Friday, November 2, 2012

BZA declines to issue permit, temporarily saving historic Crum & Forster building

Posted By on Fri, Nov 2, 2012 at 9:33 AM

Historic preservationists won a small but important battle yesterday in the drawn-out fight to protect Midtown's Crum & Forster building.

In a hearing, the city's Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously voted to ignore a court order prompted by a previous settlement between the city and the Georgia Tech Foundation, which wants to demolish much of the landmark building to construct a computing center and tower.

During the hearing, BZA members said the court's order required actions outside their overall responsibilities as a quasi-judicial board. They also said that the city of Atlanta’s law department had never consulted them about the settlement, meaning that they weren’t bound to the requirements within the Consent Order.

By not adhering to this, the BZA will no longer have to ask the Office of Planning to issue a permit leading to the building's partial demolition.

“I can’t tell you how much I admire these public boards for standing up in very adverse circumstances,” Atlanta Preservation Center executive director Boyd Coons said to WABE yesterday.

On behalf of Atlanta taxpayers, attorney Mary Huber filed a lawsuit against Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell last week for their role in negotiating the settlement response for the controversial order. The Atlanta Urban Design Commission soon followed, urging the BZA to ignore the order.

The Georgia Tech Foundation bought the Crum & Forster building in 2007, and applied for a permit needed to knock down two-thirds of the structure. It had planned to replace a portion of the building — which has stood for more than 80 years — with parking. Its plans were denied by both the Office of Planning and BZA the following year.

The Foundation has repeatedly insisted that unless this demolition takes place, the school won’t be able to build its fancy, new, top-of-the-line High Performance Computing Center. Duriya Farooqui, the city's chief operating officer, thinks that if the Crum & Forster building remains, it would become harder for the university to compete for an estimated $100 million in investments.

“It would deliver a huge competitive advantage to the university that competes for students as well as a city that competes for innovators and new businesses,” she told Saporta Report. “The goal is one that we support, but it is the proposed historic location and design that continues to pose challenges for the city and Georgia Tech.”

In 2009, the Crum & Forster building received its Landmark designation, which prompted the Georgia Tech Foundation to sue the city and the BZA. In their lawsuit, the foundation argued that it had unfairly been denied permits to demolish the building on multiple occasions.

This past April, Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall proposed legislation aiming to strip the Crum & Forster building's surrounding property — but not the actual building — of its landmark status. Not long after, the AUDC condoned the de-designation attempts. In June, a panel appointed by the commission was unable to make a strong economic argument in defense of either making restoring or renovating the building. In August, the AUDC voted unanimously to disagree with those findings.

Both sides avoided court this past September by reaching this settlement. With much of that agreement now being ignored yesterday by the BZA, it appears like the fight has, at least temporarily, turned in favor of the community's preservationists.

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