Emory may remake Peachtree-Pine shelter and nearby buildings into sustainability center
By John Ruch
Emory University is considering a plan to remake the former Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter and most of its Downtown block into a new academic center for sustainability and resilience.
The conceptual plan — which appears to save part of the historic shelter building while tearing down the rest for a public soccer field — was revealed in a video presentation about the new “Resilience and Sustainability Collaboratory” that was posted on YouTube Sept. 23.
“So what I love about this is Emory coming to the heart of the city, coming and opening a space that will be very community-oriented,” said Ciannat Howett, Emory’s associate vice president for sustainability, resilience and economic inclusion, in the video. “It’s going to be really inviting for the community to come.”
Emory spokesperson Gana Ahn said the video presentation was an internal visioning session for faculty members and was mistakenly posted on the university’s YouTube channel for general public viewing. A written statement from Emory said the university intends to have the sustainability center somewhere in Atlanta, but that the idea is still conceptual, and that another use may be supporting Emory University Hospital Midtown, which sits on the other side of Peachtree Street.
“Emory University has not made any decisions regarding the use of 477 Peachtree Street and our plans are in the conceptual, visioning stage,” the written statement said. “Our goal is to convert as much of the site as possible into a dynamic new facility that serves Emory’s strategic needs for the future. Any development will be respectful of the past.
“Emory purchased this property to make the university’s resources more accessible to the greater Atlanta community,” the statement continues. “It will support our academic mission across the arts, the sciences and the humanities. The property may support Emory Healthcare services, given the site is across the street from Emory University Hospital Midtown. The Resilience and Sustainability Collaboratory is a functioning program that will occupy space in a downtown Atlanta location that has yet to be determined.”
The plan discussed in the video — which is dated July 29 — is for the block bounded by Peachtree, Pine and Courtland streets and Renaissance Parkway. Emory bought the shelter and several other nearby buildings in 2019. Howett indicated that at least three other adjacent, historic buildings will be saved and used for theater and art programs. The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse is the only building on the block that Emory won’t own, Howett said, and it “will stay.”
Most of the buildings are around a century old, but have no formal historic protections. That includes the former shelter at 477 Peachtree, which started life around 1921 as a United Motors Services car dealership and sports a colorful, Art Deco facade. The shelter use began in 1997 until it was forced to close in 2017 after years of battles with the City and neighbors over conditions and real estate interests.
The building was designed by prominent architect A. Ten Eyck Brown, who also designed the Fulton County Courthouse, the Sweet Auburn Curb Market and a Buckhead book bindery building that was recently partly saved from development. Attempts to nominate 477 Peachtree for official City landmarking have failed. Aside from preserving history, another motivation for preservation today is that reusing an older building is typically more environmentally sustainable than demolishing it and building a new one.
Some local preservationists said they had checked in with Emory about its intentions for the building, but had not necessarily heard all the details of the “RSC,” as the university is calling the facility for short.
“It’s definitely an important building in that part of upper Midtown,” said Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, adding he had a conference call with Emory officials a couple of weeks ago due to rumblings about the plan. “I’ve been in touch with Emory’s real estate department about this project on numerous occasions and let them know the Georgia Trust considers it to be a very important building from the modern period of Atlanta….”
The Georgia Trust would be happy if the plan involves preserving the front portion of the building, McDonald said, “because the front portion contains the significant Art Deco architecture.”
David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, said he meets quarterly with Emory for updates on its various plans. “The Atlanta Preservation Center is looking forward to the development of this space and partnering with Emory to advance this structure and honor the legacy of this historic building and promote its sustainability,” he said.
According to Fulton County property records, Emory owns five other buildings on that block, all fronting on Peachtree. The street numbers and year of construction are: 489 (1936), 493 (1920), 495 (1920), 505 (1920) and 511 (2006).
In the RSC video, Howett said that sustainability and resilience are major new fields of study in American universities. The Emory version is a “think-and-do tank” that will address a broad range of topics, including “climate, race and health disparities,” she said, and will work in direct collaboration with community members and groups. Some virtual programs are underway, but the RSC intends to have a physical location.
Howett called the location a “really a fantastic site” in part because it avoids the hurdles of “getting the community to [the main Emory campus in] Druid Hills — I mean, that’s just not realistic.”
Referring to a former barber shop and a former nightclub at 493 and 495 Peachtree, Howett said Emory hopes to “repurpose [them] into theater space, gallery space, so that we can bring in our faculty engaged in theater studies and visual arts and other areas to work on the Collaboratory and its projects.” She also noted, without specifying a future use, that 489 Peachtree is the former headquarters of the Peasant restaurants, a once-famous Atlanta chain that broke up 20 years ago; co-founder Steve Nygren went on to create the environmentally centered planned community of Serenbe in southern Fulton.
The soccer field in the plan is intended to be part of “StationSoccer,” a program that creates fields at MARTA stations and runs youth leagues. The program is operated by a nonprofit called Soccer in the Streets. “Whilst there is no agreement between Soccer in the Streets and Emory, there have been exploratory and conceptual discussions about the site,” said Sanjay Patel, the nonprofit’s director of strategic projects, in a written statement. MARTA is aware of those discussions but not directly involved, according to a transit agency spokesperson.
The video presentation indicated that the RSC has a large number of corporate, nonprofit and governmental “partners,” ranging from Google to the City of Atlanta to Trees Atlanta. The exact role of partners was not explained by the presentation.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the location as Midtown rather than northern Downtown or, as some now call it, SoNo.