Puppetry Arts expansion exposes cost of poor urban design in Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

It’s hard to believe, but the expansion of the Center for Puppetry Arts is even worse than I had feared 18 months ago.

That’s when I attended the unveiling of the expansion plans at the Center’s home – the former Spring Street Elementary School. When I saw the plans, I literally cried.

How could so many people who were involved with this affront to our urban environment allow it to become a reality?

As a civic journalist, I had hoped that once I had written a column about the travesty that was about to occur, then the decision-makers would scrap the project and start over.

But alas we now are seeing the consequences of living in a city that ignores (or fails to demand) quality urban design.

We can talk a good game – especially in Midtown – one of the few areas of our city that has benefitted from a community-driven planning process – Blueprint Midtown.

Center for Puppetry Arts

Center for Puppetry Arts’ new expansion now under construction (Photos by Maria Saporta)

And yet all that enlightened planning failed to stop what could end up being the worst example of urban architecture in our city.

I’m going to let the pictures tell the story.

But before I do, let me remind readers of the kind of urban environment we say we want in our city’s heart.

We want a more pedestrian-oriented streetscape.

We want our buildings to have street-level activities that encourage people to enjoy our city while on foot.

We want our urban areas to be interspersed with green spaces featuring our majestic trees.

We want to reduce the number of surface parking lots that drain the life from our communities.

And we want to preserve and respect our city’s historic structures  – buildings that give us some perspective of our past while contributing to our modern-day urban fabric.

Sadly, the expansion of the Center for Puppetry Arts violates every one of those accepted principles.

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How the front lawn used to look – in January 2014 – before the expansion removed the green space and trees in front of the school

The expansion is a long, windowless Soviet-style building that caused the removal of several trees as well as the patch of green along the sidewalk. The building acts like a curtain hiding the attractive yellow-brick school that played a unique role in Atlanta’s history. And all that occurred because the Center did not want to remove any spaces on the sprawling surface parking lots located in the back and side of the school.

What is most amazing about this project is how many people had to go along with all these unfortunate decisions.

First, the board and executive team of the Center for Puppetry Arts had to approve the expansion’s design. So did the donors. The selected architects had to conceptualize and present plans for the expansion.

(Surprisingly, the Center’s leadership actually rejected a far more sensitive design presented by the Freelon architectural firm – the designer of the Center for Civil and Human Rights).

Then the Midtown Development Review Committee – an entity that operates under the authority of the City of Atlanta – had to approve the project.

As a public cultural amenity, the Center for Puppetry Arts, ideally would have had to go before the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. But, for a number of reasons, the commission has been unable to live up to its name and mission – to review the urban design of our developments.

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The front lawn of Spring Street School as it stands today with the Center for Puppetry Arts expansion

And lastly, the city arborist had to approve of the cutting down of mature trees on the property. All these people in power obviously had to agree to the elimination of the welcome swath of green space that used to be part of Spring Street’s front lawn.

Because no one in a decision-making role sounded an alarm, we are going to have to live with this atrocity for many years to come.

For those of us who long for a lively, attractive, people-oriented city that we can enjoy while walking, we now are left our memories as well as a vision of what could have been,

Maybe our best hope is that in 20 years, we’ll choose to tear down this expansion – in much the same way we demolish our 20-year-old sports facilities.

That moment can’t come soon enough.

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Expansion hides attractive Spring Street School from the public realm

puppetry arts expansion

Expansion hides the former Spring Street Elementary School

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Expansion preserved Center’s surface parking lots

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Center makes preserving puppets and parking spaces its priority

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Pedestrian walk signal shines above “Sidewalk Closed” sign

Freelon design

Freelon’s conceptual design would have located expansion along 17th Street on one of the Center’s parking lots. It would have kept a Spring Street vista of the school as well as the green space (Special: Freelon)

Freelon design

Another view – this one from the street level – of Freelon’s proposed concept for the Center’s expansion from the corner of 17th and Spring streets (Special: Freelon)

New South's photo of the expansion under construction (Special: New South Construction)

New South’s photo of the expansion under construction (Special: New South Construction)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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