Appetite for Destruction: The Saga of 20 Hilliard Street's Controversial Demolition

Curbed Atlanta

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[Images above: Save the Historic Trio Building group on Facebook. All other images: Curbed Atlanta.]

Last week, a demolition permit issued for the 104-year-old building at 20 Hilliard Street sent preservationists and many members of the community into a frenzy and sparked a last-ditch effort to save the historic building. A Facebook group created just Saturday has nearly 500 members and a flood of calls to Mayor Reed's cell phone has reportedly made him quite grumpy today. The building has been lovingly marked with "SAVE ME" messages and stickers reading, "I wish this was..." (grammar geeks, stand down; the sentence is not in the subjunctive but its intentions are good). Still, the last-minute outpouring of concern was not enough to keep the bricks from flying this morning as crews went to work removing the cornice while protesters and media watched.

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The timeline of this complex story of missed opportunities, wasted taxpayer money, historic preservation woes and controversy is this:

1910: The two-story brick building, which survived the Great Fire of 1917, was built. Once a laundry, it has been largely unoccupied since the thirties with the exception of a stint as the William Holmes Borders Sr. Comprehensive After Care Treatment Center in the 1990s.

2006: It was purchased for $150,000.

December 2008: The land was given Brownfield designation due to contamination resulting from its years as a laundry.

2009: It was purchased by the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) with $750,000 in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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2012: AHA has a structural engineer take a look at the property. He reported that the brick walls were in good condition but there was some extensive water damage because of the failed roof. No repairs were made.

November 2013: Anthony Carter, assistant director of the Office of Buildings, inspected the property from the outside, determined there were "hazardous conditions," and wrote the letter that doomed the building (see below). The mayor's office points out that this designation was what allowed the city to commence demolition without going through the Urban Design Commission. Preservationists point out that it was AHA's responsibility to maintain the historic building adequately to prevent it from becoming a hazard. Internal review comments from staff of the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, state: "... [the] existing building condition appears to be the result of neglect over which AHA had control."

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June 2014: Atlanta City Council determines that the building is a "contributing building" in the MLK Landmark District.

June 2014 (later that same week): AHA applied for a demolition permit.

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August 2014: Demolition begins. The area's master plan, expected later this year, will determine what will be done with the land, but there are currently no plans for it.

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Curbed Atlanta talked with Kyle Kessler — architect, president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association and leader of the movement to save 20 Hilliard — this morning over the sound of crumbling brick:

Have you heard back from Mayor Reed?
Folks have heard back from the mayor. He is not happy that people are reaching out to him. He wants us to make an appointment. You have to request an appointment 30 to 45 days in advance, and we didn't find out about this demolition until last week.

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Are you surprised by the lack of notice?
I am confused about the supposed immediacy of needing the demolition permit. We're still standing up against the building today. It hasn't been until just a few minutes ago that they've closed off the sidewalk. They haven't provided any information to people walking by, driving by, that the building is a danger. People were parking in the parking lots immediately adjacent to the building up until last Monday, so if they think it's such an emergency situation, they haven't done a whole lot to show that it's an emergency situation. So the only emergency that's been created is our emergency effort to try to save the building.

[Note: Kessler recently emailed Curbed to add that "folks in the traffic department at City Hall have told us the sidewalk closure permit wasn't authorized until Wednesday. The contractor still has no building permit posted on site (in violation of city ordinances) and has now illegally blocked off the sidewalk."]

Initially, you thought the demolition permit had been issued accidentally. Why?
Because we weren't given any public notice and because there was no presentation at the neighborhood meeting, a placard was never posted on the wall to let us know that the building had been condemned. We had no idea until last week, so then it's been, "Well, we know our city wouldn't intentionally not do the right thing," so we understandably thought that there must be some mistake. That they didn't realize it was a historic building or that some other technicality in the permit process had sort of not been followed through so we thought that the city would be interested in keeping a historic building. They, as of June, considered it to be a contributing building to the Martin Luther King Jr. local landmark district.

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To be fair, the property has been ignored for quite some time. Why does everyone suddenly care about it?
It's been ignored by the property owners. This building has not been ignored by the neighborhood. There have been people who have called AHA asking them to maintain the property. Asking about purchasing the building. There are numerous businesses — active, thriving businesses along Edgewood Avenue — that this was their first choice. This was the building they wanted to open their restaurant in, that they wanted to open their bar in, but those phone calls were never returned and if they were returned, AHA told them that they would not be accepting or entertaining any offers on the property.

[Note: The building is in the parking lot of Noni's Deli. Noni's owner Matt Ruppert confirmed that he was among those who had shown interest in the property, saying, "I tried to actually buy this a few years back, but unfortunately, the AHA spent way too much money on it. And that's part of the controversy. They spent $750,000 on it. It was purchased before that, in 2006, for $150,000. It seems kind of weird that it could have appreciated fourfold in the span of three years during the housing bubble ... when I finally got ahold of somebody, they told me the pricetag was $750,000."]

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What is it about the building that is inciting such passion in the neighborhood?
The building doesn't look all that great, based upon how the Atlanta Housing Authority has treated it, but folks with some vision, with some imagination, with some creativity can see so much in the building that they don't want it to go, and I think that's why there's been such a groundswell, just over the weekend. It's not the most prominent building. It's not the one that you seen on Peachtree Street and it's not the one that's on the news all the time—it's sort of under the radar—but so many people have driven past it, walked past it, parked next to it, and thought "Hey! Why doesn't anybody do something with that building?" And it's unfortunate to know that the folks who have owned that property since 2009 have had no plans for the property except to demolish it, and now all of a sudden, they have to knock it down without pausing to think about the alternatives.

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There are dudes with demolition equipment behind us as we speak. Do you have any hope left at all?
I do have hope. Because the building is still so sturdy. I mean, the demolition has gone so slowly and they've had such hard work trying to get the bricks apart. It's not an easy building to take down, so I think it's still going to be here for a little bit, so I think as we continue to build the battlecry. We continue to bring attention to it, propose those alternatives, it's going to be that much harder for the city and AHA to ignore us. What the public is saying is "Hey, we want to keep the King Historic district in tact. We want to keep the potential of this building for developers, for property owners, to put it back on the tax roll where it's paying for police services and fire services and the school system," when since 2009, as it's continued to sort of fall apart due to neglect, it has done none of those things. It contributed to the blight of the neighborhood, rather than contributing to the revitalization.

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UPDATE: Demolition has been temporarily halted.

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