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Auburn Avenue redrawn

MLK's old 'hood finally lures developers -- but at what cost?

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When integration pulled the rug out from under Auburn Avenue, it didn't take long for the storied street to begin its long slide into decay. What at the dawn of the 1960s had been a bustling retail and entertainment district -- memorably described by Fortune magazine as "the richest Negro street in the world" -- had by the end of the decade become a stretch of seedy storefronts and half-empty restaurants, the windows decorated with "For Rent" signs and the sidewalks prowled after dark by hookers.

None of which deterred a young Wellington Howard from jumping at the chance to start his insurance business there.

As a Morehouse College student during the early '60s, Howard had spent countless evenings walking from his apartment in the Wigwam building at the corner of Auburn and Randolph Street to grab fried chicken at Ma Sutton's or relax with a glass of Champale at the Pub Grill, a place "James Brown swore served the best pig ears he'd ever tasted," recalls Howard, 58.

When he stepped forward in 1970 to buy the old Consolidated Mortgage and Investment building at 193 Auburn Ave. from real-estate pioneer Bill Calloway, the older man was somewhat incredulous. Most of the other black professionals who'd done business on Auburn already had moved uptown to Peachtree Street or other parts of the city.

"This street is gonna be a dump," Calloway warned.

But Howard wasn't concerned; he wanted to own a piece of history. He dreamed of being an entrepreneur on the same street that had produced such African-American success stories as Atlanta Life Insurance Co. founder Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta Daily World publisher William Scott and the Bronner brothers of hair-care fame.

And besides, Howard figured, like everything else, neighborhoods go in cycles. That which goes down eventually comes back up, right?

It's been nearly 35 years since Howard started waiting for the long-rumored revival of Sweet Auburn, the center of black commerce in Atlanta from the '20s through the '50s -- and now a nearly vacant corridor stretching from Peachtree Street to the edge of Inman Park.

Once surrounded by shops and restaurants, Howard's small Georgia Insurance Brokerage sits virtually alone in a deserted block, flanked on one side by a parking lot and an empty expanse of grass on the other. The only other surviving business on his side of the street is the tiny Silver Star barbershop, tucked into the ground floor of the dilapidated old 49B building.

But it may not be long until Howard has all the company he can handle.

A $45 million redevelopment plan by Big Bethel AME Church and the Integral Group development firm would completely overhaul the south side of Auburn between Piedmont Avenue and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, layering 154 condos, a parking deck and 27,000 square feet of retail space into the block. The proposal calls for the partial demolition of several older buildings, as well as the razing of a former gas station and the long-vacant Palamont Motel, a '50s-era motor lodge at the corner of Auburn and Piedmont.

The Big Bethel project has divided many of the area's longtime advocates and major landowners between those who are eager to see some improvement come at long last to this ramshackle street and those who want to ensure that history isn't erased in a rush to revitalize.

"These buildings aren't grand or glorious, but they are what they are," says Mtamanika Youngblood, co-founder and board member of the Historic District Development Corporation, a 24-year-old nonprofit dedicated to preserving and reviving the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district.

"Auburn Avenue -- the physical place -- has value, and most folks don't seem to recognize that," she says. "We're not against redevelopment, but there are people who want to do it now instead of doing it right. We're swimming against that tide -- and it's a big tide."

Integral Group President Carl Powell concedes he has been surprised and frustrated by the storm of controversy the company's plan has kicked up among preservation advocates, both in Atlanta and across the country. To his thinking, the Big Bethel project is overdue salvation for a famous street whose rich history has too long been marred by urban blight.

"When you kill any effort at restoration, then preservation has gone too far," Powell says.

The Integral Group, a black-owned company that specializes in large-scale urban redevelopment projects around the country, likewise has a stake in the neighborhood -- its headquarters are on the Herndon Plaza campus, around the corner from the Big Bethel project.

On Sept. 8, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission is scheduled to settle the debate by issuing its final decision on the Big Bethel project, either clearing the way for Integral to secure its demolition permits or sending the company back to the drawing board.

