Opinion - Georgia State, please don’t demolish the Bell Building

Downtown doesn’t need another parking lot. It needs to keep its historic buildings.

After years of sitting empty and forgotten, the Bell Building on Auburn Avenue finally started getting some news in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily the good kind.

Georgia State University, which owns the early 1900s four-story structure along the Atlanta Streetcar line, wants to demolish the building and build a temporary parking lot until school officials decide what should come next. Downtown residents and preservationists have launched a campaign aimed at saving the building.

The preservationists are right. Downtown doesn’t need another parking lot. It needs to protect the historic buildings it’s got left. And there’s a way to make it work.

GSU purchased the Bell in 2007 as part of a deal that included the old SunTrust Building, which is now 25 Park Place. The school is no stranger when it comes to reusing old buildings. But it says retrofitting the Bell would be cost prohibitive. Based on its facilities management division staffers’ estimates, fixing up the building would cost as much as $23 million. That kind of cash isn’t available so the building needs to go, according to GSU. The Woodruff Foundation’s $22.8 million gift in 2014 to build a media institute nearby included cash to demolish the Bell.

City officials, including new Commissioner of Planning and Community Development Tim Keane, have already signaled that GSU’s request to demolish the building will likely be rejected. City and school officials are scheduled to meet to discuss the proposal.

Downtown residents have argued that the university could sell the Bell to a developer who has an interest in preserving the property and a track record of reusing buildings. If the school wants to sweeten the deal, it could offer to pay the cost of cleaning up the pigeon poop and mold inside, something that inspectors recommend doing before demolition to protect public health.

If Woodruff leaders were to balk at the change of plans, they could, as they do so well on the many issues the foundation tackles, take the long view.

The Bell is approximately 100 feet from the beautiful Downtown park named after the foundation’s founder, Robert Woodruff, a legendary businessman. According to its website, Woodruff “believed Atlanta should be a first-class city in which to conduct business, and he understood that businesses could only thrive in a community that offers a high quality of life for its residents.” The foundation aims to help make that happen by awarding a small sliver of its funds to community development programs. Those programs should support the “vitality of Downtown.”

Helping more residents live and businesses thrive in the heart of the city, in one of the community’s historic buildings, is a better way to do that than a parking lot at first and, in the long run, a collection of classrooms and labs that could be built somewhere else Downtown. Maybe it could be part of the school’s proposed mega-development at Turner Field. Or even put on an existing surface parking lot. God knows Downtown has several it could spare.

By selling the building to a developer with the finances and vision to keep the Bell alive, GSU could have cash to put toward purchasing a new site and doing another good deed for Downtown.

Plus, turning the Bell into a place where people can work and live could add some non-student life to the area, breaking up the monotony of buildings that close at sundown and during the summertime, and add more life to the street. In addition, whatever moves into the building could just rely on the adjacent parking decks and potentially become the rare Atlanta development without car storage. Blasphemy!

There’s an understandable refrain among some critics of the preservationists’ efforts to save the Bell. Why is this building so spectacular? The fact that it housed a telephone exchange is a cool footnote, but is that alone worth the millions of dollars in renovations? Couldn’t that money be better spent somewhere else?

The sad truth is that Downtown is home to the largest concentration of historic buildings in Atlanta. Even as the city’s most grand structures have been razed to literally put up parking lots, buildings like the Bell have survived. These standing pieces of history contribute to one of the community’s enduring appeals.

But without care or renovation, that claim to fame will dwindle and be lost. The loss of building after building, year after year seems like just the passing of time and the price of progress. It’s only years later we realize the price we paid and the ultimate loss. In a city where everything is a mid-rise apartment box, a skyscraper, or a parking lot, a human scale building is a jewel. Atlanta needs more of these buildings, not less.

Not every building can be saved. But we should damn sure try preserving the ones that can. The city’s preservation movement needs more wins than losses. The sooner we start saving historic treasures, the sooner we can stop complaining about people demolishing them.

GSU’s impact on Downtown is felt every day on the neighborhood’s streets and in its shops and buildings. The neighborhood would not be humming without the school. It has seen great success in saving existing buildings. But doing the right thing in the past doesn’t give someone the green light to do the wrong thing today.

What might seem like an inconsequential four-story building is really one of the jewels in our midst. Do the right thing, GSU. Save the Bell. Get creative or sell to a private developer who can see the project through.