Pieces and scraps of preservation are small comfort in a history-rich city like Atlanta

An upcoming YMCA project in Vine City will put offices, a learning facility and a training lab on a site that houses a 1922 structure, Jordan Hall — originally Edmund Asa Ware Elementary School, one of the first schools in the city to educate African-American students. Most of the Hall is being demolished.

In a Saporta Report piece from last December, the YMCA board chair — who is also president of the Carter real estate firm — said that they looked into reusing the building, but that it was going to be “more cost-effective” to replace it rather than preserve it. At the same time, Saporta wrote a good post calling for preservation of the building.

Now it looks like they’ve found a way to preserve a small portion of the building, while demolishing most of it to build a new structure.

YMCA proposal

Invest Atlanta is putting $2.5 million of public money into the project through a TAD grant. That means the city is supporting this.

In a post-Ponce City Market Atlanta, why is adaptive reuse of an old, historic building not the default setting on a site like this one, especially with public money involved? It’s some small comfort (very small) that a portion is being saved — but why not the whole thing? Doesn’t that TAD grant money help with the cost of a reuse project?

Also, that nice green space behind the building is getting turned into — you guessed it — a big surface parking lot, about 200 feet from a MARTA rail station. If the 100 or so staffers who are expected to work in this structure can drive in and out so easily, and if the new structure will be set back from the road as the renderings show it will, it’s unclear how this helps Vine City.

Jordan Hall
Jordan Hall, today, with the pieces of the building being saved & demolished identified. The Vine City MARTA Station is just out of view to the right.

It’s great that the YMCA wants to invest in Vine City with these offices and programs. And their idea of potentially adding groceries in one building is particularly interesting.

But in a city that’s lost so much of its history and culture by way of architectural demolition, we should tweak our priorities when it comes to projects like this one. Let’s look beyond the surface level of “what’s going to happen on this property,” and make room for balancing that with the importance of “how does this project uplift our culture and respect our history.”

For an example of a similar historic, former-school building that was preserved and reused, we can turn to Westview’s Kipp Strive Academy. It uses the century-old J. C. Harris Elementary School and adds an additional structure to the side of it.

Kipp Strive Academy
Kipp Strive Academy

Preserving a piece of an old building while demolishing most of it — it’s become a bit of a trend in Atlanta (see Crum and Forster). We should nip that trend in the bud. It’s a half-assed form of preservation that’s unworthy of a city with a rich history.