What would you do if you were given $750,000 to play with? Buy a new home? A new car? Start saving for the rugrat’s college? Or perhaps all three?
Well, the Atlanta Housing Authority was given this exact opportunity by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and what they did with the cash was a shame. In fact, they have been given much more than the $750,000 they used to buy the Trio Laundry Dry Cleaning Building in January 2009 – $20 million to revitalize the Grady Homes housing project, now Auburn Pointe, to be exact.
And what did they do with the building? They let it crumble. They let it fall apart.
It’s so bad, it needs to be repeated: the Atlanta Housing Authority spent $750,000 on a building at 20 Hilliard Street SE in Atlanta with neither a future vision for the building or the land on which the building sits in the sprawling mixed income community known as Auburn Pointe. They sat back and let the building deteriorate.
That’s what they call demolition through neglect, or just plain incompetence. It’s a damn shame.
Approved to be demolished by the Atlanta City Planning Department on May 21st, 2014, crews began taking the building down on August 18th (also using HUD funds). But two wrinkles occurred that prevented demolition: a man on a mission, and the fact the building resides in protected Landmark and Historic Districts.
Sparked by Kyle Kessler, a local architect and preservationist, a grassroots movement exploded when demo crews began taking down the building that Friday. Mayor Kasim Reed was deluged by phone calls, a Facebook page was created (at the time of this article it had 759 likes; go to the Save The Historic Trio Building page and add one more) and many Atlanta residents rediscovered their ability to halt actions by the city through collective action.
In an obvious victory for preservation, the demolition of this building that resides both in the protected Martin Luther King, Jr. Landmark District (local) and Historic District (the National Register) was halted on August 27th. This case of demolition by neglect or incompetence was halted. For now…
There are many questions this case raises: How did we almost lose a building that’s supposed to be protected? How did we almost tear down a building that was bought for $750,000 with public funds when the real estate market was in shambles?
Why did the Atlanta Housing Authority pay such a large sum in a housing slump for a building that was valued by Fulton County Tax Assessors in 2008 at $253,200? Why did they pay so much for a building that was previously purchased for $155,000 in 2006, back when the market was thriving? Why did the Atlanta Housing Authority let it fall apart? How did we get to a point where collective action was needed?
I’m not sure I can answer all of these questions, but I will attempt a try. But first, let’s talk about the history.
The building at 20 Hilliard Street SE was built in 1910, just one building in a campus of sorts for the revolutionary Trio Laundry Company. Their main building still resides across the street at 19 Hilliard Street, today known as the renovated Brushworks Lofts. This sister building built in 1905 resides on the National Register of Historic Places.
I say revolutionary because Eugene H. Wilson, born as the son of a Georgia Legislator in January of 1867, was known as a brilliant mind in the laundry industry. He mechanized dry cleaning, building his starchy empire in the 1900’s from this neighborhood while he resided in Decatur. At one point in time Wilson was President of both the Laundrymen’s Club of Atlanta and Georgia Launderers Association, as well as a member of the Decatur Athletic Club (making him a Democrat), the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and more clubs and associations too numerous to list here.
Wilson obviously spared no expense with his new building at 20 Hilliard Street SE built for his dry cleaning department. Obvious because the building was a very sturdy, industrial building that survived the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917.
Over the course of the 1910’s and the 1920’s the racial landscape of the surrounding area changed. The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 was largely an attack on African American businesses that were, at that time, spread all over Atlanta. Instead of small rows of houses in alleyways, the riots caused this segment of the community to centralize, and that central location was the Sweet Auburn area.
The Sweet Auburn neighborhood transformed into a bastion controlled by African Americans. It was during this time period Trio Laundry left the Old Fourth Ward. And the building at 20 Hilliard Street? Since the 1930’s some sources indicate it remained mostly unoccupied (not considering squatters and homeless). But this is unconfirmed, and it most likely did serve some purpose for the local community. A picture below from the 1940’s and 1950’s does indicate it was some sort of department store. We do know for a brief period of time during the 1990’s it was a treatment center.
In the mid 2000’s things started to change for the building. That’s when developer G.D. Evans & Associates LLC purchased the building and an attached lot on April 26th, 2006 for $155,000. They had a plan for the building. Greg Evans of G.D. Evans and a lawyer Tom Hills had approval in 2007 through the Atlanta Urban Design Commission to add onto the back of the building, using designs by Pimsler Hoss Architects. But the project never occurred.
What did happen? The Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA), through their affiliate Westside Revitalization Acquisitions LLC, paid for environmental testing that began in July 2008. Why would they pay for testing on a property they didn’t own?
