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Proposal to speed City-ordered demolitions draws preservationist concerns

A historic former gas station at 600 Memorial Drive is marked for a City-ordered demolition, but has survived in part due to talks following review by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. A proposal to eliminate AUDC demolition review for buildings without historic status is drawing concern from preservationists about overlooked historical structures. (File Photo by John Ruch)

By John Ruch

A proposal to streamline City-ordered demolition of buildings in Atlanta is being met with concern from preservationists who say historic structures could lose their second chance.

The City Council on Feb. 21 will consider legislation from District 9 Councilmember Dustin Hillis that would alter the demolition review conducted by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission (AUDC). The AUDC is best known as the body that must approve demolition or alteration of buildings that have official historic status. But it also reviews any City-ordered demolition, which is often done for safety reasons through the Atlanta Police Department’s Code Enforcement division.

Hillis says the idea of a change came up in the council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee in a discussion about a backlog of City-ordered demolitions. Hillis, who chairs the committee, said he met with staff of Code Enforcement, the City legal department and the Department of City Planning’s Office of Buildings and heard about the AUDC demolition review.

“While that makes complete sense for historic structures or structures within historic districts (like Collier Heights and Whittier Mill Village in my council district), it was deemed not really necessary for others,” Hillis said in an email. “That was something all parties involved agreed upon, and so, in order to chip away at some of the lead time to get these blighted structures down a little quicker, I introduced this paper.”

His proposal would remove AUDC approval and public comment requirements for safety-related, City-ordered demolitions of structures that lack historic designation or landmark protection. Demolitions of structures with such designation or protection would still require AUDC approval.

Charles Lawrence, board chair of the preservationist nonprofit Historic Atlanta, calls the proposal “problematic” for giving up a checks-and-balances system for “carte blanche on demolitions.” The key problem, he said, is that a lot of the city has never been studied for historic value, meaning many buildings could be overlooked.

“If there is a potentially historic building, we get a chance to save it,” Lawrence said of the current process. He said the current review period is short and that demolition of hazardous structures is often approved anyway. “The change would likely not change much what gets demolished, but creates a process with no public review, no second opinions and [that] could be abused,” he said.

The City’s Historic Preservation Studio recommended a different approach in its recent “Future Places Project” policy vision — the automatic review of the proposed demolition of any structure that dates back 40 years or more. “This current proposal is the opposite,” said Lawrence, who said he authored that demolition review concept in the Atlanta plan.

David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the nonprofit Atlanta Preservation Center, echoed the concern about overlooking the historic nature of a building marked for demolition. “This puts additional layers/responsibilities upon the city to be more proactive to recognize our historic resources and we are hopeful that this legislation is designed to press that issue rather than circumnavigate it,” he said in an email.

The overlooking of a historic structure — and the tension over delays in doing so – are not an abstract idea. One example is a 70-year-old former gas station in Cabbagetown that is listed as contributing to the local Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places but was left out of an official City landmark district there simply because that status was based on an older list of buildings that has never been updated.

The City in recent years ordered the demolition of the gas station, but AUDC review has been an occasion for renewed discussion about saving it – as well as allowing it to remain vacant and gutted. Another AUDC review in late January led to talk of another reuse and funding possibility, with District 5 City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari having early discussions with the property owner and local advocates.

The Feb. 21 council meeting will be held virtually starting at 1 p.m. and can be viewed on the City website.

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