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Can the city jail become a welcoming mixed-use project that ‘makes Atlantans great’?

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The facility needs to shed its cold, claustrophobic feel and uplift the community, activists say

a rendering of the proposed renovation
The jail is soon to be devoid of all inmates. What’s next?
Isabella Warren-Mohr, via Racial Justice Action Center

As news spread that the Atlanta City Detention Center would permanently stop housing inmates, the brainstorming began for a potentially major adaptive-reuse project.

Some suggested the jail, built in 1995 at the corner of Peachtree Street and Memorial Drive, should be turned into something like a hotel or film studio, as reported by 11 Alive.

But if Xochitl Bervera, Racial Justice Action Center director, achieves her organization’s goals, “This won’t be a gentrification project,” she told Curbed Atlanta.

Bervera and the RJAC are helping the city’s newly formed Reimagining Atlanta City Detention Center Task Force, a group organized to reboot the soon-to-shutter jail after the last inmates leave.

The RJAC has no qualms with turning the city jail into Atlanta’s next mixed-use development, so long as it features a substantial social justice component.

The jail, she told Curbed, would need to be renovated in a way that benefits Atlantans that have been incarcerated—or impacted by the incarceration of others—at the facility.

a picture of the jail Google Maps

“A lot of the excitement that I hear is about the creation of this mixed-use facility that can be both in service of the people who were most harmed by the jail,” she says, “while also being revenue-generating and an exciting, vibrant place where people want to go.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the creation of the task force in May, moving closer to fulfilling her campaign promise of closing the jail. The task force met for the first time last week.

Many different insights and opinions are at the proverbial table.

Some 50 task force participants, including a few who’ve been locked up at the jail, are charged with spending the next nine months compiling suggestions for what to make of the facility.

Bervera said the RJAC has fielded a wide spectrum of ideas, one of which called for a small portion of the 17-floor, 471,000-square-foot facility to be turned into a daycare center.

“Great, now we have only 445,000 square feet to fill, so let’s keep thinking bigger,” she said.

Other spitballed ideas have called for a skate park at the ground floor, a restaurant that focuses on helping people learn the ropes of the food service industry—paid job training, essentially—recording studios, and “a coffee shop attached to a legal clinic,” Bervera said.

Still, some activists are concerned that, without a significant overhaul, even a repurposed jail could drudge up traumatic memories and even PTSD symptoms for people who’ve spent nights there.

The task force has recruited Oakland-based real estate and architecture nonprofit Designing Justice + Designing Spaces to sketch plans for a place purged of the jail’s claustrophobic and punishing aura.

“They won’t just be slapping a new coat of paint on and bringing people back in,” Bervera said.

The RJAC’s main goal is to remake the jail into the Atlanta Center for Wellness and Freedom, where people—both ex-inmates and not—can access resources to help them integrate back into society by way of rehabilitation, job training, and other avenues.

“This could be an investment that makes Atlantans great,” she said.

Bervera said she’s impressed by other successful adaptive-reuse projects like Ponce City Market, but she said it’s important to recognize who benefits most from the redevelopment.

“Who shops there? Who can afford to shop there? I know I can’t,” she said. “What we’re looking at is to have something of the caliber of [Ponce City Market], with tremendous artistry and what the best of Atlanta and the most creative Atlanta has to offer, but to benefit all Atlantans, and, in particular, Atlantans who have been impacted by mass incarceration.”

The task force will next convene in October, Bervera said.

Until then, the RJAC and Designing Justice + Designing Spaces will be collecting community input to inform plans for a proposal that Bottoms could consider in February.