Then, on October 10th, 2008, G.D. Evans sold the property for a sum not disclosed in Fulton County tax records to Hilliard Street LLC. Who was Hilliard Street? A limited liability company formed three days before the October 10th purchase by the above mentioned attorney Tom Hills.
According to a prospective purchaser corrective action plan for the AHA prepared by Kemron Environmental Services dated November 12th, 2008, “after the demolition and removal of the existing building on the site… remediation described above will be conducted in coordination with overall site redevelopment.” Did the geologist who prepared the report presume demolition or was that the plan all along?
Regardless, in January of 2009, only three months after Hilliard Street acquired the building, it was sold to Westside Decatur Street Acquisitions LLC, another affiliate of the Atlanta Housing Authority, for $750,000.
Remember, this was a property that was vacant, boarded up and surrounded by facilities on Edgewood that were also vacant. A property valued by Fulton County in 2008 at $253,200. A property that had undergone Phase I and Phase II environmental site assessments for existing environmental contamination liabilities in September and October of 2008 (basically, it was a contaminated site). All of that for $750,000 of HUD money.
As the purchaser, the Atlanta Housing Authority decided to go through the Georgia Brownfields Program. In order to qualify for limited liability for contamination, rather than full liability, they had to be a “prospective purchaser”. In other words, they couldn’t already own the property and get in the Brownfields Program.
Was the formation of Hilliard Street LLC a layer to shield G.D. Evans from potential liability stemming from the contamination? And why did the Atlanta Housing Authority pay so much? Was it because Hilliard Street LLC carried a large amount of potential risk due to the known contamination? These are all serious questions that should be answered. But back to the building.
What do you do in cases of ground contamination? This is quite common with former dry cleaning operations. There are several ways to remediate soil without demolition.
According to Kyle Kessler, Troy Peerless Lofts (across Glen Iris from Ponce City Market) was also a laundry and dry cleaner site with contamination. It was originally Troy Peerless laundry but later became Trio Capital Laundry (yes, the same Trio). They were able to remediate at that location without tearing the building down.
But there could be another reason why the Atlanta Housing Authority paid a huge sum for this property. It could be they already had plans for the site, and by paying a large sum, they could scare off potential buyers. What was this reason? An expansion of nearby Auburn Pointe, also known as Ashley Auburn Pointe, an Atlanta Housing Authority mixed income community developed by Integral Development and Urban Realty.
The Atlanta Housing Authority “purchased the property as a strategic community investment to be incorporated into the master plan for the development of Auburn Pointe,” stated Shean L. Atkins, Vice President of External & Governmental Affairs and Corporate Communications for the Atlanta Housing Authority in an email exchange with a Creative Loafing editor. “There were no specific plans at the time for redevelopment. AHA and its development partner are refreshing the master plan to determine what will be developed of the remaining Grady Homes property and this adjacent site.”
What would you do if you approached the Atlanta Housing Authority about a building assessed at $253,200, and was told it was worth $750,000? Most buyers would balk. And according to reports about this building, when told this abnormally high price, other buyers, including the owner of Noni’s, did exactly that: balk. And other purchasers never had their phone calls returned.
And what action did the Atlanta Housing Authority take with a property they just purchased for $750,000? They let it fall apart, either incompetently unaware or willfully neglectful.
At some point before October 2011 the roof collapsed on the building – that’s when Google Earth shows the damage. According to the Atlanta Housing Authority, they didn’t know about the damage until August 2012. Yes, it took almost a year for them to figure out a building under their care was quickly crumbling apart.
So towards the end of August 2012 Weston Solutions, a consultant of the Atlanta Housing Authority, hired Structural Design Solutions, a structural engineering firm, to evaluate the structural integrity of the building.
Structural Design Solutions found that “although any building structure can be repaired and salvaged if appropriate funding is available, all of the floors and roofs (concrete and steel) for this building would have to be removed and replaced due to extensive water damage.”
“Whether or not this structure is saved and repaired may also depend on the historical significance of the building,” continues the structural engineer. “In my professional opinion, this lot will see more productive use at lower cost if the building is removed, the site contamination cleaned up, and the land sold to a developer who will make productive use of the lot.”
You would imagine with a report of this nature the Atlanta Housing Authority would pause and consider alternatives to simply tearing the building down. Particularly so, considering the building resides in a protected area, being a contributing structure to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District. They did their due diligence when they purchased the property and knew it was a contributing structure, right?
It doesn’t appear so, and the Atlanta Housing Authority did nothing to help the building. When the structural engineer later returned to the site on May 21st, 2013 he noted “the building is in similar condition to what was noted in the previous report, except that more of the roof has collapsed, and a portion of the wood-framed second floor has now collapsed.”
