Sweet Auburn developers draw support with pledge to save historic office building; plan may include other structures
By John Ruch
A giant mixed-use project in Sweet Auburn is drawing new support after the developers abruptly switched plans to save rather than demolish the historic office building at 229 Auburn Ave. Preservationists say it’s all the more important because it’s just the first phase of a plan involving other historic structures, including the Butler Street YMCA.
The nonprofit Butler Street Community Development Corporation (CDC) and the for-profit Gorman & Company, along with consultant Red Rock Global, aim to remake most of the block on Auburn Avenue between Bell Street and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive into a mixed-use structure with deeply affordable housing. The plan — dubbed “Sweet Auburn Grande” — originally involved demolishing 229 Auburn, which is at least 114 years old and has housed pioneering African American businesses from Sweet Auburn’s heyday, including a branch of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and Georgia’s first state-chartered Black bank.
Under preservationist pressure first publicly revealed by SaportaReport in June, the developers finally changed their minds about 229 Auburn. The immediate trigger appears to have been wavering community support as the developers sought conceptual approval, likely to secure funding. A Gorman official announced the change at an Aug. 9 meeting of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association (ADNA), the day after getting grilled about the demolition at a committee meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit M.
“It was indeed an about-face,” said ADNA President Robyn Jackson, who is also on the NPU-M executive committee.
Since then, the developers put that promise in writing in an Aug. 20 letter to the nonprofit Sweet Auburn Works, which did not respond to a comment request.
“We want to formally acknowledge the development team’s commitment to preserve the 229 Building at 229 Auburn Avenue during Phase I of the project and incorporate it into the development,” wrote Joel Reed, Gorman’s Southeast market president. “We understand and join the community’s desire to save the building.”
The developers will “take all reasonable measures to preserve it” consistent with the conceptual plan, he wrote.
As SaportaReport previously noted, Gorman’s website touts the company as an award-winning specialist in preserving “white elephant” historic structures.
The developers — who did not respond to SaportaReport comment requests — were scheduled to appear before NPU-M on Aug 22 for a formal vote on conceptual approval. “Based on the information provided, and the announcement of the change, the ADNA general body voted to send a letter of support” to that body, said Jackson.
The Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), a nonprofit that led the anti-demolition effort, is also ready to partner. “The Atlanta Preservation Center will enter into conversation of working with all parties to move forward with the project,” said APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell in advance of the NPU-M meeting.
Mitchell emphasized that saving 229 Auburn is just the start. The APC, he said, wants to see “the same level of stewardship” on two other historic, vacant buildings on the opposite side of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive that are also owned by the CDC. Those are the 1920 Butler Street YMCA — which birthed the CDC itself — and the 1948 Walden Building, named for an attorney and Civil Rights leader.
That isn’t just idle interest. It appears that those buildings are part of a larger development vision that would be the “Phase II” following the “Phase I” Reed referred to in his letter to Sweet Auburn Works. The letter also referred to “the project’s potential to revive several of Atlanta’s most historic buildings” – not just one.
Alfonza Marshall, the CDC’s board chair, previously told SaportaReport that his group was considering some kind of community-oriented reuse of those properties that would be interrelated with the mixed-use project. But a solid conceptual vision was laid out in recent years on a website for a Sweet Auburn redevelopment technical assistance grant program, run by Central Atlanta Progress and Invest Atlanta, the City’s development authority. That website includes a short video showing the mixed-use project, as well as refurbished Y and the Walden Building turned into a restaurant with outdoor seating next to the tourist-attraction mural of Civil Rights icon John Lewis at the southwest corner of Auburn and Jesse Hill Jr.
The website describes the concept as including 14,000 square feet of community meeting and event space, 4,000 square feet of “food and beverage,” and 8,000 square feet of “creative office.”
In an email sent earlier this month to officials with the City’s Historic Preservation Studio, Mitchell expressed concern about the CDC painting one exterior wall of the Walden Building blue, with a CDC welcome banner hung there as well, oriented toward John Lewis mural tourists.
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