Officials from Atlanta Public Schools and the Atlanta Preservation Center standing side-by-side, taking questions from the public about a chummy historic preservation plan, would have been unimaginable less than two years ago.
That’s when APS, out of the blue, announced a demolition of the highly historic Lakewood Elementary in Lakewood Heights. This is how things typically go in Atlanta: a powerful institution makes a secret decision imposed on a community; residents and advocates protest but are dismissed as naive idealists; and someone (never the planners) lives next door to a fait accompli.
A few things were different with Lakewood and APS’s larger process of surplus property disposal. Even another government entity — the Atlanta Department of City Planning — called foul on the historic destruction. The APC offered not only criticism but free grunt work for a historic preservation classification system led by intern Benjamin Schmidt. APS turned out to be one of those rare institutions genuinely willing to admit error and consider change with some inkling of adherence to its public-service mission.
The result is APS teaming with the City’s brand-new affordable housing organization on community-led, history-preserving remakes of several surplus properties. A historic significance inventory from APC is core to the process’s decision-making.
Thus came that unusual moment on Nov. 2, when APS entered the lion’s den of the APC to explain the new property process and its focus on preservation and affordable housing. Leading the conversation was Daniel Drake, APS’s senior executive director of Facilities Services, with commentary by Schmidt and APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell.
A packed house at the L.P. Grant mansion in Grant Park — APC’s historic headquarters — had plenty of questions about speeding up or refining the process. Such questions reflected how much trust-repairing APS rightfully has to do. Of course, the proof will be in the preservation and how much it serves the people who need the facilities the most. But they also demonstrated the significance of having a mostly public process in place as leverage on specific site ideas.
“This is the beginning of our discussion,” said Drake of the nuances that could emerge beyond the initial “simplistic” categories of “surplus” properties up for long-term redevelopment and “hold” properties that might find a use sooner.
Drake offered more than just promises. He also provided new information — including that APS is considering the pursuit of a National Register of Historic Places listing for a Buckhead property and that APC’s inventory is “making us pause” on demolition plans for two “hold” properties.
“This program is of national significance in many ways,” Mitchell told the crowd, adding that he has sent a summary to preservationists in New Orleans and Baltimore. He noted how unusual it was to have an Atlanta government agency aligned with preservationists, saying, “And if that don’t get you excited, I don’t know what the hell will.”
There’s a process approved by the Atlanta Board of Education in recent retreats. But Mitchell emphasized that, from the preservation perspective, the core ideas are communication and evolution of its details, not “draconian” rules.
Noting the process’s origin in the Lakewood Elementary surprise demolition proposal last year, Mitchell noted how conflict can “bring out the best in people” and create a “reset.”
Drake credited the controversy with inspiring APS’s rethink. He admitted that APS didn’t even know the school building was a contributing structure to a local National Register district when it proposed the demolition.
He also noted that APS has a history of doing better, with such award-winning adaptive reuse projects as the recent David T. Howard Middle School renovation. Among the attendees was Stan Sugarman, the developer who led an influential affordable-housing-oriented remake of the former Adair Elementary into Academy Lofts.
Lakewood is now pegged as among the first of eight surplus properties up for affordable-housing-oriented, mixed-use redevelopment, with APS retaining a long-term ground lease. APS previously spoke of various governmental development authorities, including but not limited to the new Atlanta Urban Development Corporation (AUDC), as redevelopment partners. Drake indicated that AUDC is intended to be the main partner on all of them.
He said APS is working with AUDC on a partnership agreement, which had been in negotiations for 60 days and could take around another 60 days. The idea is for AUDC to lead a redevelopment process and seek other developers for a team. Drake said it is possible the final process will involve a “request for qualifications” from developers rather than a “request for proposals” because “AUDC keeps telling us they’re not looking for a project; they’re looking for a partner.”
