By John Ruch
After pledging to save the historic office building at 229 Auburn Ave., the “Sweet Auburn Grande” project developers are working on new design concepts to incorporate it. They’ve also confirmed that a “Phase 2” will include the rehabilitation of two other historic structures.
“We’re happy to continue to work with the community ’til we get this thing right,” said Joel Reed, Southeast market president of co-developer Gorman & Company, at an Aug. 22 meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit M.
At that meeting, the development team won support from that group and Sweet Auburn Works (SAW), a preservation-minded economic development nonprofit. The collaborative work to save 229 Auburn also drew praise from Matt Adams, interim director of the City’s Historic Preservation Studio and executive director of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission (UDC), which will review the proposed changes to the structure.
“I am glad to hear that you are working with Sweet Auburn Works on this,” Adams told Reed in the meeting. “They have some great folks on this team. I have every confidence in the world this is going to come out right.”
Gorman, along with the nonprofit Butler Street Community Development Corporation (CDC) and 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 affordable housing. The plan 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. The City’s In Rem Review board previously ordered the demolition for safety reasons, but the UDC needs to sign off and has not done so.
The developers long resisted pressure from the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) and other preservationists, saying that there was no money to save 229 Auburn. In the end, however, the demolition plan became a threat to the project’s funding, as organizations around the Sweet Auburn historic landmark district made it clear they would publicly oppose it. The developers made a quick change of heart earlier this month. Reed – who was at NPU-M to seek support for an Invest Atlanta funding request – said casually that the “cost will probably go up a bit” from the estimated $41 million budget as a result of saving the building.
Reed displayed two conceptual illustrations for how 229 Auburn could be incorporated into the Sweet Auburn Grande. The general idea is to keep its exterior walls as the northwest corner of the structure and build apartments atop it — set back to preserve the historic roofline.
The actual design might differ. Reed said the developers are in negotiations with SAW on the scale of the project and indicated they are likely to increase the number of housing units and reduce the number of parking spaces.
According to a presentation by the developers, the current plan calls for 90 housing units, 85 percent of them affordable to households making 50 percent to 60 percent of area median income and the rest market rate; 8,000 square feet of ground-floor retail; and a six-story, 245-space parking structure. But the developers’ agreement with SAW includes a 203-space cap on parking, and Reed said there could be as many as 100 housing units in the final design.
Support letters from SAW and the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association were both conditioned on saving 229 Auburn and making the design more pedestrian-friendly and reducing parking, among other requests.
“We’ve come a long way,” said SAW Executive Director LeJuano Varnell at the NPU-M meeting, describing three meetings with the developers since July. He said the developers had progressed on “creating something that meets the character, tone and tenor, and spirit of this neighborhood.”
While the project gained support, the various local organizations made it clear that continuing input and follow-through are expected – including on short-term historic preservation as well. Varnell said he hopes the developers’ funding includes money to “at least shore up that building” at 229 Auburn, saying “we can’t lose any more character” in historic Sweet Auburn. Reed pledged to continue conversations, including on such ideas as adding some type of historical marker to 229 Auburn.
One historic aspect of the building not discussed in the meeting is a rare, but racist, Gold Dust Twins soap advertisement painted on an exterior wall. The painting was revealed when the adjacent Herndon Building, another historic structure, was taken down after being badly damaged in a 2008 tornado. APC Executive Director David Mitchell later said the UDC is likely to require preservation of all exterior walls of 229 Auburn, thus leaving the painting intact. “The Atlanta Preservation Center is very interested in working with Gorman and the Butler Street CDC to preserve the Gold Dust Twins [advertisement] to explain the richer history of this building,” Mitchell said.
Reed also confirmed that a “Phase 2” of Sweet Auburn Grande is planned and would include two other historic, vacant buildings on the opposite side of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive that are also owned by the CDC. One is the 1920 Butler Street YMCA, which birthed the CDC itself. The other is the 1948 Walden Building, named for an attorney and Civil Rights leader, which sits beside a giant mural of Civil Rights leader John Lewis that has become a tourist attraction.
Reed said the “Phase 2” plan involves restoring both buildings as community and commercial spaces, and creating a “new green space fronting the John Lewis mural.” There is no timeline for that phase. The APC has urged good stewardship of those buildings in the meantime.
As for Phase 1, the developers plan to go before the board of Invest Atlanta, the City development authority, at its September meeting with a funding assistance request. A first hearing at the UDC is expected in October. The goal is to file a building permit application in July 2023.
Update: This story has been updated with comment about the Gold Dust Twins advertisement.