Whatever the verdict, the floodgates have been opened. The city's creation of a "tax allocation district" in the Sweet Auburn Historic District -- which roughly includes both Auburn and Edgewood avenues between Courtland and Randolph streets, an area bisected by the Downtown Connector -- has caught the interest of developers eager to finance their projects with tax-funded bonds.

Howard, understandably, feels as if he's caught in the middle. Literally. If the Sweet Auburn Village, as the Big Bethel project is named, is constructed as designed, the low-slung, shotgun Georgia Insurance Brokerage building will be sandwiched between two six-story high-rises, like something imagined by Dr. Seuss.

Depending on whom you talk to, this farcical situation has come about because A) Howard has been unreasonable in negotiations with Big Bethel over selling his property, or B) the church has been unwilling to make him a decent relocation offer. Even in the space of a conversation, Howard seems to vacillate between a willingness to make way for redevelopment and an urge to dig in his heels to preserve what's left of the neglected streetscape.

"The other day someone joked with me that, after the revitalization, tour buses will come through here and the guide will point and say, 'That's where the historic buildings used to be,'" Howard says. "That's about right."

Howard's stubbornness in not giving up his little piece of Auburn Avenue history may have earned the ire of one of Atlanta's most powerful black churches, but it's also won him a small collection of fans, including the HDDC's Youngblood.

"Right now, he's our hero," she says.

 

From Piedmont Avenue east to the cornerstone of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the story of Sweet Auburn over the last 30 years has been one of squandered opportunities and broken promises.

Youngblood calls it the you would think paradox. As in, you would think that three successive black mayors -- each serving at least two terms -- would have taken better care of America's most famous avenue of black history. You would think that Jesse Hill, longtime CEO of Atlanta Life -- the nation's largest black-owned insurance company -- would have never let his company's turn-of-the-century headquarters sit boarded-up and spray-painted for more than two decades. You would think some enterprising businessperson would figure folks might want to grab some lunch after visiting the King Center.

When folks get together to talk about what Auburn Avenue could be, a handful of well-worn examples typically surface. The lively, musical corridor of Beale Street in Memphis. The tourist-friendly bustle of Baltimore's revived Fell's Point neighborhood. The walkable charm of historic Alexandria, Va. Mayor Shirley Franklin, when asked last year by Central Atlanta Progress to select a model for Auburn's revitalization, chose the decadent vibe of New Orleans' Bourbon Street.

As has been noted with depressing regularity since at least the first Jackson administration, the Auburn Avenue historic district would seem uniquely positioned for a rebirth. After all, it has the dual distinction of having been a national mecca for African-Americans -- essentially serving as the Harlem of the South -- and it's home to the MLK birthplace, the King Center and Ebenezer Baptist, where two generations of Kings preached. Together, these sites attract more than 600,000 visitors a year, making the two-block stretch at the eastern end of Auburn Avenue one of the top tourist draws in the city.

And yet, the area's longtime advocates have watched in recent years as other, similarly rundown areas of town -- from East Atlanta to Castleberry Hill -- defied lower expectations to make the shift from bust to boom.

Shirley Murray, for one, is somewhat bitter about being left behind. Murray has run Pal's Lounge at the corner of Auburn and Bell Street, just out of the shadow of the Downtown Connector, for the past 25 years, after taking over the family business from her father. On a typical weeknight, she occupies the cozy cocktail joint with a bartender, a DJ and a small coterie of old-timers whose sole purpose seems to be to run small errands and spur conversation. A customer -- usually another old-timer -- will occasionally wander in.

Everybody around the country knows about Auburn Avenue and what it used to be, but the city has never done much to help this area, Murray says. They've been talking for 25 years about what they're going to do.

It's been nearly 10 years since the Olympic Games brought the area a facelift of sorts, with nearly $8 million in new street lamps, paving blocks and a plaza built around a bust of civic leader John Wesley Dobbs. But to Murray, those repairs proved just another empty gesture when the city shut off street access to most of Auburn after the Games began. One day during the Olympics, she recalls, her bar took in a grand total of $18.

Since then, little on the street has changed for the better. One block over from Pal's, the historic Odd Fellows Building -- a stunning example of rare Jacobean Revival architecture -- was completely renovated a few years back for office space, street-level shops and a grand ballroom. Yet much of the building remains unoccupied.

