Civic Center sale to AHA places Southface campus on endangered list

By Maria Saporta

For 40 years, Southface has been leading the way in making Atlanta a more sustainable city.

The environmentally-focused nonprofit has been a pioneer in green building practices – and it deserves much of the credit for Atlanta’s national reputation as a city committed to energy and water conservation.


Southface campus along Pine Street (Photo by Maria Saporta)

But now Southface is facing its own challenges – likely having to move from its headquarters, now on a .74-acre site along Pine Street near Piedmont, where it has been since 1995.

That property was part of the 20-acre, $31 million sale of the Atlanta Civic Center site from the City of Atlanta to the Atlanta Housing Authority on Nov. 21.

AHA has negotiated a three-year lease “to provide Southface with adequate time to identify a new site and move its operations” according to the agreement.

“Southface is still a partner,” said Catherine Buell, president and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority. “We have entered into a lease agreement with them, but we still are having ongoing negotiations.”

Andrea Pinabell, who has been president of Southface for nearly a year – succeeding founder Dennis Creech, hopes to be able to work closely with AHA to create a signature development on the Civic Center site.

“There is an immense opportunity to have an iconic affordable housing mixed use development that preserves green space and allows for innovative storm water management,” Pinabell said. “The City and the AHA have an unique opportunity here to create an inclusive and equitable development that supports and uplifts the neighborhood.”

Pinabell added that a transparent public process is important to meet the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Catherine Buell

Catherine Buell

“Southface stands ready to support that process including hosting a planning charrette on our campus to bring the neighborhood’s thoughts and vision to the table,” Pinabell said. For example, a creek buried in a tunnel underneath the Civic Center parking lot could be restored and turned into an attractive water feature.

Buell did say AHA is open to master planning process.

“We are going to plan on having a design charrette,” Buell said. “We really want to make sure we are taking a fresh look at the plans. We also want to work with the surrounding communities.”

Recently, Central Atlanta Progress did conduct a planning charrette for the entire Civic Center site, and that plan envisioned leaving Southface in place.

“The second big issue is the vault that Watershed has begun to build rather than doing a water feature like the Old Fourth Ward park,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “We tried to bring this to everyone’s attention months ago but without any result.”

Robinson said he still believes there’s a better way to design the site than what is currently being envisioned.

Civic Center

A map showing the Civic Center site with a possible water feature and green space in the center (Source: Georgia State University)

As for the future of Southface, Buell acknowledged that the AHA lease envisions the nonprofit leaving the site. Most likely, the Southface complex and the EcoCenter would be demolished for the new development.

Pinabell said it was premature to know what is the best long-term solution for Southface.

For about five years, Southface had been having negotiations with the city to buy its property and an additional half acre so it could expand. In 2011, Southface opened the SWEET Center in leased space on Piedmont Avenue to provide certification for weatherization professionals. Before the Civic Center deal went through, Southface had hoped to move the SWEET Center to its main campus.

Southface had been leasing its Pine Street facility from the city since the 1996 Summer Olympic Games when it showcased Atlanta’s green building practices, architecture, interior design and residential construction.

Over the years, Southface has added to its demonstration facility – creating a $10 million campus that has a green roof, solar energy, porous concrete and other leading building practices.

Southface Andrea Pinabell

Andrea Pinabell at the 2017 Winter Solstice party at Southface (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Southface also has partnered with the city on virtually every environmental initiative, including the successful Atlanta Better Building Challenge.

Atlanta now has the nation’s largest program (based on office buildings and commercial space) on track to reduce energy and water consumption.

Also, it has certified 50,000 environmentally-friendly EarthCraft homes, of which 40 percent are affordable. And it has trained more than 5,000 individuals to pursue clean energy and green building jobs.

Southface clearly has been the secret to Atlanta’s successful sustainability efforts, and it has been a critical player in the Grants to Green program to help nonprofits reduce their costs through energy and water savings. It also worked closely with the Kendeda Fund to launch the Southeast’s first Living Building now under construction at Georgia Tech.

Despite all it has done for the city, Southface is now facing an unknown future. But Pinabell is hopeful that the community will help it figure out the best outcome for the nonprofit.

As Pinabell said: “Southface has a bright future and is poised for growth.”


