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Guest Column

Auburn Avenue community stands ready to help developer renovate historic buildings

By Guest Columnist MATTHEW GARBETT, president of Fourth Ward Neighbors

In 1976, Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic District. Yet the buildings came down.

By 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized Sweet Auburn as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America. And the buildings still came down.

Matthew Garbett

Whether by nature, neglect, intent or even automobile accident, and despite a series of “catalyzing” events – the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site, Renaissance Walk, the expansion of Georgia State University – Sweet Auburn has continued to decline; pieces of our history continue to be lost.

Perhaps, ironically, the proposed demolition of the Atlanta Daily World will serve as that catalyst to reverse the decline and restore Auburn Avenue to her former glory. It has galvanized a group of individuals and organizations dedicated to the redevelopment of Auburn Avenue.

For those who believe that this coalition exists merely to speak out against this demolition, let me allay your concerns.

Since 1979, the Atlanta Preservation Center has advocated on behalf of our shared history. Earlier this year, I met with APC Executive Director Boyd Coons to discuss the preservation and repurposing of the threatened Herndon Office Buildings.

Since 1980, the Historic District Development Corporation has been actively involved in the district, renovating over 110 buildings. Jesse Clark, the current HDDC executive director, wrote his Georgia Tech Master’s Thesis on the revitalization of Sweet Auburn. Just last month, HDDC led a clean up of and awareness for the Herndon Life Insurance Building.

Buildings in red on the north and south sides of Auburn Avenue have been demolished since 1979 ((Courtesy of Kyle Kessler and Matthew Jones)

J.P. Michalik and Pamela Hines-Moss, both representatives of the 4th & SAND (Sweet Auburn Neighborhood District) area; and I collaborated closely with the city on the redevelopment of Selena Butler Park as part of Sweet Auburn’s revitalization following the tornado of 2008. The list goes one.

The list goes one. Each individual and organization with an interest in history is working towards the improvement of Auburn Avenue.

In the past, our collaborations have produced great, but insufficient, results to restore Sweet Auburn. Now, our commitment to work together towards the following has been renewed:

1. The future of Auburn Avenue depends on a recognition and preservation of its past.

Auburn Avenue has played a singular role in Atlanta and the world’s history. Here is where the civil rights movement shaped the course of human events in America and around the world.

We have a moral obligation to preserve the history that remains. But this moral obligation also holds economic promise. Over 600,000 visitors descend upon the MLK Historic Site each year. Only a fragment of them venture west past Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Through the restoration and activation of significant historic sites along Auburn, we can create the impetus for pedestrian traffic to explore the totality of the district.

2. The future of Auburn Avenue depends on a recognition of its unique character.

Despite the hardships, Auburn Avenue retains a distinct and unique sense of place in Atlanta. Like all great neighborhoods, one is acutely aware that they are in Sweet Auburn, and not Downtown or Inman Park. Retaining and honoring that sense of place will be crucial for future economic development.

As Mtaminika Youngblood, HDDC’s former executive director, pointed out: “Renaissance Walk didn’t fail because the economy tanked. It failed because people who want to live in that type building don’t want to live in Sweet Auburn, and people who want to live in Sweet Auburn don’t want to live in that type of building.”

The market exists for development along Auburn Avenue, as evidenced by the explosive growth along Edgewood one block to the South.

3. Zoning and redevelopment ordnances must be re-examined to determine which help and which hinder redevelopment.

Too often, competing zoning and building regulations hinder development rather than enhance it. A careful re-examination of these regulations as they pertain to Sweet Auburn is already in the planning stages with participation from the neighborhoods, preservationists, and developers, to facilitate growth in the district.

4. Funds available for the redevelopment of Auburn Avenue must be increased and made readily available to developers.

For most of the last several decades, more money has been spent on the demolition of old buildings and on the construction of new than on preservation on Auburn Avenue. Yet funding does exist.

Our group will actively seek to expand the sources of funding from local, state and federal governments to help developers put together financing to operate on Auburn Avenue.

The Integral Group’s demolition application was rejected partially by the Economic Review Panel for not exploring these sources of funding. We will work to ensure that these sources are more openly available.

For decades, Sweet Auburn has suffered at the hands of abandonment and neglect. Yet despite this, Auburn Avenue retains an unmistakable charm and sense of place.

With the inexorable growth of Georgia State University and the promise of the Atlanta Streetcar, the opportunity for a redevelopment that respects the district’s past while ensuring its future, the chance to restore Sweet Auburn to glory is now.

We intend to be there to help.


  1. Burroughston Broch April 2, 2012 12:56 pm

    Why is it the job of local, state, and federal governments to fund Auburn Avenue developers? Is it because the projects cannot stand on their own in securing financing through traditional commercial financing?
    You will not this among the enumerated powers of the Federal Government in the US Constitution. Why should all taxpayers fund these redevelopments?

