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Central Library to be saved; $50 million renovation would allow floors to be leased

Central Library, restaurant space A once-bustling restaurant space that featured servings of asparagus topped with hollandaise sauce has been shuttered and turned into an apparent storage closet. File/Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Central Library in Downtown Atlanta will not be demolished, per a vote Wednesday by Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners. The board is slated to decide in August on the extent of a proposed renovation that could cost up to $50 million.

Central Library, empty shelves

This entire floor of Central Library seems to be unused and filled with empty bookshelves. Credit: David Pendered

Commissioners voted unanimously to not demolish the library. Their vote responds to an outpouring of more than 80 constituents who attended an open house on what should become of the library.

Central Library is the last building designed by world-renown architect Marcel Breuer, who used the same brutalist style he deployed in his acclaimed Whitney Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Central Library opened in 1980 as the Atlanta’s statement to the world that it had arrived as a major city. The design isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it does mark a moment in Atlanta’s history during the administration the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson.

According to materials the library system presented to commissioners, 55 public comments were recorded. Here’s the breakdown of responses:

  • 42 persons favor the renovation of Central Library;
  • Three persons favor building a new library in Downtown Atlanta;
  • 10 persons favor preserving the building and were ambivalent about it continuing service as a library.
Central Library, men's room

This men’s room in Central Library may be one of the few in a government building that doesn’t have faucets designed to conserve water. Credit: David Pendered

The library system presented one recommendation for renovating Central Library.

It calls for renovating five or six floors for library purposes. This would leave three to four floors available for lease. A number of potential public uses have been discussed, including locating Fulton County employees in the space.

Renovating the floors for library use would involve, “extensive renovations,” according to the report. The remaining floors would require less extensive renovation efforts.

A recent walking tour of Central Library revealed a lot of empty space. Numerous book shelves are empty. The men’s room on at least one floor hasn’t been upgraded with water-saving sink faucets.

The proposed top-to-bottom renovation would include new roof installations; caulking exterior walls and replacing windows; replacing acoustic ceiling tiles, carpet, window treatments and door hardware; renovating the entire heating and cooling system; replacing interior and exterior lighting systems; replacing the fire alarm panels; and, finally, improving sidewalks, parking lot, and landscaping.

Central Library, restaurant space

A once-bustling restaurant space that featured servings of asparagus topped with hollandaise sauce has been shuttered and turned into an apparent storage closet. Credit: David Pendered

The fate of Central Library has become a talking point as the board of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System has pondered its fate since at least the start of the year.

The cost of renovating this one library could consume nearly half of the money remaining from the $275 million library bond that Fulton County voters approved in 2008. However, the possible $50 million upgrade is less than the $85 million that was originally earmarked to upgrade Central Library.

Of the $275 million bond, about $104 million remains to be spent.

That means that if the renovation of Central Library proceeds as planned, the library system would have about $54 million remaining for other projects.

That is enough to cover the total cost of renovating the 15 branches that in line to be updated. Those costs are expected to range from $35 million to $50 million, according to the library system’s report to Fulton County commissioners.

Central Library, listening space

This intimate listening space on the first floor of Central Library is not being used as frequently as originally planned. Credit: David Pendered

What’s been lost in the debate about Central Library is the fate of the library system itself. The system is upgrading its facilities even as it is reducing services in the face on on-going budget challenges.

According to a letter library board Chairperson Stephanie Moody sent earlier this year to Fulton’s Board of Commissioners:

  • Total operating hours each week have shrunk by a third since 2014. That represents a drop of more than 500 hours, from 1,562 hours in 2014 to 966 currently, on weekdays and weekends;
  • The budget for materials was cut by more than half, to $1.6 million. Moody’s letter notes: “As one patron put it, ‘Can’t something be done to rethink the county’s priorities and bring back what was lost?’”

Declines in spending to operate the library system are evident in Fulton County’s budget. Fulton commissioners approved $27.6 million for the library system in the current 2016 budget cycle. That’s 4 percent below the 2012 actual budget of $28.8 million, according to Fulton’s budget documents.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Chad Carlson July 21, 2016 4:42 pm

    Power to the people.Report

  2. Burroughston Broch July 22, 2016 6:06 pm

    $55 million of taxpayer money (over $200 per square foot) will be spent adding to the glut of Downtown office space. One potential use is to move Fulton County employees into this Taj Mahal; another is to lease it to not-for-profits.
    In a few years this building will be mostly vacant and will be sold at a loss, just like Underground and the Civic Center.Report

  3. thetruthshallsetyoufree July 25, 2016 9:46 am

    “but it does mark a moment in Atlanta’s history during the administration the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson.” 

    Lets not forget that same Mayor Jackson TORE DOWN the marble Carnegie Library that had it been left standing would be a showplace today.  But by doing so he was able to funnel the bond deal for the new library to one of his cronies and make millions out of sight of anyone. Its the same reason for tearing down the existing library. NOt because anybody gives a rats a$$ about the library. ITS THE BOND DEAL. It’s always about the money.Report

  4. Burroughston Broch July 25, 2016 11:32 pm

    The mayors since Jackson learned at the feet of the master how to get money to stick to their fingers.Report


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