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The Future of the Atlanta Civic Center: Erasing History or Creating Urbanity?

Updated: May 24, 2019

The Atlanta Civic Center, a mega-venue that sports a 4,600-seat auditorium plus a large separate exhibition hall, has come into public focus due to the city’s decision to sell the property. Situated on a 20-acre site on the east side of the Downtown Connector, the Civic Center is at the heart of the latest package of offerings of city-owned properties designed to raise cash for other large-scale projects. As the city of Atlanta acknowledges, the future development of the large Civic Center site is crucial to the Downtown, Midtown, and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods. But former Mayor Kasim Reed, who authored many sales of public spaces and accelerated the process of selling off significant portions of historic Atlanta to developers, closed the Civic Center deal just before the end of his term without requiring the development of a new vision for the site that does justice to its historic significance. This decision, like those to sell Underground Atlanta, Fort McPherson, and Turner Field, thus raises concerns about careful planning at a critical juncture when Atlanta has a historic opportunity to boost its urbaneness.

The Atlanta Civic Center

The sale of the Civic Center site has deep symbolic significance. The Atlanta Civic Center emerged from the vision of former Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., who wanted to build a large event space for travelling companies such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera tour that would be more welcoming to African-American citizens than the existing Fox Theatre on Peachtree Street. Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony performed here before the Woodruff Arts Center opened its doors; until last year, the building was still used for celebrating Atlanta high school graduations, an important civic function that attests to the Center’s symbolic significance for civic and cultural life.

Before the existing uses are basically written out of the city’s history, there needs to be a robust public discussion of what should replace the Civic Center. What happens at this key site at Piedmont and McGill can reshape Atlanta’s topography and weave existing urban areas together, if there is an effective process of public input into the design of a master plan that will benefit everyone. Above all, there needs to be more debate about whether a historically significant public space that includes a major, if mostly unused, arts venue, a museum, and a thriving non-profit organization, Southface, should be sacrificed at the altar of yet another privatized development. Given the historic and cultural significance of the existing uses and a location with the clear potential for reconnecting Atlanta’s severed downtown, the city ought to at least consider preserving all or part of the Civic Center in future uses.

When cities starved by decreased state and federal tax dollars give away ownership of public space and eliminate signature cultural venues, they abandon strategic locations for civic life. Rather than erasing history with yet another generic “mixed use” development—to use the familiar short-hand for those combinations of housing, retail, and office space that so often fail to include any public space at all—the Civic Center site could become a paradigmatic location that generates support for civic engagement and innovative arts programming. A new ensemble of buildings responding and corresponding to the diverse uses and neighborhoods surrounding the present Civic Center could unfold a narrative about the site’s history and make future connections to other parts of downtown.

Not only could a renewed Civic Center become the centerpiece of an exemplary experiential urbanism. The site itself could become the hub of a modern transportation concept for the city of Atlanta, connecting midtown and downtown districts to its premier educational and medical institutions and the immediately adjacent neighborhoods between downtown and Ponce City Market. As density increases intown, it is difficult to imagine that the BeltLine alone will realize the promise of any significant improvement of Atlanta traffic anytime soon. But a core light rail system and re-designed streets radiating from the renewed Civic Center site could provide connectivity between new and developed in-town neighborhoods as well as traffic relief in and between the busiest commercial districts.

Piedmont and McGill are broad avenues with room for light rail to connect the new Civic Center with Centennial Olympic Park to the west, Midtown/Arts Center/Georgia Tech to the north, Georgia State to the south, and Ponce City/BeltLine to the east. Such a transportation solution would dramatically elevate the urbanist value of the current Civic Center site,

Civic Center as Hub for Light Rail Corridors Connecting to the BeltLine along McGill Street, Midtown along Piedmont/Juniper, Downtown/Georgia State along Piedmont, and the Entertainment City along Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard

making it a model alternative to the trend of large mixed-use developments that emerge without any traffic plan connecting them to their users or to a downtown experiencing forms of redevelopment that are currently adding to the city’s long traffic nightmare. The Civic Center was supposed to be accessible for patrons from distant locations who arrived on the (never-built) interstate I-485 (from the north) and the intown extension of the Stone Mountain Freeway from the east. Today, an imaginative redevelopment of the site can help supersede the logic of suburban thinking in the downtown area.

