By Maria Saporta
The hand-painted letters on the building says it all: “SAVE ME.”
Once again, Atlanta is at the precipice of losing an all-too-important historic building – this one at 20 Hilliard St, just a few steps south of Edgewood Avenue where the Atlanta Streetcar tracks line the corridor with a promise of better days ahead.
And yet, for some inexplicable and incomprehensible bureaucratic bungling, a significant contributing building to the national Martin Luther King Jr. Landmark district is on the verge of being demolished by the Atlanta Housing Authority.
Why? Why do we continue as a city to fall short over and over again from achieving excellence in our urban design? Why do we let our most precious assets – our prized possessions be treated like throwaway trash so we can have yet one more vacant piece of land?
Actually this is an open letter to the Atlanta Housing Authority.
When you bought the 20 Hilliard St. building in 2009, did you know it was in the King Historic District? As a responsible property owner, you should have known what you were buying.
And as a government agency that should have been especially respectful of the amazing history along the Auburn Avenue and Edgewood Avenue corridors, why didn’t you do everything you could protect and preserve the building from being damaged by the elements?
Now, conveniently five years later after letting the building deteriorate by neglect, the Atlanta Housing Authority has asked for permission to demolish the building. It has received a permit from the City of Atlanta, bolstered by an inspection from the Bureau of Buildings, stating that the building is unsafe. The permit has even been signed off on by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission.
Well shame on all of you.
During all these years, who was there fighting for the historic district, fighting to save the 1910 building, looking for a way to permanently save 20 Hilliard St.
It is time we demand design excellence from the Atlanta Housing Authority, from the City of Atlanta’s Bureau of Buildings, from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission and from all the people in a position who can make a difference in how our city will ultimately look today, tomorrow and for years to come.
According to the preservation community and other published reports, several people contacted the Atlanta Housing Authority asking about buying 20 Hilliard St. so they could renovate the building and locate their business there. But none of their calls were returned.
Again, why did the AHA buy a historic structure if it was only going to let it rot and demolish it? Instead of being given a demolition permit, the Atlanta Housing Authority should be fined for failing to live up to its civic responsibility of maintaining a historic community treasure, and then it should be mandated to repair and restore the building to a pristine condition.
Okay, that is what would and should happen in a city that truly valued its historic buildings and its historic districts.
In such a city, Atlanta Housing Authority would not have been allowed to get away with demolishing 20 Hilliard St. The city’s Bureau of Buildings would not have had the final say. The Urban Design Commission would not have been a submissive agency, and it would have asked for time and expertise to find ways to save the building rather than going along to get along.
If we really want to become a world-class city, it’s time that we start acting like a world-class city (yes Matt Garbett). It’s time that we start demanding design excellence — in our built environment – especially when it comes to our few remaining, yet treasured, historic buildings.
We have seen how good it feels when it does happen. Remember when the Integral Group wanted to tear down the historic Atlanta Daily World building. The public was given an opportunity to intervene (unlike 20 Hilliard St.), and the 102-year-old building was saved.
Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate bought the building, and Kansas is renovating the building into apartments with ground-level retail. One of the Living Wall artists – Gonzalo Borondo – just completed fabulous etchings in the windows of the building. Here is a link to Gene Kansas’ Sidewalk Radio episode about Auburn Avenue.
Living Walls popping up all over town have added to the color and excitement of our city, bringing another dimension to our daily lives.
Along the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail — a wonderful collection of photographs line “The Fence” — making the experience of walking or riding the corridor even more enjoyable.
And just this weekend, artists were beginning to install their latest works for fall showing of Art along the BeltLine, a twice-annual event and one that many of us would hope would leave us with more permanent art installations. Maybe we can vote on our favorites, and those could remain for good.
And then there are many design decisions where we have fallen short. The one that continues to pain me every time I drive by is what they’ve done and are doing with the former Spring Street Elementary School – now the Center for Puppetry Arts.
They have cut down all the beautiful trees that adorned the front of the attractive school so they can build a non-descript structure with no windows that will totally hide the school from the street – ignoring the urban context of the past and the fabric of the city.
And then there’s the fiasco with the truncated Crum & Forster building — where Georgia Tech cut off two-thirds of a most historic structure on Spring Street – making it resemble an amputated building in Midtown.
We as a city can do better. We as a city must do better.
We can start by saving 20 Hilliard St.