Preservationists attended Wednesday’s Atlanta Urban Design Commission (URC) hearing concerning the fate of the Crum & Forster building looking to convince more than three-fourths of the commission not to accept the recent findings of an Economic Review Panel that agreed with the Georgia Tech Foundation’s application to demolish the rear two-thirds of the Midtown Landmark building.
They did better than that as all seven members of the UDC ultimately voted to reject the panel’s recommendation and Tech’s application in yet another victory for Crum & Forster supporters over the course of the last four years.
It is considered relatively rare for the UDC to deny the findings of an Economic Review Panel.
It took about 75 minutes of debate, and pleas from several of the estimated 75 Crum & Forster supporters, for the UDC to ultimately concur what preservationists have contended the entire time: Tech’s argument of unreasonable economic return was unsupported.
Some UDC members also suggested that the partial demolition of a Landmark property would undermine the integrity of the City’s Preservation Ordinance, saying that code was being "looked at down to the word level."
The UDC’s decision was celebrated by those attending the City Hall hearing, including numerous Midtown residents who were present wearing pro Crum & Forster t-shirts and pins. Tony Rizzuto, land-use committee chair for the Midtown Neighbors’ Association, was among many who implored to the UDC not to side with the panel and Tech.
“I’m informally here representing the close to 3,000 citizens who in 2008 signed a petition to protect the Crum & Forster,’’ Rizzuto said.
The Crum & Forster building was purchased by the Georgia Tech Foundation in December 2007. Soon after, the Foundation applied for a Special Administrative Permit, a pre-requisite for applying for a demolition permit, with the intent to use the site for surface parking. That was denied by the Office of Planning in July 2008. The Foundation’s appeal of this decision made it to the Board of Zoning Adjustment and was also denied.
The Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) was involved in the effort to establish the building, considered structurally sound and located at 771 Spring Street, as a locally designated Landmark. The UDC’s process for this effort was followed and Landmark designation was confirmed in 2009.
The Georgia Tech Foundation sued the City and the Board of Zoning Adjustment challenging the Landmark designation by the City as well as the Board of Zoning Adjustments decision. That case is still pending in Fulton County Superior Court.
Back came the Foundation this spring filing an application to remove the back two-thirds of the building in order to make way for a High Performing Computing Center, a potential 24-story, 680,000 square-foot public-private development on the Technology Square block.
Three months ago, Georgia Tech representatives explained to the UDC that it was not economically feasible to restore the entire building.
The three-story structure, designed in 1926 and opened in 1928, was built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. Its most striking architectural feature is a façade with three soaring arches, supported by two columns that accentuate the front entrance. That portion was to be saved according to the Georgia Tech Foundation’s plans.
Built for the Crum & Forster Insurance Company, the site is considered significant in establishing Atlanta as a regional center for insurance firms.
In May, the UDC established an Economic Review Panel that ultimately consisted of three men. Those individuals - Tom Aderhold, president of Aderhold Properties, Scott Taylor, president of Carter & Associates, and John Shlesinger, vice chairman of the commercial real-estate firm, CB Richard Ellis Group, Inc. presented their recommendation to the UDC in late June that said saving the entire structure was not an economically-viable alternative.
It was up to preservationists to convince the UDC otherwise. The attorney representing the APC, Robert Zoeckler, contended in May that Georgia Tech had paid a “grossly exaggerated purchase price” for the building in 2007 when it shelled out $11 million. On Wednesday, he told the UDC, “we think the main defect in this application is that it is not focused on the correct legal standards. They have to prove that only by taking the building down can that condition of unreasonable economic return be reckoned.”
Zoeckler also said there was “no evidence that the property is not marketable,” which is a “requirement of the code when analyzing this criteria.”
No less than three former UDC committee members spoke on behalf of the Crum & Forster. Georgia Tech professor Elizabeth Dowling, who served on the UDC for six years, said, “based on my experience on the commission, it is my opinion that Georgia Tech has not made its case.” She contended that if the UDC ruled in favor of the applicant, “the result in precedent would be that any designated Landmark building can be demolished.”
Tech supporters again on Wednesday proclaimed its history of historic preservation, citing recent restorations to the Academy of Medicine and Old Civil Engineering Building. But due in part because of the high price paid by the Foundation in late 2007 for the building just before the economic market went south, Tech argued that it could not attain a reasonable economic return without removing the rear two-thirds of the building.
Commissioners posed much of their questions at the applicants in an attempt to make their decision. John Majeroni, executive director of Real Estate Development at Georgia Tech, told the commission Wednesday, “the only way we can do it is by making (the Crum & Forster) a part of a larger project.”
Saying the project is “critical to Technology Square and this part of town,” Majeroni added, “Georgia Tech feels what we are proposing is best for Midtown, enhancing it. There needs to be a balance between preservation and development. We feel the project we’re proposing meets that balance.”
But commissioners disagreed. One remarked that data presented had not convinced him the criteria had been met. Another said, “not enough solutions” had been explored while another remarked that “there are other things that can be done with this property that will generate a reasonable economic solution.”
Tech argued that the UDC was not considering enough both the renovation costs associated with the entire building and the purchase price of the property. In the end, yet another commissioner said just before casting his ballot to reject Tech’s application, that the city shouldn’t “lose the Crum & Forster because the real estate market collapsed.”