Puppetry Arts expansion exposes cost of poor urban design in Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

It’s hard to believe, but the expansion of the Center for Puppetry Arts is even worse than I had feared 18 months ago.

That’s when I attended the unveiling of the expansion plans at the Center’s home – the former Spring Street Elementary School. When I saw the plans, I literally cried.

How could so many people who were involved with this affront to our urban environment allow it to become a reality?

As a civic journalist, I had hoped that once I had written a column about the travesty that was about to occur, then the decision-makers would scrap the project and start over.

But alas we now are seeing the consequences of living in a city that ignores (or fails to demand) quality urban design.

We can talk a good game – especially in Midtown – one of the few areas of our city that has benefitted from a community-driven planning process – Blueprint Midtown.

Center for Puppetry Arts

Center for Puppetry Arts’ new expansion now under construction (Photos by Maria Saporta)

And yet all that enlightened planning failed to stop what could end up being the worst example of urban architecture in our city.

I’m going to let the pictures tell the story.

But before I do, let me remind readers of the kind of urban environment we say we want in our city’s heart.

We want a more pedestrian-oriented streetscape.

We want our buildings to have street-level activities that encourage people to enjoy our city while on foot.

We want our urban areas to be interspersed with green spaces featuring our majestic trees.

We want to reduce the number of surface parking lots that drain the life from our communities.

And we want to preserve and respect our city’s historic structures  – buildings that give us some perspective of our past while contributing to our modern-day urban fabric.

Sadly, the expansion of the Center for Puppetry Arts violates every one of those accepted principles.

puppetry arts

How the front lawn used to look – in January 2014 – before the expansion removed the green space and trees in front of the school

The expansion is a long, windowless Soviet-style building that caused the removal of several trees as well as the patch of green along the sidewalk. The building acts like a curtain hiding the attractive yellow-brick school that played a unique role in Atlanta’s history. And all that occurred because the Center did not want to remove any spaces on the sprawling surface parking lots located in the back and side of the school.

What is most amazing about this project is how many people had to go along with all these unfortunate decisions.

First, the board and executive team of the Center for Puppetry Arts had to approve the expansion’s design. So did the donors. The selected architects had to conceptualize and present plans for the expansion.

(Surprisingly, the Center’s leadership actually rejected a far more sensitive design presented by the Freelon architectural firm – the designer of the Center for Civil and Human Rights).

Then the Midtown Development Review Committee – an entity that operates under the authority of the City of Atlanta – had to approve the project.

As a public cultural amenity, the Center for Puppetry Arts, ideally would have had to go before the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. But, for a number of reasons, the commission has been unable to live up to its name and mission – to review the urban design of our developments.

puppetry arts expansion

The front lawn of Spring Street School as it stands today with the Center for Puppetry Arts expansion

And lastly, the city arborist had to approve of the cutting down of mature trees on the property. All these people in power obviously had to agree to the elimination of the welcome swath of green space that used to be part of Spring Street’s front lawn.

Because no one in a decision-making role sounded an alarm, we are going to have to live with this atrocity for many years to come.

For those of us who long for a lively, attractive, people-oriented city that we can enjoy while walking, we now are left our memories as well as a vision of what could have been,

Maybe our best hope is that in 20 years, we’ll choose to tear down this expansion – in much the same way we demolish our 20-year-old sports facilities.

That moment can’t come soon enough.

puppetry arts

Expansion hides attractive Spring Street School from the public realm

puppetry arts expansion

Expansion hides the former Spring Street Elementary School

puppetry arts

Expansion preserved Center’s surface parking lots

puppetry arts

Center makes preserving puppets and parking spaces its priority

puppetry arts

Pedestrian walk signal shines above “Sidewalk Closed” sign

Freelon design

Freelon’s conceptual design would have located expansion along 17th Street on one of the Center’s parking lots. It would have kept a Spring Street vista of the school as well as the green space (Special: Freelon)

Freelon design

Another view – this one from the street level – of Freelon’s proposed concept for the Center’s expansion from the corner of 17th and Spring streets (Special: Freelon)

New South's photo of the expansion under construction (Special: New South Construction)

New South’s photo of the expansion under construction (Special: New South Construction)

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.

