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A New Space for Protests at the Georgia Capitol

Visitors who come to Atlanta next month to see Gov. Nathan Deal take the oath of office for his second term will encounter a capitol complex that looks different from four years ago when Deal was first sworn in.

There has been a reworking of the east side of the capitol building, and it provides a more welcoming environment for the general public. A parking deck across Capitol Avenue that had been slowly crumbling into disrepair for years is gone—demolition crews began tearing down and carting away the aging concrete structure last April, shortly after the 2014 legislative session adjourned. Where the parking deck once sat is a newly landscaped park called Liberty Plaza that will serve as a staging area for media events and public gatherings that previously had been held on the steps of the capitol’s west side. 

Deal’s inauguration will take place in Liberty Plaza, assuming there is not a winter blizzard like the one in January 2011 that forced his first inauguration to be moved inside the capitol to the House chamber.

“The public should have a safe place to assemble, and we believe Liberty Plaza will hold an important place in public debate and assemblies for many years to come,” Deal said last month.

As public projects go, this one has happened with lightning speed. In less than nine months, a massive parking deck completely disappeared and a pleasantly appointed plaza blossomed in its place, ready to stage one of the state’s signature political events.

Georgia Building Authority Director Steve Stancil, who’s been riding herd on the Capitol Hill makeover, will be happy to remind you that the $4.4 million project was financed without adding to the state’s debt load. The GBA raised the money by selling a couple of state buildings in the Atlanta area that were no longer needed.

Liberty Plaza will become the new resting place for monuments that are being moved from other areas of the capitol complex. These include a replica of the Liberty Bell that was presented to Georgia in 1950 by President Harry Truman and a replica of the Statue of Liberty that was donated to the state at around the same time as the Liberty Bell.  

Stancil said Liberty Plaza will also include another reminder of the nation’s history, a tulip poplar tree that is descended from a “Liberty Tree” that grew in Annapolis, Maryland, during the American Revolution. In 1999, cuttings from that Maryland tree were used to grow new versions of the tulip poplar that were presented to each of the states. One was transplanted in Dalton, and a cutting from that tree will eventually be part of Liberty Plaza.

In addition to the redesign of the capitol’s east side, which now will serve as the “front door” to the complex, there was another important change that happened about a year ago. That was when Deal authorized the relocation of the statute of former Georgia Sen. Tom Watson from its prominent position in front of the capitol’s west steps to a park area across Washington Street. Watson was a notorious race-baiter and anti-Semite during his years in the political spotlight, and the presence of his statue in front of the capitol steps had long been an embarrassment to the state.  

A few months after Watson’s statue was moved, the General Assembly passed and Deal signed a bill authorizing the erection of a monument honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on the capitol grounds, a project that is still in the preliminary design stages.

All of these changes to the capitol’s appearance were long overdue, and I think they will ultimately enhance Georgia’s image. If Deal is giving any thought to the legacy he will leave behind as governor, that’s one achievement he can be proud of.