From a cultural and civic perspective, too, the development of this site will be a critical factor in shaping Atlanta’s future. Many arts organizations have left the downtown area over the decades—first to Midtown (symphony, theatre, museum), and more recently with the relocation of significant performance venues to the suburbs (Cobb Energy Center) or exurbs (Infinite Energy Center). During the same years, other cities of similar size and status such as Miami and Dallas have increased their total number of signature venues. But Atlanta still has very few mid- to high-end theatrical venues that lend themselves to substantial performances and public events. The city should seize a historic opportunity to create a new kind of Civic Center that would form an alternative to the growing “entertainment district” around Centennial Olympic Park while addressing Atlanta’s substantial urban challenges and racialized history.

Hub for Light Rail Corridor Civic Center Facing Piedmont Avenue

In a new scenario, the Civic Center site could act as mediator between a working class African American neighborhood that was partially transformed through a 1960s-style urban renewal project and the surrounding neighborhoods where gentrification is proceeding apace. Performance spaces should remain at the core of the new center. One possibility would be to rethink the large cavernous auditorium of the current Civic Center, which could remerge in the form of two or three unique performance spaces responding to different needs of today’s audiences and allowing the integration of new event technology into new configurations of performance spaces. At the same time, the site could also accommodate a collaborative interdisciplinary research center and new research supported by the major universities of the city. Southface, which has pioneered green building practices, is a natural candidate for an integral role in any future-oriented Civic Center site.

Properly redeveloped, the Civic Center site could become a new type of city center for Atlanta. But the lack of master planning and effective zoning for larger character districts paired with political and economic incentives that also encourage private developers to envision and develop relatively self-contained sites make it challenging to realize the Civic Center site’s tremendous potential as an urban mediator.

Developments on large public sites such as the Civic Center should be planned with multiple local partners who have a stake in the larger urban geography and should engage local philanthropic organizations as well as national foundations such as Ford and Mellon that support urban initiatives. Such large-scale civic collaboration involves a type of planning activity that is generally beyond the scope of a developer or a single city agency—a difficulty often at the root of fragmented and disconnected urban development. So too in this case, the proposals that were floated ahead of the sale were the generic, narrow options of today’s privatized urbanism: either a behemoth of mixed use of housing, retail, and office space—the developer’s concept of a miniature city within the city with, at best, minimal concessions for common use of privatized space—or large quantities of upscale residential developments. At the Civic Center site, large public spaces for diverse urban activities, including the arts, threaten to disappear along with an opportunity for building a large portion of well-designed and affordable housing options. Atlanta deserves the greater benefits that come from strengthening and increasing these diverse urban activities in a thriving and accessible center.

Civic Centers and Urban Fabric

Historically, Civic Centers have represented what Frank Lloyd called an “architecture for democracy.” In many cities, they are buildings or ensembles of buildings that stand both physically and politically at the center of a community. They provide urban coherence, visual focus, and a sense of community, and, as the name suggests, they reflect a tradition of public ownership of civic and cultural buildings.

For example, the Chicago Cultural Center (“The People’s Palace”) is placed inside the downtown area (the Loop) as a splendid landmark of civic pride. Sporting two stained-glass domes, it is a center of cultural activity, offering free music, arts exhibitions, film, theatre, family events, and public receptions. This grand building, also designed to house the Central Library, spoke to Chicago’s ambition at the end of the nineteenth century to be the next Paris.

