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Ponce gem may be restored

Residents of a once grand building face an uncertain future

The smell inside Briarcliff Summit Apartments is rank.

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It's a mild December afternoon, and the trash chutes are clogged, again — this time up to the eighth floor. They've been like that for two weeks, according to residents of the once stately building on the corner of Ponce de Leon and North Highland avenues. Yellow caution tape blocks the doors to the chutes, and signs inform residents, all of whom are elderly and pay federally subsidized rent, that they must take their garbage downstairs to the Dumpsters.

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The tape makes each hallway look like a crime scene. Maybe that's appropriate since police have been called to the building on dozens of occasions in a year's time, with complaints ranging from theft to sexual assault.

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Residents of the building, which in its heyday was known as "the 750" and boasted a nine-room suite belonging to a Coca-Cola heir, say Briarcliff Summit now is decaying. They claim the elevator is frequently broken, drug dealers use the building as a base of operations, and homeless people sleep and defecate in the stairwells and hallways.

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Arlene Tuschl, a senior vice president for Brencor Inc., the building's management company, calls the building "a pretty tightly knit community" and says most residents "have been there for a long time, and most of them, when there is a problem, are good about coming down and letting us know."

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She also says Brencor has followed federal housing guidelines and tried to address residents' concerns in a timely fashion.

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The rise and fall of the building mirrors the changes that have taken place on Ponce de Leon Avenue over the past several decades. Once a bustling hub, with department store shopping and a baseball stadium, Ponce devolved into the provenance of prostitutes and drug dealers.

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But now Ponce is changing again, with long-forgotten lots and buildings being replaced with lofts and shopping centers. And Briarcliff Summit may be making a comeback of its own.

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Briarcliff Summit's owners are looking to sell the nine-story, 200-unit apartment building, and real estate experts speculate that the market is ripe for it to be converted into something more in tune with the gentrifying neighborhood (think trendy loft apartments). In the meantime, two big questions remain: Will the building regain its prominence on Ponce? And if it does, what will happen to the longtime, elderly residents who call it home?

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At first, the yellow-bricked tower was the victim of poor timing. It opened in 1925 as a luxury apartment building with terra cotta external detailing and windows flanked by medallions and cartouches. Asa G. Candler Jr., the son of Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler Sr., owned the real estate firm that built the 750. Candler, who had a zoo and swimming pool on his Atlanta estate that were open to the public, also maintained a mammoth suite in the building until he died in 1953.

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The 750 had a few good years before the stock market crash of 1929. It was later converted to a commercial hotel, with its 200 units divided into 400 in order to offer cheap rates to offset the failing economy. A postcard of the hotel from the 1950s advertises "400 luxurious rooms and suites."

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But after Candler died, the building, which had been renamed the Briarcliff Hotel, began to lose what was left of its luster.

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Today, Briarcliff Summit is a shadow of its former self, held together with cheap paint and carpet patches. Briarcliff Summit has been written up by the city for having inoperable "call for aid" boxes and failing to fix rooms with no heat, no water and deteriorating carpet, among other violations of city code.

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Yet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the vouchers used by Briarcliff Summit's residents, gave the building a "satisfactory" grade in its most recent inspection report, which a HUD spokesperson says is consistent with what the building has earned in the past.

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Residents claim that, because the building's owners are guaranteed income from federal vouchers, they do little to maintain the building. What's more, most residents have incomes of only a few hundred dollars a month and cannot afford to move.

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Gerry Troncone, a former accountant who suffers from blindness as a result of diabetes, moved into Briarcliff Summit in 2001. Last year, he requested new carpet for his apartment because, he claims, the torn flooring was causing him to trip and fall. When Brencor refused to fix the carpet, Troncone took the company to court. Eventually, Brencor agreed to have the carpet patched, not replaced.

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"It's just another indication that the management does not care about the tenants," Troncone says. "All they care about is money."

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Residents say a lack of security is the biggest problem. An open records request filed by CL with the Atlanta Police Department revealed that police were called to Briarcliff Summit more than 60 times between November 2004 and December 2005. Among the calls were seven reports of damage to private property, three reports of robberies and one report of a sex offense.

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Tuschl says the company has taken steps to make the building safer, including hiring a security guard.

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"They were going through a little rash of problems and we did put [a guard] there," Tuschl says. "But it didn't seem to snag anything, and the contract [with HUD] didn't require a security guard."

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So Brencor fired the security guard — after less than a week.

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Now residents claim things are as bad as ever. "I'm willing to go all the way," Troncone says. "If I have to, I'll go to court on my own. Something needs to be done, and quickly."

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Joel Kirkpatrick, who has lived in Briarcliff Summit for three years, says he often has heard rumors that the building would be sold.

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"That'd be fine by me," Kirkpatrick says. "I'm ready to get out of here, anyway. I just hope that the place I find to live is managed better, though it's going to be an expense that I believe the majority of people here won't be able to afford."

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A HUD spokesperson says the building's owner must give residents a year's notice to move out — and that residents only can be made to leave after the building's contract with HUD expires in 2013. If the building is sold, the new owner would have to honor that contract.

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Real estate developer Emory Morsberger, who is behind the planned mixed-use renovation of the mammoth City Hall East building a few blocks west, says he looked into purchasing Briarcliff Summit six months ago. In the end, he decided against it.

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"I think it will be a residential loft conversion, but there are parking issues there," Morsberger says. "You don't have enough room to park the number of cars that need to be parked."

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Though it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building does not have local landmark status and could be demolished. But Morsberger says there could be "some pretty good historic tax credits" available if the new owners are willing to preserve the building.

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Liz Coyle, vice chair of the city's Neighborhood Planning Unit-F, which includes Briarcliff Summit, says she wants what is best for the neighborhood.

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"As a personal concern, I certainly would want to make sure that the residents are looked after and taken care of," Coyle says. "From a neighborhood perspective, it is important that the building is taken care of and that they preserve its historic nature."

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coley.ward@creativeloafing.com