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GSU to renovate two Bell buildings it once planned to demolish

A rendering of the exterior of the renovated Bell buildings (Special: Georgia State University)

Maria Saporta

Atlanta’s preservation successes are few and far between.

So, we should celebrate when buildings once slated to be demolished will be preserved and put to a great use.

Georgia State University recently announced plans to house the new headquarters of its National Institute for Student Success in the “Bell buildings” on Auburn Avenue on a block that’s become a hub for the university – thanks to the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.

The Woodruff Foundation is making a $15 million gift to go towards the renovation and adaptive reuse of the Bell buildings, a project that’s expected to cost about $30 million.

In an interview, GSU President Mark Becker reflected on the shift in thinking between 2015, when the university was planning to tear down the 1907 and 1922 buildings for a surface parking lot.

The exterior of one of the Bell buildings in downtown Atlanta (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

“It was a holding place. It was never intended to be a parking lot forever,” Becker said. The last thing we need are more surface parking lots in Atlanta.”The buildings had deteriorated to such a point, at the time, GSU believed demolition would be the best outcome.

“Demolishing was an option when we had no funding partners, and we didn’t have a project that could be brought in at a price that was realistic,” Becker said. “The building is an extremely challenged building. There’s a hole in the roof. There are things growing out of the roof. The building has more than 20,000 pounds of pigeon poop in it. Clearly the building cannot just stay as it is. The plans to demolish it were because it was a problem. Something needed something to be done.”

The buildings were acquired by GSU in 2006, and they have been vacant ever since.

But when GSU announced plans to demolish the buildings in 2015, the pushback from the preservation and architectural communities was strong. The Atlanta and Georgia chapters of the American Institute of Architects launched a letter-writing campaign and preservationists started change.org petition to save the Bell buildings.

“I am so thankful that GSU has realized the Bell buildings’ potential,” said Kyle Kessler, a preservationist and downtown resident. “Although I, and many others, didn’t know what GSU might be able to do with the buildings one day, it was clear to us that they could be renovated rather than be demolished. The proposed Student Success center – focused on seeing the potential in underserved students and eliminating the barriers to their success – sounds like a perfect fit for these once-doomed buildings that will soon teem with life again.”

Becker voiced similar sentiments on the value the buildings will be able to bring to downtown and Georgia State.

A rendering of the interior of the a classroom setting in a renovated Bell building (Special: Georgia State University)

“There’s a tremendous upside that we can take an asset that has been sitting vacant and deteriorating for decades and now make it a destination,” Becker said. “We get to take a building that was an eyesore and convert it into something positive. In fact, it will be a destination. Literally teams from around the world will be coming here to learn from Georgia State.”

The executive director of the National Institute of Student Success is Dr. Timothy Renick, who has been leading GSU’s efforts to remove barriers and eliminate achievement gaps of students from underserved backgrounds by putting them on a path towards graduation.

Georgia State has become a national model for eliminating achievement gaps, and the Institute will share its student success model with other universities and institutions to benefit hundreds of thousands of students across the country.

“We’ve hosted more than 500 institutions, including from other countries, that have visited to see what we do,” said Becker, who added the concept will be to take GSU’s model and engage the institute in a much more significant way. “The buildings are going to be a destination.”

A rendering of the renovated lobby area of the Bell building (Special: Georgia State University)

On the same block as the Bell buildings, Georgia State was able to convert the former SunTrust complex into “another showcase” – the Creative Media Industries Institute. The Woodruff Foundation provided GSU a $22 million grant towards that transformation.

“That’s the beauty of the Woodruff Foundation. They are able to do things that you can’t do otherwise,” Becker said. “In both cases, the Creative Media Industries Institute, and now the National Institute for Student Success – not only are they buildings that the university is going to be able to use, but they’re both showcases. They’re both going to be destinations.”
For Becker, who has announced his intention to step down as president at the end of this academic year, it’s particularly gratifying.

“I came here during a financial crisis and I’m leaving in a pandemic,” Becker said. “The message is that this institution has persevered. This university was started as an evening school in 1913. It went through the First World War, the Second World War, when the Great Depression, the Great Recession and it’s been through two pandemics. Yet the university perseveres. The character of this institution is one of grittiness. That’s the word we use to describe our students and really our institution. We find a way for our students to overcome obstacles… It’s the character of the place. That’s why I love it. We don’t let anything stop us.”

Becker said the project to renovate the Bell buildings will have to be approved by the Georgia Board of Regents, (even though no tax dollars will be used), which should happen later this year. GSU is raising money for the project, and Becker is confident GSU will be able to cover “the delta between what we’re able to raise and what it’s going to cost.”

After that, it is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete the project.

“We’re super excited,” Becker said. “To have a compelling reason to go in and bring the buildings back to life and into productive use, is a huge step forward. We’re deeply appreciative that the Woodruff Foundation is, is willing to work with us to support this project.”

Plus, it’s one more project Becker can say he launched during his 12-year tenure as president.

“I didn’t want the buildings to just sit there and have my successor inherit them and have to figure it out,” Becker said. “I’m really pleased to have been able to get this project conceptualized and, going while I was still president.”

A rendering of the exterior of the renovated Bell buildings (Special: Georgia State University)

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.

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3 Comments

  1. AMEHF May 18, 2021 9:48 am

    This is wonderful news. I have a question, tho: how did the building get into such a state that it had a tree growing out of it and pigeons making a condo out of it? GSU did nothing but watch it rot; it’s called “demolition by neglect.” Kudos to the Woodruff Foundation for turning that around.Report

    Reply
    1. Darin Givens May 21, 2021 3:17 pm

      Demolition by neglect is exactly right.

      And while it’s all worth praising, I’ll point out that the Woodruff Foundation is the organization that loaned the money GSU was going to use for demolition of the Bell several years ago. I’m glad they made the right decision eventually, but it’s concerning that it had to be such a fight.Report

      Reply
  2. Jean Spencer May 18, 2021 5:21 pm

    Yes, GSU is happy to take the credit and use someone else’s money after neglecting the building for years. There is no reason why buildings that aren’t being used can’t be mothballed for future use: https://www.nps.gov/TPS/HOW-TO-PRESERVE/briefs/31-mothballing.htm.Report

    Reply

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