Cleveland hired Daniel Burnham, the architect, urban planner, and the guiding spirit behind Chicago’s influential White City and the famous Chicago Plan, to lead a group of architects and citizens in conceiving a city center. The resulting Group Plan of 1903 was modelled on the Paris Place de la Concorde. It created a green public mall flanked by impressive beaux arts style civic buildings built along two axes running north-south and east-west to connect Lake Erie with the commercial and transportation areas.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s own last work, the Marin County Civic Center (1959-1976) across the Bay from San Francisco stands as a colossal example of this aspiration to an architecture expressing communal values. Wright designed an urban ensemble including an Administration

Building, Hall of Justice, Showcase Theater, Veterans Auditorium, Post Office, and Exhibit Hall, all located adjacent to a newly built station of the Bay Area Regional Transit system. Wright’s Civic Center creates a scenography that integrates an environment of natural landscape and urban fabric. The large, multi-functional Administration Building, the centerpiece of the ensemble of buildings, spans an entire valley to connect two parts of the county, its shape following the landscape.

Other impressive modern conceptions of public space deploy classically inspired compositions to create a shared space of governmental and arts buildings. As, for example, the San Francisco Civic Center and the Denver Civic Center show, classical models can also create impressive urban definition and a recognizable urban topography.

The San Francisco Civic Center Civic Center Plaza with City Hall, Veterans Building, and War Memorial Opera House

Denver Civic Center Park Greek Amphitheater and the Daniel Libeskind designed Denver Art Museum (distant right)

A more recent example, the Miami Cultural Center designed by Philip Johnson, was completed in the 1980s. It houses the Miami-Dade Public Library, the Center for Fine Arts, and the Historical Museum of South Florida. Joined by the architecturally renowned Cultural Plaza and connected with the city’s light rail system, this contemporary cultural center visually draws on Florida’s old-style Spanish architectural heritage. But although it is located near the government center, like Atlanta’s Civic Center, it is missing an effective linkage to the urban area. In this case, architect Johnson raised the entire complex a couple of stories above street level, which makes it difficult to access the complex—and challenging for it to perform as urban mediator.

Cultural Plaza, Miami Cultural Center (Philip Johnson)

Civic Center in Atlanta’s Urban Geography

Atlanta has not yet had a Civic Center worthy of the name. By contrast with the paradigmatic integration of government, cultural institutions, and urban identity in civic centers in other cities, Atlanta’s Civic Center was always a misnomer, with an inopportune location and involuted site plan.

Visually, the closest approximation to a traditional civic center is the government sector in the south downtown comprised of several blocks of Georgia’s state government buildings, the Atlanta City Hall, and the Fulton County seat. Developed in 1889, this area formerly had a logical connection to one of Atlanta’s oldest parks, Grant Park. Today it is brutally cut off from the park and encircled by the interstate highways that converge on the east side of the State Capitol—the downtown connector (I-75/85), the east-west highway, I-20, and Memorial Drive. Although the Golden Dome of the State Capitol still peeks over the highways, the barricading of this urban area by the highway system has made it very difficult to experience the pride and civic power originally expressed in the urban ensemble. The buildings entangled by roads and two competing government institutions exacerbate the visual confusion: the juxtaposition of the gothic revival City Hall and the classically inspired State Capitol creates a conflicting image that bears witness to the uneasy political and economic relationship between urban Atlanta and exurban and rural Georgia.

Civic and cultural institutions, and especially places to celebrate the arts, are the fabric of our society; they render visible community pride and identity and should have a central place in any downtown. In Atlanta’s urban geography, cultural institutions have been removed from the downtown area, whether to Midtown (Woodruff Arts Center), or the Old Fourth Ward (Civic Center), or, more recently, have migrated to the suburbs (Cobb Energy Center) or exurbs (Infinite Energy Center in Duluth). Even the Civic Center’s predecessor, the Municipal Auditorium, was originally located several blocks northeast of the government area at the intersection of two of Atlanta’s disjointed street grids. Inside Atlanta’s confusing, multiple small grids, neither the Municipal Auditorium nor the Civic Center were placed as traditional urban set pieces or conceived as centers of multiple civic activities. Instead, their placement represented makeshift solutions for cultural institutions in a city that has little patience for planning and experiential urbanism.