46 replies
  1. Guest says:

    I have a feeling the blank wall you describe as Soviet Style will come to life once the building is finished, especially night. The blank wall looks like a potential canvas for projections in the style of what occurred on the Empire State Building this weekend. I think the biggest concern for that area of Midtown is the complete lack of Spring Street as a corridor that is comparable to Peachtree or West Peachtree. Traffic/Parking will be a nightmare once the Center opens.Report

    Reply
  2. mnst says:

    Sad that they couldn’t build the Freelon design, but what they wound up with is clearly light years cheaper than that would’ve been.

    Good cladding could help this building… unfortunately it looks like the design calls for bright green harlequin print, soooo…Report

    Reply
  3. Pamela Sellers says:

    Everywhere there is new construction in the city, the story is the same. Big new building, a blip of fresh sidewalk, then old, potholed roads limiting everyone’s access to said new building.Report

    Reply
  4. Wayne Reimer says:

    Too bad that all of the governmental and private organizations who could have ensured we develop in a more reasonable, environmentally and people friendly way ignored their responsibility and allowed this to move forward. Maybe our next mayor’s administration and city council will pay more attention to their duty to represent the wishes of their constituents and plans for a walkable city with less surface parking and more green space.Report

    Reply
  5. JonA says:

    In the same league of awful as the Emory Proton Therapy Center at Ponce and Juniper.  Does the Urban Design Commission actually serve a purpose?Report

    Reply
  6. Hank Houser says:

    Hard to understand how people walking on sidewalks can be so ignored. With the Art Center Marta, the High, the Breman, and Atlantic Station all so close, this is a huge missed oppotunity for the Center for Puppetry Arts to attract visitors who are in the area for other reasons rather than soley relying on parking for the single destination visitor.Report

    Reply
  7. green2u says:

    Had to save the parking lot for the herds of mini-vans! Hey, maybe they can turn the top of this monstrosity into a water park slide feature!Report

    Reply
  8. Jolene Smith says:

    We get it, you went to Spring Street elementary school and you are a NIMBY about any changes to the building. It’s not an attractive nor historic building. Get over it. This addition to the Center for Puppetry Arts will be fantastic for our city, and I won’t miss the fenced-off (and thus publicly inaccessible) green space.Report

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  9. Anonymous says:

    This article is extremely one-sided and subjective. I take issue with a couple points:
    1)
    You don’t seem to realize that puppets are made out of fabric, which
    are extremely sensitive to light. UV rays are incredibly damaging to
    these artifacts – so even if you think more windows would be a good
    idea, the people who are experts in the field of puppetry would
    disagree.
    2) In a city where parking is already difficult,
    the fact that the Center chose to preserve its parking lot (which
    already can get very crowded – on busy days, it’s hard to find a spot at
    all) is wonderful. Their parking is free, which is a LOT more than you
    can say for many other in-town cultural institutions.
    3)
    My understanding is that Midtown Alliance guidelines specify that they
    want buildings to go right up to the sidewalk to create a more
    accessible and inviting streetfront for pedestrians. The new expansion
    does just that. Let’s face it, that greenspace wasn’t really getting any
    usage, and I also believe there are plans to keep some greenspace
    between the expansion and the existing structure. Obviously, the
    sidewalk will reopen (or perhaps you don’t understand how temporary
    construction closures work).

    This expansion is wonderful. It will add value to Midtown and to Atlanta and will serve as a
    great resource for the kids and adults in our community. To have a
    puppetry center at all is a rare treasure. For the Center to run a
    successful capital campaign in the midst of (and coming out of) a
    recession in a state that ranks 49th in the country for public arts
    funding is a tremendous accomplishment. We should be embarrassed that
    we, as a state and as individuals, don’t do more to support our arts
    organizations.Report

    Reply
  10. inatl says:

    What the Puppetry Arts people did is disgusting! There were some gigantic 100 to 200 year old Oaks near the street on that property that they tore down for that ugly structure they’ve built along the entire block of Spring Street. 
    To make it worse they covered the old school building that had some charm to it by  entirely fronting it on Spring Street with  that Monstrosity.
    Why do we even have a Museum of Puppetry Arts?
    And if this is their idea of design then why didn’t they move it to the Mall of Georgia? Surely they could have shared with the Medieval Times josting and dinner place there.
    Apparently the only thing stupider than this building is the Atlanta Puppet community.Report

