By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on October 5, 2012
After more than four years of a protracted preservation battle, the fate of a historic Midtown building is in question.
The battle has pitted the preservation community and the neighborhood against the Georgia Tech Foundation, which has been seeking a demolition permit for the 84-year-old Crum & Forster building at 771 Spring St. since May 2008.
Now a decision by the City of Atlanta to enter into a consent order with the Georgia Tech Foundation rather than go to trial has created even greater confusion.
Preservationists are openly questioning whether city officials have decided to side with the Georgia Tech Foundation to avoid going to court while others argue that the consent order actually could increase the building’s chances of being preserved, at least in part.
The situation is quite complex because there have been a variety of actions and landmark designations by city departments, agencies and the Atlanta City Council — all leading to the rejection of the Foundation’s attempts to demolish all or some of the building.
In return, the Foundation has filed legal actions against the city, and it has continued to argue for its rights to demolish some or all of the historic building.
It is the most contentious fight that Georgia Tech has experienced in Midtown since it decided to locate portions of its campus on the east side of the Downtown Connector.
Up until this volatile dispute, the community has embraced Georgia Tech’s Tech Square development along Fifth Street between Spring and West Peachtree streets. The university has won several awards for creating a pedestrian-oriented environment with multi-use, mid-rise buildings for students, visitors and residents alike.
But when the Georgia Tech Foundation proposed tearing down the Crum & Forster building, a fountain of protest, petitions and advocacy alerts followed.
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.
The preservation community has argued that Georgia Tech should want to preserve the building for its own history rather than try to tear it down — either in part or in totality.
But the Georgia Tech Foundation has not swayed from its position that it needs to demolish at least two-thirds of the building so it can build a state-of-the-art High Performance Computing Center on the block. (Click here to learn more about the project).
Duriya Farooqui, chief operating officer for the City of Atlanta, said Georgia Tech is competing with other cities for a $100 million investment in the computing center.
“It would deliver a huge competitive advantage to the university that competes for students as well as a city that competes for innovators and new businesses,” she said. “The goal is one that we support, but it is the proposed historic location and design that continues to pose challenges for the city and Georgia Tech.”
Farooqui said the consent order “leaves open the conversation on what future steps could be taken,” and it “preserves the opportunity to continue the dialogue and get to a resolution that addresses the needs of the stakeholders — Georgia Tech, the preservationists, the community.”
She also said that the move also improves the building’s chances.
“The Georgia Tech Foundation has always had the option to transfer the property and building to the board of Georgia Tech, which would have the ability to completely demolish the building,” Farooqui said.
“We would certainly like to see a resolution to this quandary that resolves the economic development opportunity and does not leave a vacant building in the heart of the city and the center of one of the leading technology universities in the world.”
In August, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission voted unanimously against giving the Georgia Tech Foundation a green light to tear down two-thirds of building for the new computing center. The board, which reviews demolition requests, stated that there were economically feasible alternatives to develop the block while keeping the entire building.
Farooqui said the consent order “does not address the decision by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission or the current historic designation of the building.”
But the preservation community and neighborhood leaders were caught by surprise on Sept. 24 when they found out that instead of a trial, there was an agreement between the Georgia Tech Foundation and the City of Atlanta’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), which initially denied a special administrative permit (SAP) permitting Georgia Tech to demolish the building.
The consent order, signed by Fulton County Superior Court Judge John Goger, stated that “the parties have agreed that, in context of settlement and in consideration of the terms of this Order, the denial of the SAP should be remanded to the BZA.”
John Carter, president of the Georgia Tech Foundation, was asked in an email about how the consent order would impact the university’s plans and whether the intention was to tear down all or two-thirds of the building.
“Our attorney advised that it would not be appropriate to comment on the 771 Spring Street property at this time,” Carter responded in an email.
Anthony Rizzuto, chairman of the Midtown Neighbors Association’s land-use committee, called the city’s willingness to sign a consent order “very troubling,” adding that it “demonstrates wanton disrespect not only for preservation, but also for its institutions, zoning ordinances and citizens.”
He went on to say that the city’s residents should concerned about “a backroom closed door agreement.”
Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, does not yet know the full implications of the consent order, but he restated that the entire building should be saved.
“The whole building is a landmark, and we will try to do our best to defend this building,” Coons said. “Coons said. “We think it’s possible, depending on the way this is interpreted, that they could demolish the entire building. We have very capable people looking into what our options are.”