Sweet Auburn’s historic Odd Fellows tower could become Georgia Works’ HQ and housing
By John Ruch
Sweet Auburn’s historic Odd Fellows tower may become a new headquarters and housing site for the homelessness program Georgia Works.
The proposal is drawing praise as a humanitarian and historic preservation win-win. A purchase agreement for the 110-year-old 250 Auburn Ave. building is said to be in place, but the project requires a zoning waiver for the supportive housing component, which is still making its way through the City process.
Georgia Works did not respond to a comment request, but its staff and board leaders said in November and January meetings of Neighborhood Planning Unit M that the project would assist their mission of helping chronically homeless men with supportive and affordable housing, as well as saving the historic building, described by one board member as “at risk for being demolished.” The tower would continue to have ground-floor retail spaces.
The project is “a key part in turning around our [Auburn Avenue] corridor,” said District 5 City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari in support at the November meeting of NPU-M. “I believe that this can exist along with market-rate housing. We need to have both affordability and supportive and affordable [housing] if we want to have a thriving community. And this area needs a lot of love. And I believe that they will be vital partners in turning this corridor around.”
“Their goal of finding the space that both represents their mission and the importance of human dignity has found the perfect union with the restoration of the Odd Fellows Building at 250 Auburn Avenue,” said Atlanta Preservation Center Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell in a support letter to NPU-M. “As the exterior of the building is restored, so is the confidence and self-esteem of our fellow citizens. This is the zenith of our mission and Georgia Works’ mission, and this exhibits how historic preservation is the bedrock of our culture and identity.”
Marking its 10th anniversary this year, Georgia Works is a nonprofit whose program is aimed at helping men out of chronic homelessness, drug addiction and criminality. It provides housing for up to a year and minimum-wage transitional work, along with a range of support services aimed at getting participants a permanent job and home. Participants must submit to a strict drug-testing regimen, among other requirements.
Georgia Works says it has graduated more than 940 men from the program, with a 100 percent success rate in job placement and 99 percent moving on without any criminal arrests.
Georgia Works is currently housed within the Gateway Center at 275 Pryor St., a housing and program center for people who are homeless. Darlene Schultz, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, told NPU-M that a new strategic plan includes finding a new headquarters and facility. “And this building on Auburn Avenue fits everything that we want perfectly,” she said, citing its proximity to public transit and Grady Hospital.
Last summer, Gov. Brian Kemp earmarked $5 million for Georgia Works from the federal American Rescue Plan aimed at addressing homelessness and housing insecurity stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. In community presentations, the nonprofit cited that funding and said the Odd Fellows project would be budgeted at around $10 million.
Odd Fellows history
The Odd Fellows building is among the most significant artifacts of Sweet Auburn, the neighborhood that rose to prominence a century ago as one of the country’s wealthiest African American business districts, a triumph of self-sufficiency in the era of Jim Crow racism. That’s doubly important today, as the National Park Service (NPS) has warned that the rate of demolitions is threatening Sweet Auburn’s historic character and meaning for future generations. Such concerns were emphasized last year in debate over the proposed demolition of a historic office building at 229 Auburn, across the street from the Odd Fellows building, which ended in a restoration promise.
What is commonly called the Odd Fellows building is actually two adjacent structures, both built about a century ago by the fraternal organization, at 236 and 250 Auburn between Jesse Hill Jr. Drive and Bell Street. One is the “tower,” a six-story, mixed-use building at 250 Auburn and Bell. The other is the “atrium,” a two-story commercial building at 236 Auburn and Jesse Hill Jr.
The buildings have different owners, and Georgia Works is interested only in the tower. The tower’s current owner is a limited liability company. According to an attorney who is its registered agent, that company is operated by John Mangham of Buckhead’s EpiCity Real Estate Services. Mangham could not immediately be reached for comment.
The tower, a brick structure with terracotta figureheads and other decorative details, was erected in 1912 under the supervision of Benjamin J. Davis, editor of the Atlanta Independent newspaper and master of the Odd Fellow lodge. Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and a contributor to federal and City historic and landmark districts relating to Sweet Auburn and Martin Luther King Jr.
The 1973 application for the Sweet Auburn Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places called the tower “one of the most architecturally outstanding buildings” in the district and “one of the major Black entrepreneurial centers in America.”
The tower was an early success story for Sweet Auburn’s historic preservation with a restoration in the 1980s under different ownership. In 1987, the nonprofit Easements Atlanta gained a preservation easement on the building, which essentially prevents its intentional demolition and requires supervision of exterior changes and ongoing maintenance to national standards.
Georgia Works board member Michael Garber told NPU-M that if the tower “doesn’t get restored soon, it’s at risk of being demolished” due to its current condition. Ian Michael Rogers, Easement Atlanta’s board president and acting executive director, declined to comment on the record about details of the tower’s current state, but said Georgia Works’ plan is good because “the guidance, the stewardship really isn’t there currently.”
Rogers said in preliminary conversations, Georgia Works officials say they plan “to lead a large rehabilitation” of the tower. He said “they are very cognizant and respectful of the history and the easement that is in place and are preparing a pretty robust project plan to really respect the history, but also continue to reactivate and restore the space.”
Rogers noted a 2019 NPS estimate that 47 percent of Sweet Auburn’s historic structures had already been demolished, nearing a tipping point for its delisting from the National Register, among other concerns. “So what we have left, it is critical to preserve and steward,” he said. Georgia Works’ plan, he said, could demonstrate historic preservation as a catalyst and tool for economic development.
Georgia Works plan
As presented to NPU-M, the housing element of the Georgia Works plan involves 81 units that would house approximately 160 men. Of those men, 50 would be program participants living in supportive housing, meaning immediate housing for those entering the program. The rest of the units would be affordable housing – whose rates were not defined – for program graduates. Garber, the Georgia Works board member, said that no plans have been drawn up yet as the project opportunity “came together pretty quickly.”
In a presentation to the Fourth and Sweet Auburn Neighborhood District (4th & SAND), Georgia Works suggested the affordable housing – and even the entire program – would not necessarily stay forever and that the nonprofit would welcome getting priced out one day. “We would love for the market to rise and our program to grow, forcing us to sell to a market-rate owner,” the group said in its presentation.
The proposed uses are allowed under the existing zoning, Georgia Works officials said. But there’s another stumbling block in the zoning code: a prohibition on new supportive housing being built within 2,000 feet of an existing site. Bakhtiari is shepherding City Council legislation to waive that restriction for this project. The next step in that process is a Zoning Review Board hearing scheduled for Feb. 9.
Chip Patterson, Georgia Works’ board president, told NPU-M that the nonprofit has agreed to conditions for that zoning waiver. They include a maximum of 25 percent of the units being dedicated to supportive housing, and an agreement to never sell the building to another owner that operates supportive housing.
The proposal got a frosty reception from NPU-M in November due to a lack of outreach to many neighbors and community organizations. However, after more meetings, it gained the NPU’s support in January, along with that of such other neighborhood organizations institutions as 4th & SAND and Big Bethel AME Church.
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