Atlanta’s asking advice on their big mixed-income redo at Civic Center

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.

A slide from the Atlanta Housing Authority shows the boundaries of the Civic Center site.

A slide from the Atlanta Housing Authority shows the boundaries of the Civic Center 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?

A few dozen people answered the city's invitation to give input on the Civic Center site, during a public meeting Wednesday at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Credit: Maggie Lee

A few dozen people answered the city’s invitation to give input on the Civic Center site, during a public meeting Wednesday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Credit: Maggie Lee

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.

Civic Center

The Atlanta Civic Center, finished in 1968. Credit: Kelly Jordan

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.”

What people at the meetings said should be the goals for the Civic Center site. Credit: Maggie Lee

What people at the meetings said should be the goals for the Civic Center site. Click and zoom for a large version. Credit: Maggie Lee

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.

 

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

3 replies
  1. George Perry says:

    Oh, come on. The civic center has never been, is not now, and never will be an architectural gem. It is, in a word, hideous. Comparisons to the Fox Theatre are ludicrous. I say that as someone who lives nearby and who has attended numerous events at the venue over the years. I personally can’t wait for it to be replaced by a mixed-use development.Report

    Reply
  2. Chris Johnston says:

    The highest and best use of the Civic Center has, is, and will be demolition. No matter how much expensive lipstick architects may put on this pig, it will remain a pig.Report

    Reply
  3. Frances Hamilton AIA LEED AP BD+C says:

    The Civic Center itself (not the old SciTrek building, tear that part down) was built in 1968 and exemplifies the architectural style and social outlook of the era. This is around the same time John Portman began building the Hyatt Regency (1967) a few blocks away, the first hotel to be built in Downtown since the 1920’s. Old Architectural styles take a while to be appreciated. They wanted to tear down all the old Art Deco buildings now comprising South Beach at one time, now everyone loves them. The craftsmanship and post-modern classic lines should be adaptive reused, not only for respect of the story of social change that architecture “freezes” and the design of the building represents, but to have the old brick straited ocher walls and classic lines of early post-modern architecture for “free” as well as saving the energy of demolition, hauling it away and then building something of the 2000’s that they will also want to tear down in 50-60 years.
    There are many architecture firms in Atlanta that could do beautiful things with the 1968 building- shops, theaters, classrooms, offices to add to the mixed use center Atlanta Housing is creating.Report

    Reply

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