If it weren't for the slight upswing in weekend traffic, Murray doubts she could remain in business.

Nothing's sweet about Auburn anymore, she says.

 

There are countless theories about how Auburn Avenue was allowed to fall through the cracks. Talk to any of the old guys who haunt the Dobbs plaza and you get the sense there are plenty of possible villains: politicians, property owners, the churches that tower over the street, even the King family itself.

It's tempting for folks to blame City Hall for neglecting the area, says Mayor Franklin, who also served as the city's chief operating officer in the late '80s, during Andy Young's administration. But she says the situation has always been more complicated than that.

"When African-Americans took control of city politics," she explains, "Atlanta was losing population due to white flight." That meant falling property values and shrinking tax revenues. Later, city leaders were forced to grapple with other problems, such as a crumbling infrastructure and the nation's highest violent crime rate.

"It's not a question of whether people wanted to do more," Franklin says. "But they had many priorities."

At the same time, the neighborhood's own efforts to revive itself rarely have gotten off the ground.

Youngblood recalls that when she became HDDC's executive director a decade ago, the president of the newly created Sweet Auburn Area Improvement Association came to ask her -- somewhat bluntly, she now realizes -- if she would be so kind as to confine her activities to the residential section of the street and leave the commercial strip to them.

At the time, her group didn't have a great deal of money, so she felt relieved that someone else was taking charge of the western end of the street. The improvement group was already collecting local grants and making big plans -- plans that ended up going nowhere.

"They spent a lot of money on big breakfasts and press conferences, but they went out of business not owning a brick," Youngblood says.

Charles Johnson, keeper of the Friends of Sweet Auburn website and organizer of the annual Auburn Avenue street festival, contends that the improvement association, which he helped found, is "still around" but no longer active. It has no projects planned.

For its part, the HDDC began cautiously, restoring several turn-of-the-century homes within sight of the King birthplace and building architecturally appropriate new houses on nearby vacant lots. In 2000, it debuted its most ambitious project, the sprawling, 115-unit Studioplex loft complex at the eastern end of Auburn Avenue, built using more than $9 million in municipal bonds.

Currently, the HDDC is wrapping up two major mixed-use developments, the 272-unit Auburn Glenn apartment complex on Boulevard, and the Dynamic Metals Lofts on Edgewood. When those projects are completed, it plans to turn its attention to restoring the original Atlanta Life headquarters, constructed between the 1890s to 1936, to their former use as office buildings.

 

From the vantage point of his insurance office, Howard has seen numerous redevelopment plans come and go. Years ago, he even sold his building to Fulton County, then bought it back after the county's land deal fell through. A few years after that, the nearby Mutual Federal Savings & Loan bought up and demolished the buildings on both sides of him for an expansion, then promptly folded.

Every time he hears of a new plan or proposal, Howard says his first thought is, Here we go again.

For example, apart from helping renovate the Sweet Auburn Curb Market on Edgewood, former Mayor Bill Campbell's administration largely bungled the windfall offered by hundreds of millions of federal Empowerment Zone dollars. Instead of reviving intown and south side neighborhoods, the program sank into a mire of corruption and bureaucratic incompetence.

One of the biggest impediments to the street's revitalization, however, has come from the unlikeliest source: Auburn's property owners.

Take, for example, the Palamont Motel, owned until recently by the Bell family. It had already been vacant for several years in the late '80s when Fulton County tried to buy the site for the planned Auburn Avenue Research Library. When the Bells wouldn't lower their price, the county gave up and built its project a block away. The Palamont sat abandoned for another 15 years before finally being sold last year to Big Bethel.

To some extent, you've had some landowners holding out for a payday, Youngblood says. There's always been some expectation that the area would rebound in value.

Elsewhere, a different problem arose. After many of the existing businesses fled the area during its decline in the '60s, several of the institutions that remained -- Big Bethel, Ebenezer Baptist, Wheat Street Baptist Church, Butler Street YMCA, Butler Street CME Church -- began buying up land on the cheap, often to use for potential expansions.

Some of the parcels were cleared and redeveloped for such projects as the Bethel Towers apartments or the Wheat Street Towers retirement complex. Other properties have been underutilized, or worse, boarded up.

