Opinion - Wrecking ball blues

Saving 20 Hilliard St. was dumb luck. Here’s how we move forward to preserve Atlanta’s historic buildings.

Last week, the historic Trio Laundry building at 20 Hilliard St. received a temporary stay of execution. The nondescript two-story building tucked away off Edgewood Avenue, painted as drab a gray as possible to hide her charms, nonetheless charmed thousands, some of whom came to defend her from the wrecking ball. This is a great win for preservation and Atlanta residents and visitors.

The bad news is that the win was the result of blind, dumb luck. The government systems supposedly in place to prevent the demolition of historic properties in Atlanta rubber-stamped the entire demolition process. Citizen activism stopped the demolition. But just activism can’t be relied upon in the future. It was only because someone decided to have lunch at Noni’s last week, and subsequently saw the demolition notice, that the potential razing came to the preservationists’ attention in enough time to take action. That’s not going to be sufficient.

I hope that city government and developers have learned that we must recommit to preservation — and that owners of historic properties must be held accountable for maintenance and punished for demolition by neglect. But if property owners walk away from this incident saying, “I’ll make sure to let it fall apart even more next time, so there’s no stopping us,” then Atlanta will lose even more historic buildings in the next decade.

Preservation largely begins through looking at a historic district as a larger place instead of as a collection of individual buildings. The Trio Laundry Building isn’t important just because it’s a 104-year-old building. It’s a small, but nonetheless important, part of the King Historic District.

Too often during the past week, people have asked, “What makes this building historic?” They listed a set of criteria. If the building didn’t meet them, then it was fair game for demolition. Districts and contributing buildings are different than just one building that may be singled out for particular attributes. One wouldn’t buy a house in Inman Park and say it was worthy of demolition because it wasn’t the best example of Victorian architecture, or because no one famous had slept there. One buys it, in part, because it’s part of a greater whole. The collection of buildings gives a sense of place, and the collection of buildings in a district provides its sense of place and history. Each building contributes, and each demolition diminishes — irrevocably.

Implicit in the questioning of a building’s importance is the idea that demolition is the presumed default. A building’s existence must be justified — not through the law — but to the whims of the property owner. Demolition appeared to be the default stance from the AHA, which purchased a property officials have said couldn’t fit their needs, with the intent to demolish as soon as approval was granted. Not to rehabilitate. Not even to maintain, which AHA did not do. How can it be that a quasi-government agency acting on behalf of the citizens could frame its decision-making process this way? Because it’s the rule, not the exception.

Since the King Historic District was established, we seem to have been prioritizing demolition over preservation, and neglect over maintenance. And not by greedy developers. Walk along Auburn Avenue and look at the buildings that need maintenance. Churches. Community development corporations. Our own government tore down the Scripto Factory — the site where King first engaged with labor issues — for parking. City officials — supposedly the good guys — are not setting the example, and AHA was following their lead. When those who are supposed to set the example neglect and demolish, and the Atlanta Housing Authority follows their example, what hope is there when developers finally set their sights on the historic district? What happens when developers who follow the streetcar’s development do the same and choose to let their properties rot rather than rehab them?

Until the mindset of the property owners in historic districts shifts prioritizes rehabilitation, our government must discourage demolition by enforcing laws at their disposal. Vacant properties are not being maintained, or even reviewed frequently. Google Map images show the Trio Laundry roof collapsed sometime in 2010. Atlanta Housing Authority did not report noticing this structural issue until 2012, though it’s unclear whether they would have done anything about the problem. Annual inspections of historic properties by the city — paid for by property owners — would go a long way towards catching problems before they can become threatening.

The city and property owners could also follow existing code. It is illegal under city law to allow a historic property to fall into such a state of disrepair that it requires demolition. That’s known as demolition by neglect. If owners know that neglect is more expensive than maintenance, they are more likely to maintain their buildings.

Finally, we can’t just give lip service to our history. We can’t celebrate the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and ignore where the struggle that it celebrates actually happened. We can’t place a mural of Sweet Auburn’s history along the streetcar route and demolish the actual history so flippantly. We can’t reduce King’s legacy to a short walk along Auburn Avenue from cradle to grave and slowly destroy the neighborhood that was part of his life. None of these actions can be legislated; they must come by example from the top down.

What happened over the last two weeks outside 20 Hilliard St. was a remarkable accomplishment by Atlantans to demand that preservation be taken seriously. That activism must continue to happen. And it hopefully marks the beginning of increased responsibility by all of the property owners in the district. And critically, it needs to be the beginning of a public commitment by our city’s leaders. Mayor Kasim Reed demonstrated that leadership when he intervened and persuaded the AHA to call time out on demolition. Others need to follow that lead.

Matthew Garbett is a troublemaker who lives in Adair Park.