    Reply
  11. Kate Kane says:

    I completely agree. I’ve been really disappointed with the design of the addition. It looks like a big shipping container box. It’s a monolith that hides the lovely, historic school house. It does nothing to make that part of Spring Street more enjoyable for pedestrians. I believe they have space behind the school house on which they could’ve build this.Report

    Reply
  12. Adam Crow says:

    I can’t believe Midtown Alliance and the review committee let this get by. It’s almost as bad as the Proton Therapy Center’s giant bleak white wall fronting Juniper.Report

    Reply
  13. Wormser Hats says:

    How could anyone take issue with this exquisite shrine?
    After all it’s been devised (and approved) by an army of puppets in celebration of the fantasies and facsimiles of reality.Report

    Reply
  14. Cathy Woolard says:

    Thanks, Maria, for keeping a focus on urban design.  Atlanta has always (your Dad being a notable exception) had a dull eye for preservation and architectural esthetic.  What is playing out on the BeltLine further reinforces the need to rally citizens around a demand for a better built environment.  Developers take note, your disposable building mentality just doesn’t cut it anymore.Report

    Reply
  15. health_impact says:

    @Anonymous Unfortunately, free parking actually leads to more traffic. Which is a bad thing, not just for convenience but also safety, equity, and economic development.Report

    Reply
  16. Anonymous says:

    health_impact …free parking leads to more traffic? Why, because people are actually patronizing the Center as opposed to staying away from it? That’s A-OK in my book. The problems with Midtown traffic are poorly laid-out streets, lights that aren’t timed well, and too many single commuters in cars (as opposed to people biking into work, ride-sharing, or using public transit). Blaming the Center for Midtown’s traffic problems is ludicrous. The High has a paid lot and there’s plenty of traffic in that area. Fernbank has a free lot with much lighter traffic. I really don’t see the connection.Report

    Reply
  17. Tom Barksdale says:

    Maria, thank you for using a specific example to draw much needed attention to the question of urban design and making out cities more pedestrian friendly places that say “welcome” to human beings, not vehicles. I can only say: please keep up the good work.Report

    Reply
  18. Henry Howell says:

    An unbelievable affront to the eyes of anyone venturing south on Spring Street-what ever was the board thinking of, not to mention how could such a design have gotten the ok from Midtown Alliance-is this what they hope new Midtown streets capes will emulate?Report

    Reply
  19. Sally Flocks says:

    Long-term impact is hideous. But the short-term impact also stinks. Spring Street is 4 lanes wide. Why did Public Works allow the Center for Puppetry Arts to close the sidewalk rather than close a lane of traffic, install barricades and let people walk safely in the road?Report

    Reply
  20. bybirius says:

    Wow! What a bunch of whining negative babies that commented here. 
    Anybody who knows anything about the Center for Puppetry Arts knows their parking is important to them. Schools from all over bring bus loads of children there all the time. If they expanded their building on top of the parking lot, where would these buses park? How would these kids get there?… Walk? Marta?, yeah right!

    If you know anything about the Arts, you would know that funding is always an issue. This is a non-profit organization. I think the building is going to look just fine once they’re finished. You don’t pour money into building a flashy, fancy, over the top building like the Frelon’s design. Just maintaining a building like that is expensive. You pour money into educational programs, the museums, the exhibits, things people and kids want to go see. Things people want to learn about.
    Climb down off your high horse and get involved with their mission to teach children and adults through puppetry. Donate your time to the Center, donate some money, make a difference.
    At least visit the Center for Puppetry Arts for yourself and see what great things they’re doing.Report

    Reply
  21. Vincent says:

    It is unfortunate, but could be rescued with some great wall art that incorporates a puppetry theme.  In any case, that 17th St entrance to the bridge area is pretty desolate and unattractive – it would take more than a museum design to rescue it.  The Proton Center is an even worse disgrace IMO because Emory has tons of money and should have had better sense.Report

    Reply
  22. PhillyPuppeteer says:

    Having formerly worked at the Center for Puppetry Arts (CPA),
    I have conflicted feelings about this project. For those wondering why the
    Center is expanding, it’s because they were gifted a huge collection of Muppets
    from the Henson family on the condition that the Center raise funds to build a
    new museum space for them. Certainly a cultural treasure for a very culturally
    poor city.