    1. Matt Garbett April 2, 2012 2:47 pm

       @Burroughston Broch There are certain spaces which the various governments have designated as public goods. They range from our national parks to the designation of certain areas as landmark districts. Simply put, we are better off as a nation and as a community by recognizing and preserving some important pieces of our nature and some important pieces of our past. To my knowledge, no one has ever challenged the constitutionality of this practice.
      Auburn Avenue has received such a designation, and is certainly deserving of it. History, indisputably, was made here, and should be preserved. As a society, we decided that issue in 1976. You are certainly welcome to petition for the revocation of landmark status.
      However, as long as landmark status is there, it would appear we have two options. Federal ownership of the land and operation as a museum, a la the Smithsonian. I don’t think this is the best choice.
      Rather, we recognize that Sweet Auburn is a historic, yet vital and potentially thriving part of our city and nation. We recognize that as a historic site, certain obligations and responsibilities are placed on the property owners. As such, it is appropriate that already allocated government funds be used to alleviate some of those obligations and responsibilities. It certainly is as deserving as incentives as the masses of money used to subsidize suburban development.
      Moreover, such investment can return multiples back to the city. Property and sales taxes from this street are far below their potential. This is a good investment, that will make good returns.
      I would also direct you to points 1-3, which are far more salient to the issue than government funding. I was remiss in not mentioning private and philanthropic investment in my final point. Report

      1. Burroughston Broch April 2, 2012 9:42 pm

         @Matt Garbett If an investment has merit, the normal commercial channels will provide financing. You and I both know, and you are trying to ignore, that most of the the developments lack adequate financial merit. Ms Scott and her developer had financing, and yet the Economic Review Panel rejected their case in part because they were NOT relying on governmental funding. Why must they have governmental funding? Is it because you and your fellow preservationists want to keep the entire area under your thumb? Is it all about you and your view?Report

        1. Matt Garbett April 6, 2012 1:25 pm

           @Burroughston Broch Mr. Broch, your argument may have merit if it were true, or even if I thought you yourself believed it.Every community has rules and regulations which determine which uses of property are appropriate, including, surely, your own. I am also sure that there are prohibited uses in your area that you and your community would oppose were a developer to offer. Your response to one of those uses in your backyard would surely not be, “Well, they have financing.”It is that attitude, which is silencing and limiting in view. That money shall be the sole determiner.On that note, the development of the Atlanta Daily World and Sweet Auburn does not lack “adequate financial merit.” The Economic Review Panel found unanimously – despite one member being appointed by Integral – that they could make money without destroying the building, and hence, did not deserve to be exempted from the law protecting the building.
          FInally, no one is saying that they “must” have government funding. Of course not. I am saying that utilizing subsidies for this type of rehabilitation is as valid as accepting government subsidies for the myriad of other projects the government subsidizes (stadiums, manufacturing plants, etc. Some I which I agree with; some I dispute the positive impact on the surrounding communities.)Report

        2. Burroughston Broch April 6, 2012 2:16 pm

           @Matt Garbett Sir, your response doesn’t agree with your original post.
          In your original post you stated that the application was rejected partly because the applicants had not explored government funding.
          In your response you say that no one must have government funding.
          Which one is it? It cannot be both.Report

        3. Matthew Jones April 6, 2012 2:36 pm

           @Burroughston Broch The Downtown and Old Fourth Ward communities are encouraging positive attention and investment and redevelopment.  And yes, we want redevelopment to be sensitive to the world and national history of our area.The Atlanta Way is not one of personal attacks and arguments that contradict the economics upon which they’re based.A broad appeal to private and public interests is not an attempt to keep an area under thumb.  Please, do not impugn anyone’s character.  It comes across as a cheap shot.  Maybe that’s unintentional, because you also confuse Ms. Scott and the developer.  The developer in this case is Integral, and Ms. Scott represents her family’s traust and is selling the property.The issue of incentives was one of not including the cheaper capital those incentives could provide while arguing that keeping the structure was too expensive.  Matt Garbett is not contradicting himself; he’s appealing to the standards on the books in the UDC’s own guidelines.  The property is also protected under local designation, which is the UDC’s jurisdiction.  You’re arguing about a contradiction that you have created in your own writing.And back to your economic argument…You’re appealing to a theory of perfectly competitive markets while ignoring the asymmetric nature of real estate markets, and that same asymmetry is part of what created Sweet Auburn in the first place.  Those “normal commercial channels” produced Renaissance Walk, which stands mostly empty after having been foreclosed.

