By Maggie Lee
Atlanta plans to rebuild 19 acres at the Civic Center as a mixed-use, mixed income-development. Some folks who came to a city meeting about it are saying they’re looking for walkability, connections to the rest of the city, and preserving the buildings that are on the site.
Several dozen people people turned out for a Thursday night meeting hosted by the Atlanta Housing Authority, though as many as half wore name tags or badges identifying them as city or contractor staff.
The AHA’s plan has been for a mixed-use development, to include a grocery store. Some 30 percent of units are to be set aside as “affordable:” priced so that people who make less than median wages can afford to live there without spending too much of their income.
The AHA has owned the Civic Center site since November, when the city closed on a deal to sell it to the agency for $31 million.
And now AHA is doing public outreach, asking folks what they want to see on the site.
Zelda Jackson lives Downtown. She said she was hoping for an entertainment district, something with round-the-clock life, though she acknowledged that’s not the city’s plan.
She said the community “would like it to be walkable, bikeable …[with] connectivity to MARTA and the BeltLine.”
And Jackson said she’d like to see green things like rooftop gardens and solar panels.
But she also wants to know if the developer will be a good neighbor when work starts — will they reach out about road closures, and timing noisy work; will they control erosion?
And she mentioned one more problem that can spread through a neighborhood if a lifeless building like the old SciTrek gets disturbed.
“Rodents … pests,” she said. She wants the developer to make sure rats and roaches don’t move into neighboring blocks.
One of the ways planners get input is with large posters picturing all kinds of generic concepts from “retail plaza” to “biomass energy generation” and more. Folks make their opinions known by sticking green and red stickers on the posters for “yes” and “no.”
Matt Weisenburg was considering one of the posters at the meeting. He’s the president of Fourth Ward West, a neighborhood association. He said the redo is something folks are watching closely. He said there’s a feeling of cautious optimism, but there are also some concerns.
He’s hearing that people don’t want to see an “inward-facing” development, something that’s not well-connected to the rest of the city. He also said there are people who say they don’t want to see a high concentration of low-income housing in a part of the city that they say has a lot of affordable housing already. But that’s not universal — he said he himself doesn’t share that concern.
Planners asked people to write down their goals for the sites too and stick those comments to posters. Some of the answers included sustainability, connectivity, mixed-income housing, vibrant parks, getting retail, improving aesthetics and preserving the existing buildings.
But the last concern Weisenburg named? Some people are “concerned it might not get done.”
Doing nothing would leave everybody with a status quo that seems unsatisfying for such a large piece of land on the doorstep of both Downtown and Midtown: Lots and lots of parking that’s mostly unused, a mothballed museum and a Civic Center that’s seen better days. There’s daily life at the tree-lined campus of the sustainability nonprofit Southface, but it’s just a small portion of the site.
Which brings up the question of what to do with the buildings that are there already. Charles Lawrence chairs Historic Atlanta, a nonprofit that advocates for preservation and appropriate reuse of the city’s built environment.
He said he’s encouraged that AHA is engaging with the public early in planning and that Atlanta’s City Design Studio is part of the team.
Lawrence did say he’s concerned about getting recognition for the resources that are there — the Civic Center, the former SciTrek Museum and Southface.
But he thinks both AHA and preservationists can get a win, by designing the site “in a way that incorporates the existing buildings, but provides the affordable housing and the retail and the office space that the housing authority is looking for.”
The Civic Center, which opened in 1968, doesn’t get a lot of love — or bookings, for that matter.
But stop me if you’ve heard this one: Imagine a 50-year-old performance space in the heart of Atlanta that that some folks say is not worth keeping. But a few preservationists start to rally around it, say it’s beautiful, and that future Atlantans will be baffled if today’s Atlanta knocks it down and sends it to a landfill.
It could be the story of the Fox Theater. That Midtown landmark wasn’t even 50 years old when the “Save the Fox” campaign began in 1974.
Or, maybe, it could be the story of the Civic Center.