Atlanta City Council, whether it knows it or not, essentially supported demolition of Downtown's Central Library on Monday
Beware of legislation introduced at the end of eight-hour Council meetings
But on Monday night, just before adjourning an eight-hour meeting, the scenario outlined above happened. Councilmembers voted 9-3 to pass a resolution saying they essentially endorsed the demolition of the existing Central Library in Downtown and building a new facility in its place.
Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin, who does not represent the Downtown district where the library is located, introduced the nonbinding resolution. The paper was not listed on the public agenda. Efforts to send the legislation to a City Council committee for open debate and discussion were rejected.
Library advocates were blindsided. While the legislation does not expressly say Council supported tearing down the Marcel Breuer-designed building, the resolution's language — “it is in the best interest of the city to construct the new Central Library at its present location,” and specifically noting its address at 1 Margaret Mitchell Square — leaves no other interpretation.
Unmentioned in Martin's resolution was the fact that the Central Library's future is currently a topic of intense debate among some of the building's patrons, architecture buffs, Downtown residents, and library officials. The Atlanta Fulton Library System's board of trustees is debating whether to issue bonds to fund the construction of a new facility or, as many have urged, use some of the cash to renovate the building and boost programming.
Cheering on the build anew brigade is Robb Pitts, the former Fulton County commissioner who was the biggest advocate for a new library to be constructed elsewhere in Downtown when voters approved the 2008 bond package to construct new libraries and renovate branches. Pitts remains as supportive today as he was eight years ago and has championed a new building somewhere in Downtown that would require raising private-sector cash.
In an interview with CL on Tuesday, Martin said he introduced the resolution at Pitt's request. Martin said it was important that the city have some say in the fast-moving discussion. His intent "was to get a conscious statement out there and a resolution out there… a resolution is nothing but a statement of intent and to draw attention to an issue."
"But I was in agreement with it," Martin said. "We need to get everybody on board or at least let everybody know... I would have done it anyway... I think if the city doesn’t make a statement or say something that’s what will happen, the county will drive the whole issue. Because the city… has not been an active part of the conversation."
In an email, Pitts says his position remains unchanged, saying "the new one should be constructed in downtown Atlanta. I have not proposed nor suggested that the existing facility be torn down." He says he "did not suggest any language to anyone."
The timing is worth noting: the board of trustees meets at 4 p.m. today on the sixth floor of the Central Atlanta Library. The Council's endorsement of building a new library in the same location as Breuer's building — a process that requires demolition — will surely have landed on their radars. And while the legislation might be nonbinding, it is an official opinion of the city's legislative body.
Martin says he did not advocate for the building's demolition and disputed that the resolution said where the new library should be built, although the legislation clearly says 1 Margaret Mitchell Square: "I didn’t say it should be built there," he said. "Someone might have interpreted that way. It’s only that the city council… let it be known that it has a point of view about the library."
Here's a clip of the discussion pulled by the Friends of Central Atlanta Library, or FOCAL, a citizen group that is calling on officials to renovate the building and boost programming.
Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall attempted to convince Martin to tap the brakes on the resolution after it was quickly pushed forward for a vote by Martin and Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who seconded the motion to approve.
"I have received some complaints and concerns from residents of Downtown about the library's future," Hall said. "Is there any way this could be sent to committee?"
Martin said such a move was up to Council, adding that "I think it's important that we move on this because time is running out. There is a inaudible on how long we have to find that $50 million to raise private funding for a new library's construction. We gotta get someone who is going to push everybody, the business community in particular, to raise the $50 million."
"If there is any way we could get a little bit of conversation," Hall said. "I didn’t attend one of the meetings where, it was a community meeting where people could express themselves. … there was concern about the architecture and architect of the existing building."
Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong also urged some additional discussion. But neither Martin nor Bond would withdraw their motions to approve. Nine councilmembers voted in favor of the legislation. Hall, Councilmwoman Sheperd, and Councilman Andre Dickens, who chairs the community development human resources committee where such a resolution would have probably been heard, voted against the position paper.
Martin said councilmembers have already had an opportunity to discuss the library's fate. He wants to see what "the majority of the people who have an interest want. But I have no problem about trying to be a rattling point for people who want to discuss the importance of the library and discuss all the issues that are tied to it."
Martin said he doesn't think the resolution would be particularly impactful, but felt it was needed to light a fire under potential donors to start contributing to efforts to build a new Central facility.
"I don’t think the resolution is going to do anything," Martin told CL. "I was asked to do it by Robb and I agreed to. It’s something that ought to be done. We can't call ourselves a major-league city without a notable central library. Next to a museum, libraries are a critical part of the cultural statement about a city."
FOCAL members are spreading the news of Council's surprise move, urging the public to send emails to Fulton County commissioners, and plan to attend today's meeting.
"The Friends of the Central Atlanta Library, FOCAL, recognize and appreciate the Atlanta City Council for acknowledging that the existing Central Library is in the optimal location," FOCAL President Marty Reed said in a statement. "However, their recommendation to demolish the current library and build a new one on the same site is absurd. The only option that makes practical and financial sense is to renovate the existing, iconic Central Library."