        4. Burroughston Broch April 6, 2012 5:21 pm

           @Matthew Jones  Sir, I did not create the contradiction – Mr. Garbett did.
          First read the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs under 4 in the original post.
          Then read the last paragraph in his post of today.
          They contradict each other, and I wrote neither of them.
          Can you tell us which is correct?Report

        5. JLam April 23, 2012 12:46 am

           @Burroughston Broch Mr. “Broch”, we invite you to take the time to truly get to know our neighborhood and the people who have invested our lives in our city center. Until then, let those of us who actually have skin in the game shape our community as we see fit. Thank you.Report

        6. Burroughston Broch August 22, 2012 3:43 pm

          Mr. Lam, I am happy to do so provided that the taxpayers do not have to provide financial support in any way. I wish you success.Report

  2. F Hamilton AIA LEED AP April 19, 2012 3:27 pm

    I think this area is so ignored because people are so glad segregation is gone, it was not pretty when a deep look is taken (see http://www.sweetauburn.us/ ). The era being romanticized is an underlying danger reflected by the present state of the street.
    Somehow what needs to be drawn out is that this street’s financial liveliness influenced Martin Luther King to 100% see past the delusion of separation of people with dark skin being imposed by every major institution in the South, incredibly difficult to do spiritually as MLK did, almost impossible architecturally. It needs to be made into a street museum with real thriving business’s in operation. Maybe give really good rents to law firms and  high-end retail so the street will become as thriving as when MLK walked down it. This was done successfully in places like Mid-town West by adaptive reuse of buildings that make Auburn Avenue look like a palace.
    Here is an excerpt researched mainly from “Where Peachtree meets Sweet Auburn” by Gary Pomerantz:
    More financial institutions, professionals, educators, entertainers and politicians were on this one mile of street than any other African American street in the South. The street was “paved in gold” observed John Wesley Dobbs. Today the buildings on Auburn Avenue honor the determination and tenacity of Black Americans operating within the confines of extreme social and economic segregation between 1880 and 1965 to create a thriving community and six centers of higher education adjacent to this street.
    This needs to be honored, maybe we are far enough away from segregation to be able to do justice to this street museum now.Report

  3. AuburnOwner August 22, 2012 11:20 am

    Ahhh and we wonder why we can’t get anything done…the conversation below illustrates one of the obstacles in getting Auburn Avenue “revitalized”. Are you two really “hearing” each other.  The point is the Atlanta community and to some extent the State of Georgia should want to preserve as much as possible the historic structures that line Auburn Avenue…there is no reason however why 21st century well known retail chains can’t be “housed” in late 19th and early 20th century buildings.  If public fuds can be used to retore and preserve Rhodes Hall, Margaret Mithcell’s home, and other historic buildings, why not Auburn?Report

    1. Burroughston Broch August 22, 2012 11:34 am

       @AuburnOwner Because Rhodes Hall is owned and operated by the Georgia Trust and the Margaret Mitchell House by the Atlanta History center. They are not retail chain operations in privately owned buildings subsidized by public funds.
      I assume from your post that you own property on Auburn. Are you spending your money to restore and preserve your property?Report

      1. AuburnOwner August 22, 2012 12:27 pm

        @Burroughston Broch @AuburnOwner
        You are correct my family and I have put only our hard earned money into the real estate we own on Auburn. We are thankful for Invest Atlanta and the small loan we received for some event improvements. Of course we have to repay the loan. Last time I looked both organizations you cite receive public/government funding alon with philanthropic donations. Report

        1. Burroughston Broch August 22, 2012 2:36 pm

          Rhodes Hall is owned by the State and operated by the Georgia Trust, a 501(c)3, not-for-profit organization.
          The Margaret Mitchell House is owned and operated by The Atlanta History Center, a 501(c)3, not-for-profit organization.
          Are you a not-for-profit organization? If not, why do you believe you should receive public funding? Is your concept of public funding loans or grants/gifts?Report

  4. AuburnOwner August 22, 2012 2:59 pm

    My point exactly. The state purchased Rhodes Hall from a private owner. The same is true obviously of Margaret Mithell’s home. Why would I own property in Auburn as a non profit? Report

    1. Burroughston Broch August 22, 2012 3:49 pm

       @AuburnOwner You might own it as a not-for-profit if your primary motivation is to protect and restore the building using financial support from elsewhere at a reduced cost.
      If you own it for profit, I believe that you should not receive taxpayer funding or tax-exempt funding.Report

      1. Joeventures August 23, 2012 12:38 pm

         @Burroughston Broch That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. The IRS allows for Program Related Investments from foundation sources: http://www.irs.gov/charities/foundations/article/0,,id=137793,00.htmlReport

  5. AuburnOwner August 23, 2012 2:41 pm

    The point of purchasing the property was 1) to restore, and 2) to operate a viable for profit business within the walls of the structure restored. This is what needs to take place along the entire Avenue whether with private funding for renovation or public funding.Report

    1. Burroughston Broch August 23, 2012 5:17 pm

      I agree with you and wish you good luck. I hope more property owners follow your example.Report


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