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Friday, August 22, 2014

Preservationists cry foul over potential demolition of 20 Hilliard St.

HOLD YOUR HORSES: Building must be demolished to clean up property, says building owner Atlanta Housing Authority
  • Joeff Davis
  • HOLD YOUR HORSES: Building must be demolished to clean up property, says building owner Atlanta Housing Authority
The two-story building at 20 Hilliard St. has served a variety of purposes over the decades. The circa 1910 structure has housed a dry cleaner and, according to some sources, a halfway house. It somehow survived the massive 1917 fire that engulfed 2,000 acres of the Old Fourth Ward. But in a few weeks it could turn to dust thanks to its owner, the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Local preservationists this week raised concerns about the approval of a permit allowing the AHA to demolish the building, which city officials say has fallen into disrepair. Although the city board tasked with overseeing Atlanta’s historic districts legally approved the demolition, some preservation buffs and residents say more could have — and could still be — done.

“Now is not the time to let another historic building quickly fall without a full sort of understanding about what the issues are,” Kyle Kessler, an architect and preservationist, says. “And whether those have been vetted on the community level and not just because it’s been expedient at this time to take this building down.”

The AHA bought the building through an affiliate, Westside Revitalization Acquisitions, LLC, in 2009 after residents of Auburn Pointe, a mixed-income and senior development built on top of the old Grady Homes public housing complex in O4W, complained about illicit activity. Shean Atkins, the AHA’s vice president external and governmental affairs, says that included drug deals and homeless people camping in the building. The building was added to a list of brownfields scheduled for remediation, Atkins says, but the deadline for taking action kept being pushed back. The building showed signs of deterioration starting in in August 2012. Six months later, AHA officials were told that remediation couldn't safely take place until the building was demolished, Atkins says.

The staff of the city’s Urban Design Commission, which oversees Atlanta’s historic districts, approved the permit in June. According to a spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed, the decision was based on an inspection and written findings by Anthony Carter, the Office of Buildings’ assistant director, who found “immediate hazardous conditions to the neighboring properties and the general public.” Carter said the building was unsafe and needed to be razed — renovation wasn’t offered as an option. City code allows the UDC to move forward without going through the public process in such a case, the spokeswoman says.

Atkins says there are no immediate plans for 20 Hilliard St. The building was purchased with federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which means future development of the property would need to have an affordable housing component. Atkins says AHA and the Integral Group, the private firm that helped redeveloped Grady Homes, are currently revising the area’s master plan, which will include ideas for the property. That plan is expected to be finished later this year.

But Kessler and others remain concerned that the public wasn’t given an adequate chance to weigh in on the decision. He wants AHA to delay the demolition to allow an independent assessment to be conducted. Failing to at least try and preserve the structure would erase a piece of history — even one that might not be as remarkable or iconic as others — from a neighborhood that takes pride in its past.

“We understand this area has significance because of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement and what it is to Atlanta, and the businesses and residents who have been here for generations,” Kessler says. “We’ve lost a bunch of that heritage. We can’t keep talking about this heritage if we continue to tear it down.”

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