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The redemptive potential of Old Fourth Ward’s languishing Atlanta Civic Center

Sean Keenan

By Sean Keenan

Since 2014, a beige brick behemoth on Piedmont Avenue has watched Old Fourth Ward traffic trickle by, but no one, save for some security guards, ever pulls into the parking lot. Since then, the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center, built in the late 1960s, has sat vacant, beckoning for the kind of excitement it enjoyed in decades past. 

Gone are the days of Broadway musicals, concerts, lectures and commencement ceremonies at the historic auditorium. But public officials in Atlanta say this mammoth isn’t down for the count; it’s just hibernating, awaiting its potential resurrection as a place to live, work and play.

Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi, who represents the district where the Atlanta Civic Center is located, said he knows the massive site, best known for its 4,600-seat theater, holds the potential to enrich the chunk of the city that separates downtown and Midtown, a community dotted by apartments, offices and parkland. 

“The thing I hear most from neighbors is, ‘Let’s just do something,’” Farokhi said in an interview with SaportaReport. “Today, it’s just a giant property that brings no value to the city and its people.”

For years, officials with Atlanta Housing (AH) — the agency that has controlled the languishing site since late 2017 — have said the Civic Center’s rebirth is right around the corner, and that its revitalization would deliver much-needed affordable housing to the fast-evolving neighborhood. 

AH CEO Eugene Jones reiterated that promise during the Atlanta City Council’s Community Development and Human Services (CD/HS) Committee meeting on Tuesday. He did not share any details of what the housing authority has been cooking up with Texas-based developer Weingarten Realty, although he said he’d like to see the historic building stay standing, and he thinks the project should include some sort of performing arts component, in addition to new residences.

Farokhi said he imagines the site, roughly half of which is parking spaces, could squeeze hundreds — if not thousands — of new rentals. “Hopefully sooner rather than later,” he said to Jones during the CD/HS meeting.

Of course, in Atlanta, like in many major cities, the demand for affordable housing outweighs the supply. And in the midst of a global pandemic that’s wreaked havoc upon the nation’s economy, that demand is only swelling. 

“I think it’s more urgent [to utilize the Atlanta Civic Center property] today as we see increasing economic insecurity for huge swaths of the population,” Farokhi said. “Given that nothing’s moved on it for a couple of years, we’re probably past trying to fast-track it. But as we try to make our housing supply meet demand, this is a piece of property that should be at the top of the list. It’s MARTA-accessible; it’s accessible to jobs; it’s near park space.”

But officials must be delicate when drawing up blueprints for the property to ensure its redevelopment doesn’t contribute to the community’s ongoing gentrification. 

Jones said he knows AH is caught between a rock and a hard place these days, with the pandemic throwing “a big wrench” in the planning process for the Civic Center while amplifying the city’s already dire affordable housing crisis.

“Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll have something to take to the community,” he told SaportaReport of AH’s efforts with Weingarten Realty. “The demand for affordable housing was jacked before this happened, and now it’s going to get worse … Once these [eviction] moratoriums stop, how are people going to pay rent? We need to find a way to help.”

(Header image, via Kelly Jordan: Built in 1967, the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center sits vacant in Old Fourth Ward.)

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