NewsPub Notes

A Blast From the Past Shows What Athens Could Have Been

Editor’s Note: Thirty years ago, Athens, and downtown in particular, as usual faced grave development problems, and these predated the influx of luxury student apartments. The proposed civic center was the topic of the day, and a New York architect’s plan for one that did away with the old fire hall was shouted down by townies led by Michael Stipe. Doctors were tearing down old buildings for their offices almost as fast as present-day infillers. The old parking deck was obsolete and vacant, and the new one had not been built. Atlanta was just beginning to creep into Athens. 

Pete McCommons, radiating his usual perspicacity, waded into the chaos and came up with a plan that would have changed the face of Athens for the better. Here, from a 1992 Flagpole column, is his forward-looking solution that, alas, was not adopted.

I have a very simple yet breathtaking solution for our most pressing public problems: the civic center, the parking deck, the proliferation of doctors’ offices, a downtown hotel, the fire hall, Atlanta.

The parking deck, the longed-for brainchild of the downtown merchants, sits empty. Nobody wants to use it, not even the downtown merchants.

The civic center has been a problem from the beginning; people hated the design and resented the destruction of the old buildings, including the fire hall.

OK, here goes. We’ve already paid the architects a million dollars for the civic center from hell, and we’ve got several more millions in the parking deck from nowhere.

What do we do? That’s right. We give those New York architects a chance to redeem themselves and get our city off the hook. Redesign the civic center and build it right on top of the parking deck.

Do you see it? The solution to both problems. No buildings to be torn down. No more downtown space to be gobbled up.

Put the civic center right on top of the parking garage: Suddenly, you’ve got a use for the deck, and you’ve got plenty of parking for the civic center.

But that’s not all. Why not contract with the Marriott or somebody to put a hotel in there, too. Instead of destroying another downtown block to build a big hotel, just add it onto the parking deck/civic center.

Beginning to get the picture? Well, while we’re at it, why not get really creative? Isn’t there some solution to all the doctors creeping around town targeting neighborhoods for destruction so that they can fulfill their need for more offices?

Think globally; act locally: Doctors’ offices in the downtown building, with bus service to the hospitals right across the street and parking for patients right below in the deck. Hey, that’s nothing new. The Southern Mutual Building across the street used to be full of doctors and dentists.

Look what we’ve got: A multipurpose building that not only serves diverse public needs but solves some of our most pressing public problems.

We’ve also got ourselves a skyscraper—a megabuilding right in the middle of downtown. Those who want Athens to be more like Atlanta can take pride in our new skyscraper. Those who don’t want Athens to be more like Atlanta can be relieved that we’ve confined Atlanta to one location instead of having it creep in all over town, like the doctors.

Now, I know there will be considerable debate about this next point, and I must confess I am of two minds about it myself. This concerns the problem of the firehall.

It’s true that the skyscraper—let’s call it the Atlanta Building—will save the firehall from destruction by the civic center, but it will also sort of leave it sitting down there all forlorn, looking more like an abandoned chamber of commerce building than a real firehall.

Here’s the clincher, and I say just let the public debate until we decide one way or another. But it could be a unique and fitting symbol of Athens reaching for the future while respecting the past. Put the firehall at the top of our skyscraper. Yes, use the firehall as the crown of the building. You know how all those Atlanta buildings are competing to see who can have the fanciest top to dominate their skyline.

Well, ours would be absolutely unique. Nobody in Atlanta could ever come up with a design to top it. There, high in the sky for everybody to see would float our beloved firehall. Think of the civic receptions we could have up there, with all of Athens and northeast Georgia laid out before us like jewels spread before royalty.

I know this may seem like too much to accomplish, but at least we should try, and this is a way for us all to pull together for a change. We’re talking about the revitalization of Athens here, folks, and the sky’s the limit.