    So is the project good for Atlanta’s cultural scene?
    Definitely YES, especially for children. (What other cultural amenities exist
    in Atlanta for kids? Besides the CPA, the Fernbank, and the GA State Aquarium,
    I can’t think of any. Coke World is NOT a cultural attraction. It’s a marketing
    tool.) But is the CPA’s new BUILDING good for Atlanta? In a word, NO.
    These days I live in Philadelphia and run the Center for
    Architecture, where our mission is to convene discussions about our built
    environment and explore how design decisions affect us all on a daily basis.
    Philadelphia is privileged to suffer from the opposite problem of Atlanta’s
    cultural woes – we have too many cultural institutions for audiences to support,
    creating our own issues to deal with.
    But where Philadelphia get it right is our great urban
    planning (designed originally by William Penn in 1682 and supported today by a generally effective City Planning Commission). I’m able to walk to and from work
    every day through lively streets, quiet residential neighborhoods, and well-used
    public parks. While I lived in Atlanta, I was forced to use my car for the shortest
    of trips – there were often no sidewalks IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CITY. And
    crossing the street felt like playing Frogger; I had to cross 6 lanes of
    traffic going one way and every time the light changed to green for me, six
    more lanes of traffic would turn into the street I was trying to cross. Not to mention the blocks and blocks of blank walls I had to walk past without another person in sight for 10 minutes at a time.

    The issues with the CPA expansion are not problems caused by
    the Center, but rather by poor urban planning by generations of civil servants. Commenter
    @bybirius is correct– it is not
    CPA’s job to be good urban planners but to budget their money to maximize their
    cultural programs. It is the job of the City’s planning department to hold
    individuals and businesses to design / building standards that leave the city
    in better shape than what was inherited from our ancestors – safer, easier to
    navigate, and more beautiful.
    I wish Atlanta well and hope that this addition is nothing
    but a benefit. But I will not be moving back or recommending anyone else move
    to Atlanta because the quality of life was abysmal there – even though I was
    working my dream job and enjoyed meeting everyone. All my issues were with your
    built environment. Demand better from your City. You deserve it! Please prove me wrong and make me eat my words.Report

    Reply
  23. Slytherinpete says:

    I’m going to hold my judgement until it’s finished. I don’t think it’s fair to look at a construction site and say it’s ugly. Also, if you think this is bad, where were you when they built the skyhouse parking decks, or the proton therapy center, or americas mart expansion, or several dozen other projects in midtown and downtown that present a blank wall to the sidewalk? Why are we holding this to a higher standard?Report

    Reply
  24. Itsreallyashame says:

    That really was the best design.  One of the “reasons” it was rejected was the executive director’s disbelief that it could be connected to the existing structure – which makes no sense at all when you think about that.  I think another issue was the executive director’s fantasy that it would be possible to sell that portion of the property to a developer for condos/mixed use and thus finance the expansion. Of course that makes no sense either because of the access issues it would present. This is what you get when you have a nearly 80 year old executive director who only works part-time, refuses to retire or listen to anyone with any common sense.Report

    Reply
  25. K3nn3th says:

    It actually angers me when I see the beautiful design that COULD HAVE BEEN and then what they chose to do. There just is no excuse for this kind of poor planning. If cost were an issue I am certain the talented architects from Freelon Group could have modified the plan. 
    This decision, like so many other poor decisions in the city’s past, had to be have been made based on personal relationships or politics and not what was good. Shame.Report

    Reply
  26. LRA2U says:

    This really comes as no surprise given the state this property has been in for years. Outside, overgrown shrubbery, weeds, unkempt grass (the only plus being the now gone trees), the abandoned looking building at the 17th street side and leaves from last season filling the parking lot along with trash – isn’t what you could call respectable in the least. Add to that the peeling paint inside and outside (possibly lead-based), frayed carpets, run down (even gross) bathrooms and then there is the smell!  Management obviously doesn’t care about maintenance (which costs a whole lot less in the long run). Why anyone would trust this bunch with the Muppets is beyond me! One thing for sure, it can’t end well.  If only the Woodruff Arts Center would step in. The embarrassment to Atlanta could end.Report

    Reply

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