One surplus property APS intends to dispose of by direct sale is the Lodge or Little White House in Buckhead, an unusual house-like structure next to E. Rivers Elementary that has a deed restriction limiting it to park, museum, monumental or educational uses. The Buckhead Heritage Society, which appears to have an interest in buying the property, had some members in attendance. Drake added that APS is considering a proactive move for the Lodge, which is quite different from its overlooking of Lakewood’s significance, saying, “We’re considering National Register listing for this property.”
The former Carey Elementary in Carey Park is on a list of properties APS previously said could involve transfer to some kind of government entity. Drake clarified that the Atlanta Housing Authority is interested in Carey specifically for its redevelopment of the former Bowen Homes public housing. The former A.D. Williams Elementary nearby is on the “hold” list in the expectation a new school will be needed there due to the redevelopment, Drake said.
Drake said APC’s historical research is affecting APS’s thinking on a couple of other “hold” properties. The future of the former Anderson Park and Venetian Hills elementary schools is “undecided” rather than going right to demolition. “APC analysis is making us pause on those properties,” Drake said.
APC has especially pressed for the significance of Venetian Hills, highlighting that among its alumni is Natasha Tretheway, the former U.S. poet laureate and 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, whose first “book” was a bound compilation of her writing created by a third-grade teacher and placed in the school library. Drake’s presentation also noted that the school dates to a period after the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a system APS at the time fought to maintain.
The Civil Rights element of the school’s history drew the notice of attendee Erika Brayboy Collier, a consultant working as an archivist for APS, after what she said was her successful advocacy for the district to publicly celebrate its 150th anniversary. Collier, who very recently established a nonprofit called the Atlanta Humanities Society, suggested such history should have been central to the APC’s rubric and pressed on getting a role in “revising” its methodology.
“You’re signed up,” replied Mitchell, emphasizing the inclusiveness of the process, though also that the process is indeed in place now and informing future plans.
Rev. Winston Taylor, who worked with APC on the preservation and reactivation of the former St. Mark AME Church on English Avenue, expressed concern that APS’s process is more passive than proactive in responding to redevelopment pressures. He raised equity concerns about that. He also expressed concern about the future of shuttered APS buildings while redevelopment deals are hatched. “Designation is not preservation. Activation is preservation,” he said.
Mitchell said that’s true and one reason Lakewood Elementary is the first building in line.
Lakewood Heights is one of the places where APS trust is lowest and concern is high. That’s because local developer Omar Ali has a longstanding concept for the school property. He and some community leaders are expressing concern about whether the affordability and preservation components will match or slow their vision to the point of infeasibility.
Ali was in attendance at the meeting, where he focused his comments on his own preservation-oriented intentions. He noted that at an adjacent historic property, he had already redeveloped, the Ali at Lakewood, “we made a conscious effort to save the building” and forgo a more lucrative manufacturing tenant for community-oriented uses.
That kind of intent is important to preservation-minded redevelopment. Mitchell said that Atlanta and U.S. culture have an “addiction” to the concept of property ownership minus a definition that includes “stewardship” for the public good. Dealing with APS on such issues, he said, requires trust, and “we’re trying to rebuild it.”
Laura Dobson, a Buckhead preservationist, said of the process that “at least there’s something to begin from.” She contrasted it with the current controversy over the private Galloway School’s proposal to demolish its historic main building.
Dobson was among attendees who suggested tighter legal protections could be important to better stewardship. Ian Michael Rogers, interim executive director of the nonprofit Easements Atlanta, noted his group holds preservation easements on several former APS properties that protect them in perpetuity. He said Easements Atlanta “would be really to have these conversations” on the surplus properties.
Of course, trust-building goes both ways. “Atlanta Public Schools has to become more comfortable with the risks that come with some of that” and having those conversations, Drake said.
“We can not emphasize enough the importance of the Atlanta Public Schools having the courage to represent APS students past, present and for the future by finding ways for their schools to be visible contributions to their communities and neighborhoods,” said Mitchell after the meeting. “It is a big deal!”