The most egregious example is the famed Herndon Building, built in 1924 by the founder of Atlanta Life and long owned by the Butler Street YMCA. Once the home of the Savoy Hotel, the Atlanta offices of the NAACP and Urban League, and dozens of offices occupied by black professionals, the historic four-story building has spent the past two decades slowly caving into itself.

Up the street, the Rucker Building, built in 1904, was allowed to deteriorate to the point where, when it was struck by a car in 2001, the facade collapsed. The first black-owned office building in the Southeast, it was subsequently demolished. Its former site is now a parking lot.

To Joe Stewardson, this kind of neglect should be a prosecutable offense. Stewardson, a freelance photographer, took the gamble to buy and convert an old warehouse on Boulevard and John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, a block off Auburn, into loft space in 1998, when the area was still, as he describes it, an urban war zone.

Stewardson has since joined the HDDC board and has little patience for folks who buy historic buildings, only to let them disintegrate.

If you can't do something good with a property, there's a solution, he says. It's called a 'For Sale' sign.

Another consequence of the takeover of the historic district by the big churches was the church-sponsored explosion during the '80s of homeless shelters and soup kitchens -- a trend that isn't surprising when you consider the majority of the church members lived outside the neighborhood, where they didn't have to deal with the impact of those who needed such services, Youngblood says.

The result has been a generation of down-on-their-luck men and women hanging out along Auburn or panhandling from the few tourists curious enough to stray a block or two from the King Center. Needless to say, few entrepreneurs are willing to start businesses in areas largely populated by street people.

At some point, it's stifling and makes the kind of development we'd like to see here impossible, says Youngblood, explaining that the situation has improved since the city imposed a moratorium on social service start-ups inside the historic district a few years ago.

Street crime -- drug dealing, prostitution and muggings -- has declined since the installation of the Auburn Avenue police mini-precinct in the early '90s.

Then there's the King Center, which, by most accounts, has refrained from using its considerable influence in Atlanta's black community to spur redevelopment outside of its own block of Auburn.

You would think, observes Pulitzer Prize-winning MLK biographer David Garrow, that when the King Center was built, the area would've taken off. But, even going back 20 years, I don't think the King Center has taken much interest in the neighborhood.

It hasn't helped Sweet Auburn that Atlantans as a group, black or white, have never been much for preserving their history. This is the town, after all, that blithely bulldozed the grand Terminal Station in the '70s, took the wrecking ball to the jazz-era Pershing Point apartments in 1985 and nearly allowed Southern Bell to tear down the Fox Theatre.

But, the King Center aside, black landmarks have especially suffered, says Michael Lomax, who chaired the Fulton County Commission during the late '80s and now serves as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.

African-American heritage has not been given careful attention in Atlanta, he says.

Recovery has eluded Auburn Avenue, Youngblood theorizes, because there's never been the necessary alignment of leadership, vision and resources.

Basically, she says, it has to be a perfect storm.

 

Like nearly everything, neighborhoods, of course, do go in cycles, and the Auburn Avenue corridor -- despite decades of resistance -- is no exception.

Morgan Tucker and Willis Walker recently fell under the spell of a rustic, former grocery store building at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard, a block south of Auburn, and this month will open Javaology, an independent coffee shop.

To the former Morehouse classmates, the area is edgy enough to be interesting without being downright scary. They figure their potential customers likewise will be comfortable there.

This is the type of transitional neighborhood I grew up in, Tucker explains. It has the kind of early SoHo vibe we were looking for.

The fact that the King Center and King's birthplace are literally around the corner only add to the allure, adds Walker, whose wife, Sonya, is also a partner.

We're businessmen, but we appreciate the opportunity to be a part of a historic area, he says.

The two aren't alone. On the opposite corner, workers are busy installing equipment for a new pizza parlor. Further down Edgewood, Rolling Bones BBQ, located in a 1940s art deco gas station, has been packing in customers for nearly a year. A few blocks away, at the far eastern end of Auburn Avenue, a ramshackle corner grocery is getting a thorough overhaul under new owners. Home sales have already begun to take off in the historic district. In nearly every surrounding block, there's a renovation project or new construction under way. And the Wigwam apartments, Howard's old digs, have been restored to their former Miami Beach-style glory and are being sold as condos.