“Under lateral loading from a design wind or seismic event (building code mandated forces), part of the wall could collapse to the ground,” continues the structural engineer in his letter to Weston Solutions on May 30th. “Due to the instability of the wall and the potential threat to human safety, I recommend that the building be demolished.”
In early June 2013 Weston reported the structural engineer’s finding to the Atlanta Housing Authority. Did they look for ways to in which to reuse the property, rather than tear it down? It appears they did not. They continued to sit on the building and let it crumble. (If the Atlanta Housing Authority wishes to present any evidence to the contrary, I will append this article.)
The Atlanta Housing Authority, by the summer of 2013, looked determined to tear the building down and start anew before a December 31st, 2013 deadline to meet their obligations for the Brownfields Program. One of the last hurdles they had to clear was the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. This is where they encountered some of the first opposition to demolition (they also encountered opposition during a meeting earlier in the year with Neighborhood Planning Unit M).
In an email on October 29th, 2013 from the Atlanta Housing Authority to the Historic Preservation Division they advocated for the building’s destruction. “Proper and thorough remediation of the environmentally impact areas is going to require removal of the building,” they wrote in the email. “Because time is of the essence, we need to move very quickly.”
This should be an easy destruction. The building is falling apart. It requires remediation in order to qualify for the Brownfields Program. Let’s hurry up and destroy it. Well, the Historic Preservation Division responded almost immediately that the building in question is a contributing structure in a historic district. Oops.
This is where problems start for the Atlanta Housing Authority. The building resides in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District. Since the building was around when King was alive and provides a sense of place, it is a protected structure. Did that stop their desire to demolish? Nope.
On November 6th, 2013 the Historic Preservation Division notes that individuals from their organization “met with Wm. James Talley, Jt., Real Estate and Acquisitions Senior Project Manager for Atlanta Housing Authority regarding this project. The main issue is that as a Brownfield site, the Environmental Protection Division is requiring soil remediation of this property by the end of December of this year.”
“Because of the level of contamination and the condition of the building, the building needs to be demolished in order to carry out the remediation,” the notes continue. “It was agreed [in the meeting] that the Atlanta Housing Authority will need to submit more detailed information to justify why the building needs to the demolished in order to complete the remediation.”
The Housing Authority responded to this wrinkle by requesting an inspection from the Atlanta City Building Inspector. In a letter dated November 20th, 2013 to the Atlanta Housing Authority, the inspector notes that the “roof structure has collapsed inside which has placed pressure on the exterior walls to collapse out onto the street and the neighboring property.”
“With the collapsed roof structure and portions of the second floor being collapsed as well, it is a very serious concern that the walls may blow outward into the right-of-way or onto the neighboring property,” continues the Atlanta building inspector. “Due to immediate hazardous conditions to the neighboring properties and the general public, I hereby declare this structure unsafe and order it demolished.”
It seemed as if the Atlanta Housing Authority had what it needed in order to demo the building and meet their deadline for the Brownfields Program. But it wouldn’t be so easy. What follows is an interesting back-and-forth that indicates the plan was always to demolish the building, and other alternatives for its reuse were never really considered.
“Since our last meeting, the City of Atlanta has sent us a letter designating the building in question at 20 Hilliard Street as unsafe and declaring it a hazard to the general public and neighboring property,” wrote the Atlanta Housing Authority, in an email to the Historic Preservation Division, dated December 6th, 2013. “Therefore, we were advised that we need to demolish it immediately. Additionally, I have been advised that Georgia Environmental Protection Division is not thrilled with our request for an extension to comply with our environmental remediation.”
“What we need is more detailed information to justify why the building needs to be demolished in order to complete the soil remediation and whether any other alternatives for the use of the structure were considered that would have avoided the need to demolish it for remediation,” responded the Historic Preservation Division in an email on December 9th, 2013. “If you remember in our last discussion when we met last month, we were concerned about the precedent of demolishing a contributing structure in a National Register-listed historic district to remediate soil contamination and we wanted to be sure that alternatives were thoroughly considered.”
It is a historically significant property – the Historic Preservation Division wants to be sure demolition is the only option. But in early January 2013 they acquiesce to the demolition of 20 Hilliard Street SE. It looks like the Atlanta Housing Authority played tough in an email:
“Per Atlanta Housing Authority’s need to remove the structure at 20 Hilliard Street so as to eliminate a tremendous public safety issue as it relates to structural integrity deficiencies at this severally distressed building, and to implement Georgia Environmental Protection Division mandated environmental remediation activities, please find attached a formal letter and back-up information that speaks to the necessity to remove the building,” wrote the Atlanta Housing Authority in a January 7th, 2014 email. “Based on this information, you will see that the building must be removed. As time is of the essence, we would like to move the process forward as quickly as possible.”
