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APS to ‘pause’ controversial plan to demolish historic Lakewood Heights school building

The former Lakewood Elementary School at 335 Sawtell Ave. in a photograph from the Lakewood Heights Historic District filing on the National Register of Historic Places. The filing was submitted in 2002.

By John Ruch

Atlanta Public Schools will “pause” its plan to demolish the historic former Lakewood Elementary School following opposition from preservationists and City planners who called it “shameful.”

“APS has decided to pause this project,” wrote a district-hired engineer in a Jan. 9 email to the City’s Historic Preservation Studio, asking for the demolition proposal to be removed from the Jan. 12 agenda of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission (AUDC). The email came less than two days after SaportaReport revealed the negative reaction to the plan.

“The district will take this time to further evaluate the property in an effort to make the most appropriate determination of its future while continuing to take into consideration the interests of the community,” said APS spokesperson Seth Coleman.

Shuttered since 2004, the school building at 335 Sawtell Ave. in Lakewood Heights dates to 1932 and may have older elements. Originally known as the Lakewood Heights School, it is listed as a major contributing structure to the Lakewood Heights Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

APS proposed demolishing the school and replacing it with a vacant, grass-covered lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. City planners and the nonprofit Atlanta Preservation Center said the building is capable of many forms of reuse, such as apartments or another school. A City staff memo prepared for the Jan. 12 AUDC hearing called the demolition plan “shameful if not irresponsible.”

The pause is a big change from around six weeks ago when APS was seeking to speed up the demolition plan. On Nov. 30, Dietrich Bankhead from KHAFRA, APS’s contractor on the project, sent an email to the City Office of Design asking for it to be moved up on the AUDC agenda. “As you can imagine, they want to get this project started as soon as they can,” Bankhead wrote.

Doug Young, assistant director of the Historic Preservation Studio in the Office of Design, replied the same day by peppering Bankhead with questions about the urgency, rationale and community input of the plan.

Troy Nunnally, chairperson of Neighborhood Planning Unit Y, says the community has long been concerned about the “blighted” condition of the building — but does not want it demolished and did not know about APS’s plan to do so.

Last year, Nunnally said, community leaders had several discussions about the building’s status with Atlanta Board of Education members and APS officials, including Superintendent Lisa Herring. He said “we were unaware of the demolition application and we were surprised by the submission without community input,” but noted that APS has quickly pulled the proposal.

“The NPU-Y currently wants the former Lakewood Heights [School] to be habitable and used (as soon as possible) rather than blighted or vacant,” Nunnally said in an email. “If demolished, we fear the location will be a fenced vacant lot, which could breed more illegal dumping in the area. Furthermore, it could remain as a vacant lot for years. One suggestion from the community is to use the adaptive reuse approach as the formerly abandoned Adair Park school by converting the school into a multi-use residential/business location. We are currently working with APS and the community to recommend the best approach.”

Update: This story has been updated with comment from APS and NPU-Y.

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