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Jewish Federation eyes new community arts space

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on June 22, 2018

The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta is seriously exploring a transformation of its 3-acre site in Midtown as part of the nonprofit’s new initiative to have a more welcoming presence in the community.

The Jewish Federation is exploring the feasibility to redevelop a third of its property into a new hub for culture, innovation and philanthropy.

“We are trying to create a community within a large metro area,” said Eric Robbins, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation. “We are at a feasibility stage of looking to create a new community arts space that would house the Breman Museum, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival and other groups as well as an innovation hub.”

Eric Robbins

Eric Robbins in his office at the Atlanta Jewish Federation (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Currently, the Jewish Federation is located in a one-story building at the corner of Spring Street and 18th Street. The property is surrounded by an uninviting fence and a gate that restricts access to the building, which also houses the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.

“For me, it is an incredibly exciting project,” said Matt Bronfman, CEO of commercial real estate company Jamestown who chairs the real estate efforts for the Jewish Federation. “It can really become a community gathering spot.”

The Jewish Federation has been located on that site since June 1996 – thanks to a donation from real estate mogul Steve Selig, who was serving as vice president of the Federation at the time.

The impetus for the gift was sparked in 1992, when William Breman gave the Federation a lead gift to create a heritage museum. The Federation was then located at 1753 Peachtree St. NE, and that building was not suitable for a museum. That’s when Selig realized the property he owned at 18th and Spring would be a perfect fit for the Federation and a Breman Museum; and the campus was named the Selig Center.

Bronfman said the 3-acre site as currently configured site is “under-utilized” – especially when considering the amount of development that’s occurred in Midtown over the past 22 years.

“The opportunity as I see it is a reimagined and rejuvenated Selig Center that houses the headquarters of the Federation, the Breman Museum with a screening room for the Film Festival,” Bronfman said. “I would love to create a hub for nonprofits. There’s an opportunity to densify the site.”

Robbins said the Federation has retained the fundraising firm of Coxe Curry & Associates to study the feasibility of a campaign. It also has commissioned Blur Workshop, an architectural firm, to put together a charrette that would help design the concept for the new development.

Interestingly enough, the Federation did consider the possibility of selling the site, estimated to be worth about $25 million. But the leaders decided that the Jewish community needed to be part of the resurgence underway in Midtown.

It is estimated that there are 120,000 Jews living in the Atlanta region with more than 40 synagogues spread throughout the metro area.

Robbins said it’s no longer true that the community is centered in the suburbs. Significant Jewish populations are now residing in-town, in Midtown, Grant Park, Inman Park, Morningside and West Midtown.

“We are really committed to the Selig Center remaining at that location,” said Bronfman, who developed Ponce City Market. “It’s such a great location. I would have hated to give up that location.”

Bronfman said the Federation is exploring several avenues – developing a new multi-story Selig Center on one-third of the site or partnering with a developer for a much taller project that would include the Breman Museum and the Federation on the lower floors.

“We can become a part of this incredible mixed-use cultural community,” Bronfman said. “It’s an incredibly exciting site that is close to the Woodruff Arts Center, the High Museum and the Arts Center MARTA Station.”

For Robbins, it would be a culmination of what he has been working on since he arrived at the Federation in August 2016.

For the past year, the Federation has been exploring the needs and aspiration of Atlanta’s Jewish community by engaging with more than 200 stakeholders.

The initiative is called “The Front Porch: Unlocking the (Incredible) Potential of Jewish Atlanta. “The Front Porch was our effort to really engage the community,” Robbins said. “The Jewish world has changed immensely. Seventy percent of non-Orthodox marriages are Jew to non-Jew. Our Jewish community is more than Jews. It’s Jews and their loved ones. We need to open up multiple doors into the community and they need to be radically welcoming.”

Robbins said the prospect of change has created a little anxiety within the organization. But he said they are looking to add to the Federation’s base, not supplant it.

“We are not walking away from an annual campaign or from our key affiliates,” Robbins said. “But we are also going to leverage the philanthropy in the community by opening new doors. Assimilation is real. We don’t live in ghettos anymore. We are living everywhere.”

The Federation operates as both a United Way – running an annual campaign and investing those funds with its affiliate charitable organizations – and as a Community Foundation.

The Atlanta Jewish Foundation has numerous family funds, and it currently has $450 million under management – about a third of what the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta has under management.

Robbins would love to see the new Selig Center more prominently honor Atlanta’s iconic Jewish leaders, such as Erwin Zaban, Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Selig among others.

“We would create a new space in the center for the arts and cultural district of Atlanta,” Robbins said. “In an ideal world, we would want this to be an iconic building that honors the Jewish community in Atlanta.”

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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