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Preservationist group formalizes push to save, reuse Atlanta Civic Center

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Leader is dismayed that “this internationally recognized asset may no longer call Atlanta its home”

A photo of the 1968 landmark standing where Old Fourth Ward meets downtown.
The 1968 landmark stands where Old Fourth Ward meets downtown.
Image courtesy of Historic Atlanta

If a newly founded cadre of preservationists has its way, the Atlanta Civic Center and other components of its high-profile site will not be destined for a scrap heap, contrary to earlier plans.

The group, Historic Atlanta, is pushing for a preservation strategy that would spare the Civic Center, the SciTrek facility (Science & Technology Museum of Atlanta), and nearby Southface Energy Institute from demolition.

They describe the Civic Center itself as an “iconic” New Formalist landmark, designed by Harold Montague of Robert & Co. and opened in 1968. Positioned along the western edge of Old Fourth Ward, the building has hosted the Metropolitan Opera, Theater of the Stars, Atlanta Opera, and more recently television shows such as Steve Harvey’s Family Feud.

A closer view of the facility, with the group’s designated hashtag.
Historic Atlanta

Its stage, per Historic Atlanta, is the largest in the Southeast, though the 4,600-seat auditorium has been chided for its charmlessness and subpar acoustics.

Charles Lawrence, Historic Atlanta board chairperson, gleaned hope from a community charrette hosted last week by the property’s new owners, Atlanta Housing Authority.

Still, the future remains uncertain.

“The charrette was a good and early step in the right direction of public involvement,” Lawrence wrote in an email to Curbed Atlanta. “[But] we did feel that a more proactive and affirmative acknowledgement of the existing building and resources [such as Southface] were missing from the charrette.

“We’re concerned that Southface, an affordable housing advocate, is being displaced for [proposed AHA] affordable housing,” he said, “that the city’s most sustainable campus of buildings will be sent to a landfill; and that this internationally recognized asset may no longer call Atlanta its home.”

Back in the fall of 2016, Texas developer Weingarten Realty abandoned efforts to singlehandedly transform the Civic Center site into a mixed-use utopia with some 650 housing units and likely a Publix grocery.

Nixed plans at the Civic Center site.
HGOR via Weingarten

“Plans and renderings for the site were released by Weingarten,” noted Lawrence, “without any public process and included the wholesale demolition of everything on the site for more bland podium construction.”

Rumors notwithstanding, revised plans for the site remained quiet until November, when outgoing Mayor Kasim Reed announced a sale to Atlanta Housing Authority for $31 million, offloading the property from city books like Underground Atlanta and City Hall East (now Ponce City Market) before it.

AHA will be partnering with none other than Weingarten Realty for a planned $300 million redevelopment with an emphasis on affordability. It will entail 250 low-income housing units (via AHA’s HomeFlex program) and at least 10 percent workforce housing units (via Invest Atlanta’s bond inducement requirements), alongside retail and commercial spaces.

City officials have forecasted that a performing arts venue would also be considered.

Lawrence said it’s too early in the re-planning process to know exactly what the best reuse scenario could be, though his group has met with AHA and Southface leaders recently and plans to continue those talks, possibly looping in Atlanta City Council reps.

“We don’t want to advocate for meaningful public process,” Lawrence added, “while also trying to dictate what the development should look like.”

Formed in February, Historic Atlanta is an outgrowth of a local preservationist network that began meeting about five years ago.

Its board includes architects, professional preservationists, developers, architectural historians, Realtors, conservators, and others.

Other key sites on the group’s preservation radar include Atlanta Central Library, United Motors Service Building (the former Peachtree-Pine shelter), and various Atlanta African-American and civil rights landmarks, including the fire-damaged Gaines Hall at Morris Brown College.

“We felt like there’s been an absence of a preservation organization that can bring meaningful technical understanding to the table when advocating for reuse,” said Lawrence. “I could go on, but the short version is that historic preservation is more than just an affinity for old buildings: It’s a recognition of the communities who built them and sustained them.”