2008 when the Georgia Tech Foundation applied for a demolition permit for the building that it had recently acquired.
That caused a firestorm of protest with thousands of people signing petitions and appealing to the City of Atlanta to take any action possible to protect the building and save it from being demolished.
The Crum & Forster building, an elegant three-story building with a Renaissance facade with columns and arches, was designed in 1926 and opened in 1928 as a regional office for a national insurance firm.
The building was designed by a team of New York and Atlanta architects — Ed Ivey and Lewis Crook, both Georgia Tech graduates. As a Tech student, Ivey actually had led the effort to start an architectural program at the engineering school in 1908.
City leaders, including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and the Atlanta City Council, were able to get the building designated as a “landmark.” That gave the city the ability to deny the Georgia Tech Foundation a demolition permit.
The foundation, however, has been appealing the city’s actions — and the lawsuits are still in the courts.
“The appeal of the landmark zoning is still active,” said Lisa Ray Grovenstein, a Georgia Tech spokeswoman, wrote in an email over the weekend. “Since the matter is still in litigation, there are not any additional details that we can share.”
Earlier this year, it appeared that the Crum & Forster building would be spared. Georgia Tech acquired a SunTrust bank branch on the same block. “Now that we have obtained the SunTrust property, we are in the process of pursuing a mutually agreeable resolution to the future of the Crum & Forster building,” John Carter, president of the Georgia Tech Foundation, said at the time.
But Georgia Tech has not dropped its legal challenges against the city. If the foundation no longer had any desire to demolish the Crum & Forster building, why would it continue to legally challenge the building’s landmark status? Removing the landmark status would reopen the door for the foundation to reapply for a demolition permit.
Word has it that the foundation recently has been meeting with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to reach an out-of-court settlement on the Crum & Forster building.
City spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs Dade did not respond to several requests for information about whether the mayor and the city are negotiating an out-of-court settlement.
(If SaportaReport gets any more information from either the city, the mayor or Georgia Tech, we will be sure to share it with you).
But what is known is that Reed does not like having active litigation against the city, and he has negotiated several out-of-court settlements in high profile cases.
“My understanding is that there is a lawsuit pending that the parties are in settlement talks,” said Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. “The Georgia Trust is hopeful that a resolution will be reached that will result in saving the Crum & Forster building for future generations.
McDonald said that it often is wise to settle a lawsuit out-of-court because “you can know the outcome,” while one can never be sure what will happen in a courtroom.
At one time, representatives of the Georgia Tech Foundation did visit with McDonald to see if it would be possible to receive a historic facade easement for the Crum & Forster building. An easement would protect the facade in perpetuity, but it would be up to an agreement with the landowner on whether the protection would extend to the rest of the building.
“The Georgia Trust is quite willing to work with Georgia Tech to provide a facade easement as long as the Crum & Forster building is preserved,” McDonald said.
Part of the debate on the future of the Crum & Forster building certainly will focus on Georgia Tech’s ability to redevelop the site and incorporate it has part of its Technology Square development at Fifth Street along West Peachtree and Spring streets.
Kevin Green, president of the Midtown Alliance, said Georgia Tech’s “favored site” for the High Performance Computing Center — proposed to be a 24-story, 680,000 square foot public-private development that currently is part of a concept plan.
According to the Georgia Tech website, the High Performance Computing Center would “enhance Georgia Tech’s position as a thought leader in development and use of technologies to solve the grandest scientific and engineering challenges of the 21st Century,” and it would “drive anticipatory innovations in High Performance Computing to best serve a diverse research community by converging industry, research and educational leadership in a dynamic, world-class environment.”
The website provides a schedule that the center development would be designed in 2012 with a ground-breaking in 2013 with an anticipated opening in 2015.
Midtown’s Rizzuto said he supports Georgia Tech’s research and development ambitions. But he believes any development should incorporate the Crum & Forster building.
“The building is in good condition, and there could be adaptive reuse,” Rizzuto said. “It can be connected to another building without having to demolish it. There are creative ways to do this.”
No matter what, the revived preservation community will not back down from a fight to make sure the building is saved.
The Midtown Neighbors Association and the Midtown community are committed to the preservation of the Crum & Forster building and will continue to monitor the case for its landmark status,” Rizzuto said. “I see the Crum & Forster as a landmark event in Atlanta’s preservation history as it marked a watershed moment where the broader metro community came out in support of an historic structure similar to when the Fox Theatre was threatened.”
Then Rizzuto added: “I sense a growing and lasting commitment to the preservation of our architectural and cultural heritage within the Atlanta community.”
Let’s hope that’s true.