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Saving history

The good news about projects such as the Beltline and Peachtree Street trolley is that, if all goes according to plan, long-neglected areas of intown Atlanta will be remade into busy epicenters of urban life.

The bad news is that some of the city's historic buildings stand in the way of developers' rush for land along the Beltline's route.

Historic buildings — that is, structures that are at least 50 years old and are historically, architecturally, or archaeologically noteworthy — are in danger of being razed for condos, shopping centers and mixed-use projects. For instance, more than 800 historic structures — from an old telephone factory on Ralph McGill Boulevard to a Renaissance revival-style church built in 1895 near Lakewood Park — stand on or near the Beltline's 22-mile route, according to an Atlanta Urban Design Commission and Georgia State University survey.

In addition to a mass transit loop, the proposed Beltline will add 1,400 acres of parks and a jogging trail circling the inner city. As a result, land near the proposed route has become some of the hottest property in the city.

While not all of the 800 buildings identified in the study are in danger of the wrecking ball, the sheer number of them suggests that a significant portion of historic Atlanta is vulnerable.

The number also suggests that a significant portion of historic Atlanta is ripe for restoration.

The Beltline is "a kind of a wild horse at this point and you don't know where it's going to go or what it's going to do," says Richard Laub, director of the GSU's Heritage Preservation program. "It's going to be a developer-driven process, so there needs to be some kind of regulatory checks and balances. That's really up to the city to implement."

The survey was conducted by GSU students working on a Heritage Preservation master's degree between May and December of last year. In eight months, three historic buildings were torn down: Peachtree Valley apartments, built in the 1960s near Piedmont Hospital; McDaniel Glenn Community Center, a three-story pubic housing building in Mechanicsville dating back to the 1940s; and Peachtree Memorial Park apartments, built in the 1920s near Atlanta Memorial Park.

Laub says efforts to preserve old buildings are increasing. But the Beltline project — and the wider intown development boom — provide a litmus test for how much the city values its history.

City legislation that created the funding structure for the Beltline includes a section stressing the importance of historic preservation.

"To me, it's significant that there's anything about historic preservation in that legislation," says Ryan Gravel, the man who came up with the Beltline idea in a thesis paper he wrote while at Georgia Tech. "That's huge for Atlanta, because it means we are going to think about it ahead of time — instead of when it's too late — for a change."

But the legislation doesn't include any actual protective measures.

What Laub and other preservationists want is nothing short of historic — a type of zoning change that would encompass the Beltline district and protect existing buildings, as well as guide the look of future projects in areas near the historic properties.

New buildings built in historic areas would be restricted to the height standard for the historical time period. And their style would have to be historically accurate as well, though that matter is up to interpretation by the Urban Design Commission.

Even a year ago, such restrictions might have seemed politically impractical. But rampant intown development has resulted in a backlash against inappropriately sized buildings. That backlash is evident in Mayor Shirley Franklin's recent moratorium on "McMansions" that have overpowered smaller, older homes in five Atlanta neighborhoods.

Some Atlanta neighborhoods already are designated as historical and are protected by the city's preservation laws, including Inman Park, Fairlie-Poplar, West End and Sweet Auburn.

But others — Reynoldstown and Ormewood Park — are not. And they sit right along the proposed Beltline.

Then there's the Pittsburgh neighborhood, between University Avenue and Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard southeast of Turner Field. Pittsburgh is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it doesn't have any local protections. And the Beltline's route will take it straight through the southern part of Pittsburgh.

Laub and a new class of Heritage Preservation master's candidates are currently performing another, more extensive follow-up survey, which he plans to present to the Urban Design Commission and Atlanta Development Authority at the end of the semester in May.

"What we're hoping is the neighbors, the citizens of Atlanta, will use this information and have a better case in terms of going before City Council, or the ADA, or whomever," Laub says.

For its part, the ADA seems willing to listen.

"I'm pleased that there's a proactive effort to try and better understand the historic significance of what is there," says Tina Arbes, the ADA's Beltline specialist.

Atlanta already has lost most of its more famous historic structures and the character that accompanied them. That's because the city's track record for preserving historical buildings has so far been dismal. Reinventing the city's image and encouraging commerce traditionally have been a higher priority than protecting history.

The historic homes and train stations that once composed downtown mostly have been razed for office buildings and parking lots. In the 1970s, the Victorian and palatial Terminal Station, completed in 1905, was replaced by the bland and blocky Richard B. Russell Federal Building. Union Station on Forsyth Street was torn down, too.

The magnificent Loew's Grand Theater, built in 1893, was demolished to make way for the Georgia Pacific building. The Paramount Theater, one block north on Peachtree Street, was also torn down.

But while the razing of such buildings has meant the loss of some of the city's culture and history, it's also made way for gains that make Atlanta attractive to some.

"As a native Atlantan, I get it. I get it that for so many years we didn't really pay much attention to [historic preservation], and some buildings that would have added a lot to the culture of our city have been destroyed," says Matt Gove, editor-in-chief of Atlanta Property News, a local real estate magazine. "At the same time, I like the direction developers are going these days — the mixing of uses and a more vibrant street life. That's the kind of thing the city needs. And if a moderately historic building has to perish, then so be it."

Get involved: For more info, visit www.preserveatlanta.com.