Like many of its contemporary cousins, the Atlanta Civic Center was a product of national urban renewal policies developed after World War II. These behemoths were culturally divisive since they almost always involved the wholesale clearing of urban land and removal of poor or minority communities. Much like other Atlanta iterations of this form of urbanism such as the Fulton County Stadium, Turner Field, the Georgia Dome, and, most recently, the Mercedes Benz Stadium, the Civic Center was placed on the land of a traditionally African American neighborhood.

UFO? Civic Center as seen from Georgia Power Building on McGill Street

In the intervening years, instead of advocating a usage and architecture that connected the urban fabric via buildings and neighborhoods, powerful Atlanta mayors, mega-developers, and, more recently, owners of large media, sports organizations and film studios, have continued to develop large disconnected sites conveniently located along the modern transportation systems of interstate and airports. This type of behemoth has repeatedly touched down in poor neighborhoods whose residents had very little clout to resist or to negotiate truly meaningful participation in planning as their neighborhoods were cleared for spectacular buildings. As in the case of the Mercedes Benz stadium, city leaders and developers have created political buy-in through broad assurances that large projects would produce jobs for the city (even if they didn’t), stimulate tourism (hardly a recipe for healthy urban life), and provide high-profile sports and concert events (though rarely more ambitious arts programming). But such buildings have exercised very little integrative force via local buy-in or an identity-shaping architecture that could attract followers among a broad-based populace, especially the poor and minority communities displaced by such developments.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts created a roadmap for other cities, including Atlanta, for development based on aggressive urban renewal and enabled by government legislation. Post-war laws enabled city governments to declare large areas blighted, and with the help of federal dollars, to clear them and erect art centers or other urban developments that were deemed for the political good. In New York, Robert Moses exploited Title 1 of the Federal Housing Act, which allowed the city of New York to purchase condemned land on the largely Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood of Lincoln Square and sell it to private developers. (In the process of building Lincoln Center, approximately 7000 low- to middle-income housing units were replaced by 4400 mostly luxury apartments). In the late 1950s, Atlanta, city leaders zeroed in on Buttermilk Bottom, a poor African-American neighborhood at the edge of downtown, which was eventually cleared for the construction of the Civic Center. While the Lincoln Center project spurred revitalization and helped shape the Upper West Side into one of the most expensive and desirable areas in Manhattan, the Civic Center failed to produce a similar effect for Atlanta.

Buttermilk Bottom in 1959: Mayor William Hartsfield inspecting the future area of the Civic Center

Importantly, Lincoln Center was placed into an established grid of avenues and streets. In the highway-oriented city of Atlanta, the Civic Center surfaced outside downtown and the downtown (dis)connector in the middle of Atlanta’s “thirty-year’s war,” the so-called freeway revolt waged between 1964 and 1994 over the proposed building of I-485 (which was to connect GA 400 through the Morningside neighborhood) and the envisioned in-town extension of the Stone Mountain Freeway. The only completed fragment of the latter, Freedom Parkway, runs just south of the Civic Center, but it neither made the Civic Center a convenient dock for the car-oriented suburban crowd nor provided an incentive for art-centered development in

The Civic Center as Fortress

and near the area. The fortress-like appearance of the Civic Center itself prefigures other large-scale buildings such as the later Cobb Energy Center that were built for the circuit of a car-oriented global city.

Today, the Civic Center site invites a new and better approach to urban revitalization. As the Old Fourth Ward has become a more thriving urban area due to the Ponce City Market and on-going BeltLine developments, this site has become a “hot property.” The area around the largely unused Civic Center has mutated into a key strategic site in Atlanta’s fragmented geography--and one that whose great cultural potential for linking large swaths of existing urbanized areas ought to be activated.

Scenographic Performance

The quality of experiential urbanism is measured in the success of a site’s scenographic performance: the ways it visually orchestrates historical, social, economic, aesthetic and political elements and forces. Creating a spatial dynamic that enables the city to be experienced makes lived experience a practical and foundational principle of urban design.