An aerial view of the Southface campus showing its green roof (Special: Southface)

Civic Center ideas

Public shares ideas for the Civic Center site during the Downtown master planning process (Special: Central Atlanta Progress)


Southface campus at dusk (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

9 replies
  1. Darkeyah Reuven says:

    My goodness Maria, does your second guessing and passive aggressive subversion ever end. The financially struggling people of Atlanta are in need of affordable housing and you want to ‘cape’ for this non-profit that has done little to improve the lives of Atlantans.
    Do not forget that this is the former site of ‘Buttermilk Bottoms’ community. An extreme poor Black community that was forced out by White politicians.
    Maximizing affordable housing on the Civic Center site is the overwhelming priority!Report

    • Roxie Resister says:

      My goodness, Darkeyah, you must have missed this part: “Also, it has certified 50,000 environmentally-friendly EarthCraft homes, of which 40 percent are affordable. And it has trained more than 5,000 individuals to pursue clean energy and green building jobs.” That’s 20,000 affordable, energy-efficient houses built as a result of Southface’s work.Report

    • Dustin Norton says:

      You clearly have no idea what you are talking about. As a former Southface employee, I can tell you first hand that Southface does A TON to improve the lives of not only Atlantans, but Georgians (and beyond). As a Southface employee, I spent almost all of my time working Southface on things relating to improving affordable housing in the city and the state. Have you ever hear of weatherization? Southface is out here helping oversee the weatherization of low-income housing across the state. Crawlspaces and attics doing the work first hand as well as teaching contractors and homeowners throughout the state how to do it. And that’s just one program that Southface takes part in. There’s obviously Earthcraft which is directly a result of Southface. Then there’s the fact that Atlanta has thrived in the Better Buildings Challenge and Southface has played a HUGE role in that. I agree that Atlanta has a need for affordable housing (and EVERYBODY at Southface would agree as well), but the programs at Southface are helping make strides for more affordable housing in the city. I think you are one of many who associate “green” with expensive. That simply isn’t always the case. Southface helps teach the simple ways to improve energy efficiency and take advantage of the “low-hanging fruit” air leaks to make our city more efficient – and thus more affordable. Low income housing is the key focus and beneficiary of these efforts. I encourage you to do more research. You may just find that Southface is doing the types of things that are crucial to creating more low-income housing.

      Not to mention that tearing down buildings (energy efficient or otherwise) is not the answer to any of our problems. The buildings could easily be incorporated into any development. Even if Southface is evicted, the buildings could easily be repurposed. Southface was originally built to represent an example of an efficient residential building.Report

    • Tom Findley says:

      typical response from a person with no real understanding of the issues. Since I dont know what you do then you must not do anything……..or better yet its the white mans fault…….nice job Darkeyah….why dont you go down to SW Atlanta where your politicians have done such a nice job of cleaning the place up…..Report

  2. Bill Bulpitt says:

    I would like to see some discussion started (and perhaps it already has been) between Georgia Tech and Southface. It seems that the location of the Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Institute might have some real estate around it that could be used for a Southface move. There would be obvious synergies available from bringing these two entities closer together…Report

  3. David Wasserman says:

    I can’t believe what I am hearing. Southface has been a guiding force in Atlanta for nearly 40 years in making the buildings we live and work in more energy efficient, more water efficient, and more sustainable. As a former employee, I am most proud of the work Southface has done in greening affordable housing in Georgia. Southface was instrumental in adding energy and water efficiency to the criteria for funding affordable housing in the state. Because of Southface, those living in new affordable housing are not burdened with high utility bills. AHA should understand that the small Southface campus would be a great asset to any development they plan to put on the Civic Center site. The millions of dollars that have been invested into the Southface campus would better be spent adding height to the planned buildings rather than sprawling to all parts of the property. I strongly urge AHA to reconsider their misguided decision.Report

  4. David Terry says:

    Re: Building a vault

    I live on Ralph McGill at the Beltline. The Old 4th Ward Park is an award winning solution to storm water management. People want to live by the Old 4th Ward detention pond because it is beautiful. The storm water vault at Piedmont Park is a no-man’s land in this otherwise crown jewel. A vault is regressive.

    Having read Suburban Nation and Jane Jacobs in no way qualifies me as a city planner, yet I feel that I recognize a good plan when I see one. Urban planning experts are developing the Georgia Power site behind my building. Their ideas are exceptional. Affordable housing is included in their plan.

    The original Civic Center was a failure. Frank Lloyd Wrong. Does the AHA have the expertise to do justice to this exceptional track of land? My excitement about New City’s development of Georgia Power site on the Beltline demonstrates that I am not a crazy NIMBY.Report

  5. Marci B. Reed says:

    Thank you for this report, Maria. The Southface campus could easily be incorporated into this development, providing spaces for community programming, workforce development and possible support services for the residents.

    While it would certainly be disappointing to see these important buildings demolished, I am sure Andrea Pinabell, with help from the Southface Board, strategic partners and members, will create a wonderful next chapter for the organization.Report


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