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Resurgens renaissance

Imagine Atlanta becoming the Florence of the 21st century -- that's the plan for City Hall East



Hunkering on Ponce de Leon Avenue is the largest building in Georgia. You've seen it, you know it, you've likely dismissed it as one of Atlanta's many urban eyesores. But take a closer look at what currently is dubbed City Hall East. It's 2 million square feet of potential.

And then dream a little about what could be.

One of the metro area's more prolific dreamers is Emory Morsberger. With a slightly goofy grin he was literally bobbing up and down last week at a Thai restaurant a few blocks from City Hall East. Morsberger personifies "infectious enthusiasm." When he gets an idea, he comes at you like a guided missile.

Morsberger's base is Lawrenceville. A few years ago, the burg was an uninviting mix of rundown and underused buildings. Morsberger almost single-handedly created a renaissance by snapping up three dozen properties. He conjured a vision of a thriving and vital downtown, and made it real. One example: He'd heard of a theater group that, as he recalls, was "being abused by [the city of] Duluth." So he purchased an old Methodist church, renovated it, sold it to the city for what he'd paid, moved in the thespians, and Lawrenceville now boasts the Aurora Theater.

"An incredible guy," says Anthony Rodriguez, Aurora's artistic director.

In recent months, Morsberger is best-known for championing the "Brain Train," a commuter rail from Athens to Atlanta that would connect nine major educational institutions and provide many thousands of weary commuters with relief from the highways. It's such a resoundingly good, sane idea that, predictably, state leaders have pretty much snubbed it.

A few paragraphs ago, I used the word "renaissance." I was foreshadowing Morsberger's latest grand scheme, a plan for City Hall East that's so dramatic I'm quickly running out of clichés to describe it.

First, here are two other words to mull over: "radical pragmatism." A friend at another Atlanta newspaper (yes, that one) coined or purloined the term one recent evening as we were dissecting the city's endless list of urban catastrophes: Water shortages, congestion, housing, Grady, et cetera, et cetera, demand out-of-the-box, push-the-envelope solutions. Hand-wringing and tired old ideas won't do the job.

But wildly innovative solutions also must be grounded in reality. Transportation, for example, won't be solved by militant armies of trainsters battling equally militant roadies. There has to be common ground, and there must be recognition that the "fix" will cost tens of billions of dollars. The ultimate hurdle will be to assemble the brains to craft the plan, and then to marshal the political will to make it happen.

Morsberger, much as he did by envisioning an old church becoming a marvelous venue for the Aurora troupe, has a similar dream for City Hall East – a place to assemble those brains and marshal political will. "I won't be building just a lot more expensive condos for Atlanta," he says.

The developer won the bidding to purchase City Hall East, a $33 million deal that closed last year. The building – originally the Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution center for the Southeast – was built 81 years ago. When Morsberger and his partners are done with the now decrepit structure, they will have completed the largest historical restoration in the nation. The new name will be Ponce Park.

Morsberger was in China last year when he read a book, The Medici Effect, by techno-entrepreneur Frans Johansson. The book describes how if you assemble a critical mass of creative thinking, the result will be an explosion of remarkable ideas. The key is to create a place where different fields can intersect. That's what the Medici family did in Florence, Italy, in the 15th century.

"And what did we get?" says Morsberger, who is in full enthusiasm-overload mode. "The Renaissance, that's what."

Fast-forward 600 years to Morsberger, who aspires to be our latter-day Cosimo de Medici. "Let's say a CDC scientist who is working on a cure for AIDS sits down with an engineer from Georgia Tech and an artist from the Savannah College of Art and Design," Morsberger says. "Who know what ideas might emerge? Who knows?"

Well, I don't know. But I'd certainly like to find out.

When Morsberger rehabs the old Sears/City Hall East – beginning in 2009 – the heart of the new structure will be what he calls the Academies: The Medici Center at Ponce Park. "I really want to offer a home for arts and cultural groups," he says. "When they come, the other creative thinkers will follow."

Imagine, someone in Georgia actually saying the arts are important. It certainly qualifies as radical pragmatism.

The idea would be to have a village for scholars, scientists and artists. "This building is in the middle of everything, and we need to do something important with it," Morsberger says. Indeed, Emory University, Georgia Tech, Atlanta University Center, CARE, the Carter Center, the CDC, Georgia State, SCAD and many more stellar facilities are close by. "The perfect place for the convergence of the city's finest resources and people," a paper by Morsberger states. "Inhabitants and visitors alike will find stimulating places for debate, conversation and public discourse 24/7."

Morsberger wants to address issues such as race relations and religious tolerance. He sees research blossoming on healthy living and health care. He plans a special community for the disabled – especially the burgeoning number of Iraq war veterans. He aspires to find solutions for global warming.

"Atlanta must devote some of its intellectual capital to the study of sustainability," he says.

And he will sell some pricey condo units. He'll also reserve a large part of Ponce Park for affordable housing. After all, artists are well-known to be perpetually starving.

For my money, I think Morsberger should run for gubna (he says, emphatically, "no"). After all, while Sonny thinks the solution to the state's problems is divine intervention, which must give God a good laugh, Morsberger is preaching the gospel of radical pragmatism.

Which means actually getting something done.

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