Fulton commissioners support keeping Central Library

The future of Atlanta’s Central Library isn’t any more certain Wednesday, after Fulton County commissioners delayed making a decision about whether renovate the historic building. But commissioners expressed support for keeping the building, even if they’re still not quite sure what to do with it.

In comments following a presentation of possible plans, they poo-pooed the idea of buying expensive downtown land to build a new, smaller main branch elsewhere in the city.

“Why would we spend millions of dollars on land in downtown Atlanta when we already have land?” Commissioner Marvin Arrington asked. “We need to be investing in technology.”

Fulton County residents in 2008 approved $275 million in bonds to renovate existing libraries and build new branches as part of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. While the original proposal called for a new, larger Central Library funded in part by private donations, the library board of trustees has instead recommended building a downtown library that is about 20 percent of the size of the 265,000-square-foot main branch.

With 3 million annual users, Chairman John Eaves said, the county’s libraries are “the single most popular entity” in the county.

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But the Brutalist-style Central Library, at Margaret Mitchell Square near the Peachtree Center MARTA station, has never been welcoming and years of neglect have left it in disrepair. A new building might be more attractive, better suited to the needs of residents and easier to maintain.

The current Central Library has broken elevators and a leaky roof. It could cost $85 million to renovate it, while a new main branch could be built for $40 million, according to Al Collins, the head of the system’s Library Services Division.

The Central Library, which opened in 1980, was the last work designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer and is considered a strong example of the Bauhaus movement. Getting him to design the building was considered a coup. Breuer died at 79, just over a year after the building’s dedication.

His work included the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO; the Washington office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the Whitney Museum in New York. The Atlanta library has a similar aesthetic to the Whitney.

“Obviously, this is a building that means a lot to a lot of people in Fulton County,” Vice Chairman Liz Hausmann said. “It’s not my favorite building, honestly. It does have a historical component that I don’t think we should ignore.”

Too often, Hausmann said, Atlanta gets rid of buildings of significant structures.

“I think we need to be very careful about leaving that building,” she said.

Both Hausmann and Commissioner Joan Garner said they had received dozens of comments from residents who want to keep the Central Library. Several residents also spoke in support of the current location.

Garner, who represents the downtown area, said the Central Library is not as vibrant as she would like. But when residents say they want to keep it, she said, she has to listen.

Commissioners floated the idea of reducing the amount of space dedicated to the library itself by combining it with an arts or senior center.

The county has to move quickly in making a decision, chief financial officer Sharon Whitmore said. If the county does not go to the bond market this fall, the available amount of money will be reduced.

“We need to move quickly,” she said. “Before we issue bonds, we need to have direction on the Central Library.”

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