One block east of Woodruff Park, a neoclassical three-story building with cast-iron details and white columns stands in the shadows of Georgia State University’s campus. Located across the street from 25 Park Place, the 108-year-old Southern Bell Building has seen better days as a telephone exchange in the twenties. Having remained mostly vacant since 1983, the massive 68,000-square-foot building may soon have a date with the wrecking ball, much to the chagrin of preservationists.
Back in November 2014, the Woodruff Foundation gave GSU a “transformational” $22.8 million grant to help build a state-of-the-art media production center at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Park Place. As part of that grant, roughly a tenth of that sum, about $2.5 million, will now be used to knock down the Bell Building and replace it with a surface parking lot—even though it’s along the Atlanta Streetcar line and on a block with no shortage of parking decks.
The Georgia State University Foundation, the school’s philanthropic arm and the owner of the Bell Building since 2007, last February solicited bids for a contract to demolish the structure and build the parking lot. Why raze the building? GSU spokeswoman Andrea Jones says school planners have deemed that a retrofit of the Bell Building would be “cost prohibitive,” though she declined to elaborate on the specific cost.
In the long term, GSU has tentative plans to build an additional academic facility on the site of the Bell Building. But that won’t happen until the university completes its next campus master plan—so we might be stuck with yet another sea of asphalt for the next few years. The building has had at least one prospective tenant: Central Atlanta Progress looked at the space prior to moving out of Hurt Plaza, deciding to relocate to its new home in Fairlie Poplar after GSU’s plans for the building, as CAP Vice President of Marketing Wilma Sothern recalls, “were not clear.”
According to Jones, the school has been “a major contributor to the revitalization of downtown Atlanta” and boasts a track record of converting old buildings into academic facilities. The list includes One Park Place, the College of Education, Piedmont North, 55 Park Place, 25 Park Place, and the former Atlanta Life Building. She says GSU’s path will lead to a project that “adds value to the university and the surrounding business community.”
“A consistent foundation of this redevelopment has been careful planning and a concern for how our campus without boundaries fits into the downtown landscape,” Jones says. “This applies to the case with the Bell Building.”
Darin Givens, founder of ATL Urbanist and an occasional contributor to Atlanta magazine, takes issue with tearing down a century-old building in the heart of the city. Looking elsewhere in Downtown, where his family lives, he points to other historic structures being retrofitted: There’s the Atlanta Daily World building, now a mixed-use project; the Flatiron Building, which is undergoing a $12 million renovation into a technology hub; the Olympia Building, which will eventually reopen as a Walgreens; and the Candler Building, which is expected to be either a hotel or a residential project.
“We don’t have that many old buildings left Downtown,” Givens says. “These old buildings are getting new life. Adaptive reuse projects are allowing us to save this precious little stock of old architecture that provides a sense of authenticity to a place that’s lost a lot of it.”
GSU’s timeline for demolition remains unclear. But the process could occur quickly as the building is state-owned, making it exempt from the city’s demolition process, and falls outside the King Historic District. In advance of the demolition, hundreds of people have signed an online petition in hopes of convincing the university to preserve the Bell Building. Givens hopes the petition will open the door for GSU President Mark Becker to reconsider the school’s plans for the wrecking ball.
“It could be a feather in their cap,” Givens says. “Mark Becker wants to be a greater part of the urban fabric of Downtown Atlanta. It could weave them into the community around them—rather than set apart from it.”