The scenographic performance of the current Civic Center is deeply flawed and should be re-configured. The entrance to the building, facing away from the major streets, was clearly designed to echo the spectacle of the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. It also featured interior design elements such as chandeliers and a staircase that also evoked the Met’s predecessor, the Paris Palais Garnier, the mother of all modern opera houses and paradigm of urban renovation projects since the nineteenth century.

As Lincoln Center’s “success” in urban gentrification demonstrates, this kind of mega-project could have been a catalyst for an expanded and well-designed downtown. However, the entire composition that rose from the cleared ground of Buttermilk Bottom was introverted. Unlike the almost baroque spectacle of Lincoln Center, which welcomed the public to celebrate the arts, the Atlanta site design concealed a UFO-like building that had landed, much like the Georgia Dome and Turner Field, in a very different neighborhood. The façade, designed by architect Harold Montague, sports monolithic, high, and uninviting walls that face the major transportation arteries Piedmont and McGill streets, robbing the building of any chance to stimulate urban life or link this mega-block to surrounding neighborhoods. Unlike the Metropolitan Opera House or contemporary opera houses such as Norman Foster’s Dallas Opera House, where glass walls open the inside to the outside and vice versa, the Atlanta Civic Center refuses any visual and public stimulation to passers-by. Similarly, the exhibition hall, a series of seven blocks, more closely resembles a warehouse than an inspiring building that can allow exciting cultural events to unfold. The complex thus contributed little dramatically to the downtown area whose street grids had been destroyed and disconnected by the “downtown connector.” It is hardly surprising that the Civic Center, which looks and acts like a suburban performing arts center in an urban setting, failed to become an urban mediator. The building’s very scenography inscribes its raison d’etre as a symbol of high white culture imposed on a location in a poor African American neighborhood.

New Scenario: Realizing the Promise of the Civic Center

Atlanta deserves a true Civic Center, one that embraces rather than erases the historic significance of the site through scenographic performance that welcomes the public and fulfills the promise of its strategic downtown location. While the city is adamant about the location becoming an “economic anchor” and achieving “best economic value,” (, it is by no means evident that a developer and/or the Atlanta Housing Authority to whom the site has been sold represent the best agencies to transform this sensitive site in ways that will benefit the city as a whole and especially its current neighbors. The sale itself proceeded outside of public view, as Maria Saporta reported, with “minimal public participation,” using the highly problematic strategy of spending money from the city’s reserves to buy land from another city agency (

The most fitting model for transforming this site into a true Civic Center would be to pursue a joint, public strategy actively involving multiple stakeholders. Atlanta has an opportunity to­ turn the customary strategy of contemporary mixed-use development on its head. Instead of one individual or developer creating a “live-work” behemoth, diverse stakeholders should contribute their interests and expertise to develop a truly diversified, integrated, and cosmopolitan approach that reimagines the site for the twenty-first century. To succeed, Atlanta needs a planning and development strategy that can transform the historical nature and artistic usage of the site into a highly contemporary version of public, civic space enhanced by a transportation concept that connects major downtown sectors. A joint venture between the housing authority, other city agencies, local universities, arts organizations, and non-profit organizations such as Southface, which is already on-site, supported by local and national foundations that have a commitment to urban development and the arts, could create a dynamic urban center here.

Reconfiguring the Civic Center would provide a public counterbalance to the commercial development of Atlanta’s “entertainment district” on the other side of the downtown connector. There, the city has cultivated an urban park of large sports and entertainment venues (Philipps Arena and Mercedes Benz Stadium) that is home to the Aquarium, the Coca Cola and Civil Rights Museums (a pair of monuments expressing the Atlanta way), and surrounded by a shopping and hotel district aimed at tourists. On the other side of the downtown (dis)connector, a new Civic Center could reintegrate the former Buttermilk Bottom neighborhood with the Old Fourth Ward while renewing the commitment to culture and artistic development that the first Civic Center was originally supposed to have brought. With its history, it is the appropriate site to begin rebuilding the urban fabric of downtown. A twenty-first century Civic Center would facilitate the future integration with other neighborhoods and foreground the historical significance and mission of the institutions there which the all the sports stadia will never deliver.