Stewardson, who in addition to the lofts on John Wesley Dobbs also owns the old Danneman's Market, where Taylor and Walker are opening their coffee shop, says he realized it was only a matter of time until the Auburn historic district became attractive again to developers.

I call it the hole in the doughnut, because everything around us in every direction has been developed, he says, citing Inman Park, Grant Park, the Old Fourth Ward and even chunks of downtown. Economics are now doing what politics haven't been able to.

That's why it's especially crucial to make sure that Auburn Avenue's inevitable revival doesn't come at the cost of the neighborhood's history, says Kwanza Hall, an HDDC board member who also sits on the board of the Butler Street YMCA.

Hall -- something of a whiz kid who runs his own IT firm and serves on the Atlanta school board, the Fulton County Zoning Board and the Atlanta Development Authority -- has been trying to persuade local property owners to work jointly in creating a unified vision for the district's redevelopment.

He's proposing that Big Bethel and others delay any demolition plans until the city is able to update its 10-year-old comprehensive development plan for the area, possibly by the end of the year. Then he'd like to see the major landowners enter into an agreement that would place a priority on the preservation of existing buildings, even ones of such dubious heritage as the Palamont Motel, which has no connection to MLK or Auburn's business pioneers.

It's taken so long already to get to this point, why not take a little more time to make sure we do it right? Hall says.

So far, he's managed to sign up only the HDDC, the Butler Street YMCA and Howard, whose insurance brokerage sits in the middle of the Big Bethel property.

Developer Powell, however, says that Big Bethel and the rest of the community have waited long enough for revitalization to come to Auburn Avenue. Besides, he says, the church's proposal -- which would preserve and restore the front 30 feet or so of the multistory buildings along the street, as well as create 7,500 square feet of interpretive exhibition space showcasing Sweet Auburn's history -- is amply sensitive to the area's heritage.

Our project would fit into any redevelopment master plan that's likely to come out, Powell says. Saving the Palamont and the small, unremarkable gas station at the east end of the block would render the Big Bethel project financially unworkable, he says. Besides being eyesores, the two buildings are not historically significant, he says.

David Patton, longtime chairman of the surrounding Neighborhood Planning Unit-M, says he understands that the project must be economically feasible, but that he and other residents are concerned that Integral Group hasn't put enough thought into what types of shops and restaurants it needs to bring in as tenants to create a desirable neighborhood.

We want them to be successful with their project, but we're the ones who have to live here, he says.

Another reason not to wait to build consensus, Powell explains wearily, is that Auburn Avenue's major stakeholders, with their differing agendas and conflicting visions for the street, rarely agree on anything. Even when Howard was offered larger offices across the street in exchange for his building, for example, discussions fell apart over the number of parking spaces.

If Bishop [James] Davis [of Big Bethel] waited to get everyone on board, we'd still be sitting here next August, Powell says. (Since this interview, Bishop Davis left Big Bethel to take a post in South Africa, but a church spokesperson says none of the plans for Sweet Auburn Village will change.)

Councilwoman Debi Starnes, who has represented the area for the past 11 years, would -- along with Hall -- love to see property owners on Auburn and Edgewood work together, but agrees that's an unlikely scenario.

If we build something there, it'd be really stupid not to redevelop that entire block, she says. But getting to that level of collaboration is excruciating.

Mayor Franklin believes it's unnecessary to hold up a decision on Sweet Auburn Village until the city updates its comprehensive plan. Auburn Avenue has waited long enough for redevelopment, she says, and I expect the [Urban Design Commission] to be very thoughtful and careful in their review.

If the go-ahead is given, demolition could begin by early spring, followed by the first new construction the Auburn Avenue commercial district has seen in a generation.

Howard, meanwhile, carries on business as usual. His customers, he explains, come from across the country, many having picked his store out of the phone book because of its Auburn Avenue address. He's still open to the prospect of moving, he says, as long as he doesn't have to leave the street.

If he stays, however, he soon may find himself in the eye of a perfect storm.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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