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A Church looks for savior

Capitol View sanctuary is the latest local landmark threatened the wrecking ball

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Its paint is peeling and flaked, its air-conditioning ducts hang disconnected and useless, and many of its windowsills are visibly rotting. For its neighbors, however, the old Capitol View Baptist Church, which occupies a prominent corner at the highest point of Metropolitan Parkway, is a reassuring landmark, its fading facade a reminder of a hard-luck community's better days.

"Seeing that church as I'm driving up Metropolitan makes me feel like I'm home," says Dianne Bryant, who chairs the surrounding Neighborhood Planning Unit X. "It's one of the few things that remains that gives me comfort."

It should be no surprise, then, that Bryant and other nearby residents are upset that the former church is in danger of being demolished because its current owner, a social-service organization, can't afford upkeep on the 78-year-old building.

Last month, representatives from the Achor Center, which provides transitional housing to homeless women and children, announced at a neighborhood meeting that the nonprofit agency hopes to tear down the church sanctuary and replace it with low-income housing.

Residents of Capitol View, Sylvan Hills and other neighborhoods lining Metropolitan Parkway have long considered their community to be a dumping ground for shelters, drug-treatment centers and halfway houses, while commercial development has largely passed them by.

The latest news is especially bitter to residents because, for arguably the first time in decades, the downtrodden neighborhoods southwest of downtown seem perched on the verge of an upswing. Revitalization hopes recently have been stirred by rising intown property values and the promise of the Beltline, a proposed 22-mile greenway corridor encircling inner-city Atlanta.

"We're in sort of that in-between period between blight and revitalization," says Friends of the Beltline co-founder Ryan Gravel, who lives a few blocks from the church. "I'd be surprised if we couldn't find someone interested in the site, because it's a block from the Beltline. The idea that you'd tear down a neighborhood landmark is crazy."

Crazy, perhaps, but not unusual, especially in Atlanta's poorer neighborhoods, where restoration dollars are scarce and some residents are more concerned with making rent than worrying about a property down the street. The church is typical of many lesser-known neighborhood landmarks that have disappeared across the city.

Just last year, a few blocks to the west at the corner of Murphy Avenue and Sylvan Road, the deteriorating 1917 Hanson Motor Car Factory was leveled only months after being added to the 2003 list of endangered buildings that's issued by the Atlanta Preservation Center, an independent watchdog group.

And this summer, the turn-of-the-century excelsior mill building on North Avenue, known to a generation of punk and goth fans as the Masquerade, was saved from a developer's wrecking ball only by the last-moment intervention of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission, the city's official preservation arm.

Also this year, Councilwoman Debi Starnes says she tried unsuccessfully to persuade leaders of the Liberty Baptist Church just off Edgewood Avenue near the King Historic District to restore their aging sanctuary instead of replacing it with a new building. The older structure had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There's really no criteria for getting a demolition permit," Starnes explains, adding that Atlanta developers typically encounter fewer legal obstacles to tearing down an old building than for cutting down a tree.

"The National Register is a nice honor, but it doesn't afford any protection," agrees Midge Yearley, an Atlanta Preservation Center spokesperson. Nor, she concedes, does the APC's annual list, which is intended primarily to draw public attention to a building that may be threatened.

The only real protection is official designation by the Urban Design Commission as part of a historic district, such as Druid Hills or Grant Park, or as a stand-alone landmark or historic building. But only three individual buildings -- Spotswood Hall, a Buckhead mansion; downtown's M. Rich & Bros. Co. Building, now the Rich's Lofts; and Midtown's Wimbish House, whose rear is occupied by Eleven50 -- have been added in the past five years to the list, which is weighted toward familiar architectural icons such as the Fox Theatre and Rhodes Hall.

Even local designation isn't always enough. Yearley says her group is fighting to save the 100-year-old Withers House, a four-square bungalow owned by a local church that also happens to be the oldest house in south Atlanta's Oakland City Historic District. Recently, the church gained a waiver to tear down the house by proving economic hardship; now, the church needs only to deliver a plan for replacing the building, Yearley says.

Like many neighborhood landmarks that fall outside the city's historic districts, the Capitol View Baptist Church has no protection from the whims of its owner. The fact that the Achor Center is so cash-strapped only serves to make the building's plight more poignant for neighborhood residents. Two years ago, the center had to move to a temporary site near the western city limits because of building code violations at the church.

"They're not going to be able to keep it just because we want them to," Gravel says. "Someone needs to come up with a workable plan."

Achor representatives refused to be interviewed by CL.

Sister Marie Sullivan, who helped found the Achor Center in 1987 and now operates her own emergency assistance center around the corner, is among those who sympathize with Achor's situation, but she, too, would like to see the old church saved.

"Right now, they're paying a lot of money to keep up a building they can't use," she says. "I wonder if people are thinking outside the box about what can be done with the building."

Some neighbors point to the nearby Coeur D'Allene lofts -- a 12-unit residential complex in an industrial zone that is soon to be the site of Capitol View's first coffee shop -- as a local success story that shows how old buildings can be stylishly recycled.

But there's also the fear that if Capitol View loses its last vestiges of architectural character while it awaits revitalization, then investors will be less interested in the area.

"That's by far the most prominent building in our community," says J.C. Hillis, who lives next door to the church. "What happens there will profoundly influence what happens with the neighborhood."

Johnny Watkins, president of the Capitol View Neighborhood Association, says he'd like to see the old church become home to a performing arts group, but concedes that no one's stepped forward with the money to make such a dream happen.

"I think it would be a blow to the community if this historic building were destroyed," he says, "but I'm not seeing any real vision being put forth."

For more info about Atlanta's endangered and historic buildings, visit www.preserveatlanta.com or www.atlantaga.gov/government/urbandesign.aspx.

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