By Maria Saporta
This story has been updated to include a quote from a representative of the Midtown Neighbors Association.
The Georgia Tech Foundation won a major victory this week in its quest to demolish most of the historic Crum & Forster building at 771 Spring St. in Midtown.
A report from a three-person Economic Review Panel for the Atlanta Urban Design Commission submitted June 21 agreed with just about every point made by the attorneys of the Georgia Tech Foundation.
“Based on our review, the Economic Review Panel is in unanimous agreement that a reasonable economic return cannot be achieved under any methodology that involves renovating the existing structure and that the applicant’s suggested approach to saving the façade and a small component of the structure as part of a new development is both gracious and fair given the current real estate environment,” wrote John D. Shelsinger, one of the three members of the panel.
The other two members of the panel were Tom Aderhold, who had been selected by the Georgia Tech Foundation, and Scott Taylor, president of the Carter real estate firm, who was selected by the Urban Design Commission.
Under the commission’s rules, the findings of the panel must be accepted unless preservationists can convince at least three-fourths of UDC members that the panel came to the wrong conclusion and reject the report.
If the panel’s report stands, the Georgia Tech Foundation likely could go ahead with its plans to demolish two-thirds of the Crum & Forster building. Georgia Tech has announced plans to build a major development on the balance of the block, and the university had stated it could not build its project and keep the entire historic building.
“While I certainly respect the hard work of the AUDC members and their panel, it is nonetheless a disappointment to hear their findings on the Crum and Forster building,” Tony Rizzuto, chair of the Midtown Neighbors Association’s land-use committee, wrote in an email.
“Atlanta has over the years lost far too much of its historic capital to the wrecking ball — always with the decree that such buildings are too expensive or difficult to preserve or renovate,” Rizzuto continued. “Yet, across America and throughout the world, cities work to preserve their architectural heritage and do so successfully. One has to ask why is it economically feasible in cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C to engage in adaptive reuse and not here. This only begs the question of what criteria the City of Atlanta and its developer class use in making thier determination that buildings over 60 years old have no redeemable value.”
A passionate effort to save the Crum & Forster building has been underway since 2008, when the Georgia Tech Foundation applied for a demolition permit. The city gave the building landmark status and denied Tech’s demolition permit. In turn, Georgia Tech filed several lawsuits against the city. Those lawsuits are still pending.
The Crum & Forster building is an elegant three-story building with a Renaissance facade with columns and arches. It 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.
Those ties to Georgia Tech’s past have not swayed the foundation’s desire to tear down most of the building — which has stood at the corner of Spring Street and Armstead Place for 85 years.
The Economic Review Panel’s report not only supported Georgia Tech’s position that it did not make economic sense to restore the entire building. It also went out of its way to praise Georgia Tech’s contributions to the city.
“Applicant has a history of historic preservation where appropriate so the Economic Review Board felt that a great deal of thought and planning went into the decision,” the letter stated. It also added: “The proposed development will benefit the city and be an extension of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
The Urban Design Commission is scheduled to meet on June 27, when it normally would received the panel’s report. But not all members of the panel will be able to attend the meeting, so there has been a request to defer the application to a future UDC meeting when all the panel members can be present. As of now, no such date has been set.