And while the Historic Preservation Division accepted demolition, they did make some very interesting notes regarding this process they did not share with the Atlanta Housing Authority.
“While the submitted information adequately documents the existing condition of the property and provides the Atlanta Housing Authority’s reasons for the building’s demolition, no information has been provided regarding consideration of alternatives,” reads the notes in the Historic Preservation Division’s file regarding this process from January 2014. “Alternatives considered, including reasons why they were not determined feasible, should be a component of any Memorandum of Agreement developed to resolve the Adverse Effect [of tearing down a protected structure].
“Furthermore, although the apparent primary reason provided for the proposed demolition is the building’s ‘unsafe’ condition, the effective reason is Brownfield Program correction action requirements, which involve contaminated soil remediation (removal),” continues the notes. “In this context, it appears participation in the Brownfields Program would require removal of the building no matter its condition. The Atlanta Housing Authority appears to have had control/ownership of the property since at least late 2008 (Brownfield designation awarded December 15th, 2008) which appears to predate roof failure; as such building conditions appears to be the result of neglect over which the Atlanta Housing Authority had control.”
So it was clear to the Historic Preservation Division this was an example of neglect. The notes go on to list many instances of historic structures with load bearing walls under the threat of “imminent collapse”, some of them in danger of collapse for decades. If these could be saved, why not the Trio Building?
If the Atlanta Housing Authority had done their homework and learned the building was historic back in 2008 then the Historic Preservation Division could have created a plan with them to mothball or maintain the building. Why didn’t the Atlanta Housing Authority do this?
Regardless, the demolition was a go in the eyes of the Atlanta Housing Authority. All that was needed was a Memorandum of Agreement developed to resolve the Adverse Effect of destroying a contributing historic structure. They drafted this document in early March of 2014. The Agreement acknowledges that the Atlanta Housing Authority “acquired the Building for purposes of enhancing its adjacent community revitalization development known as Auburn Pointe.”
Then, on May 19th, 2014, the City Planning Department stepped in to speed up the process. In a letter to the Historic Preservation Division, the Planning Department indicated they had seven days to respond to a request for “Emergency Demolition” per Stipulation IV of Programmatic Agreement.
Finally, the Historic Preservation Division relents, a dying breath in their fight to save the building. In a May 21st, 2014 letter to the City Planning Department they concur that demolition can proceed. But they really had no control. The “emergency demolition” stipulation was being used, which meant no Memorandum of Agreement, no public notification and no involvement with consulting parties.
And while the Atlanta Urban Design Commission staff was involved in the process, the commission/board was not. Why? Because they’d gotten the letter from the building department that stated the building needed to come down immediately, dated in November 2013. What happened between March and May of 2013?
Approved to be demolished by the Atlanta City Planning Department, crews began taking the building down on Monday, August 18th (also using HUD funds). But the demolition was halted on August 27th by a dedicated group of neighbors, community activists, concerned citizens, artists, bicyclists, photographers, bloggers and more led by Kyle Kessler.
Which brings us back to the questions that surround the Atlanta Housing Authority’s treatment of this building: Was it neglect? Was it incompetence? Was it both? Was it calculated?
What would you do with $750,000? It appears the Atlanta Housing Authority threw around this HUD funding haphazardly. They didn’t do their homework on the property. They had no idea it was in a historic district. They purchased the building for an abnormally high price. And they let that historic building under their control fall apart.
If the Atlanta Housing Authority owned a building and willfully neglected it in order to tear it down to make room for Auburn Pointe, shouldn’t they be held accountable? What can be done when this type of negligence occurs with public funds?
Kind of makes me wonder what the Atlanta Housing Authority has done with the more than $300 million in HUD funds they have received since the 1990’s. Are there other historic buildings like Trio Laundry sitting around Atlanta being neglected by the Atlanta Housing Authority?
Did You Know? Atlanta was the first major U.S. city to build public housing during the Great Depression.
Did You Know? Atlanta was the first major U.S. city to have razed all its large family housing projects, a feat it accomplished by 2010.
Did You Know? Auburn Pointe, also known as Ashley Auburn Pointe, is a mixed income community, the solution to the housing projects that were torn down in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
Did You Know? In 2005, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded the Atlanta Housing Authority $20 million in HOPE VI grant funds for the revitalization of the distressed public housing project known as Grady Homes in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Ashley Auburn Pointe replaced the Grady Homes housing projects using these funds.
Did You Know? The first housing project to be torn down in Atlanta was Techwood Homes, done so in preparation for the 1996 Olympics (it bordered the Olympic Village and was considered an embarrassment). It is now the mixed income community Centennial Place.
Did You Know? The chief developer behind award-winning Centennial Place was Integral, one of the same developers behind Auburn Pointe.