To become an urban mediator, the new Civic Center requires a visionary site plan and architectural concept. It needs a scenographic performance that can successfully orchestrate the site’s historical dynamics and neighborhood relationships as well as the signatures of the stakeholders. Built environments always exist as a historical index, measuring and creating time through architecture and expressing the relations between site and surrounding neighborhoods. Above all, the new complex must create an architectural narrative adequate to the complex history of the site: a site plan, facades, structures, and materials that acknowledge its history and the co-presence of various stakeholders. While the current Civic Center in effect expresses the results of urban sprawl, isolation, and Atlanta’s troubled history of racial and economic inequity, the new building or ensemble of buildings could unfold a narrative about history and future connections. This kind of scenography actively promotes links to the past, supports integration, and spans divides.

It seems likely that the Civic Center will go down the path of many historical buildings in Atlanta—destruction that erases history; however, the significance of the site merits a more thoughtful solution, one that engages with and sustains cultural memory in this public space and the surrounding neighborhood. The city should weigh options involving some form of historical preservation, which may include preserving parts of the physical structure or, simply finding ways to continue the cultural and public function represented by the buildings.

Although the building arguably does not deserve preservation for landmark status, the public mission of the Civic Center should be preserved. Performance spaces that serve as public attractions and gathering places should remain at the core of the concept for the site. In its current configuration, with its 4,600-seat auditorium, the Civic Center is too large for traditional theatre events and too small for today’s mega-concerts/events, which aim at upward of 20,000 spectators. To reconfigure the site, one could either raze the auditorium and the exhibition halls, or preserve parts of the auditorium as a foundation for the reimagined site. In both cases, the auditorium would need to be reimagined into a larger site concept; the performances spaces should re-emerge as smaller mid-size and high tech theatres, music venues, and cinemas, responding to the different needs of today’s audiences and allowing the integration of new event technology.

The first scenario would allow for a complete reorientation of the site plan, situating new buildings along the existing streets with architecture that responds to the surrounding neighborhoods. A site plan organized around plazas, amphitheaters, and other gathering places and a program devoted to fostering public encounters would produce one kind of landmark that remembers the original Civic Center. In the second, architecturally more challenging, scenario, parts of the auditorium such as the glass façade, plaza, or lobby would be integrated into a new civic landmark. Current preservation practice has taught us how to manage the co-presence of the old and the new. Leaving fragments of the original buildings in place is a strategy of architectural memory that activates new areas through existing spaces and may shape deep connections for the existing urban fabric. Treating the Civic Center as a modern ruin and complementing it with other structures could provide for a very rich experience that reactivates the spirit of the original Civic Center.

This is a more comprehensive concept of mixed use development than individual developers will ever deliver. Activating the true potential of this site by creating a true Civic Center requires a larger public and cultural vision and calls for the contribution of substantial partners engaged in cultural, health, civic, and cultural missions in the city. Emory, Georgia State, and Georgia Tech could partner with Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Spellman, and the Atlanta University Consortium to forge a truly interdisciplinary center away from their own unique and special research and teaching enterprises to house research and other activities focused on the relationship between the various technological, medical, scientific, and humanistic foci. The focus on sustainability that most research institutions have made a major strategic goal may be one of several starting points that is already represented through the non-profit Southface company. Another possibility would be to house existing governmental or arts agencies in the new Civic Center, both for job creation and for supporting sufficient urban density and maintaining the presence of civic functions on the site.

A holistically planned Civic Center can provide connectivity and traffic relief, create additional cultural venues, link research institutions with diverse core interests, and provide an architectural attraction as well as quality affordable intown housing. By creating a true twenty-first century Civic Center on this key site, Atlanta will participate in the best of urban traditions, linking diverse elements of the urban fabric in ways that have the potential to produce a functioning and clean transportation system and foster the arts and sciences, education, and cultural connectivity. By creating regular public events in new or renewed performance venues, museums, and galleries, the revitalized Atlanta Civic Center would provide economic, social, and cultural value for generations. Above all, it would update and transform the understanding of civic life in Atlanta.

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