Keep Atlanta’s Central Library, Fulton commissioners decide

Fulton County commissioners voted Wednesday to spend up to $55 million to renovate Atlanta’s Central Library, scuttling plans to build a new facility downtown.

The decision brings to an end months of debate over whether the county should keep the iconic building near Peachtree Center that has fallen into disrepair and is now considered too large for the library’s needs.

“There’s no political will for a new library,” Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said. “There was growing support for staying where we are. We’re good public officials. We’re certainly willing to listen.”

Voters in 2008 approved a bond referendum that allows the county access to up to $275 million to build new libraries and renovate branches. A new central library was part of that vote.

But plans to build the facility included the assumption that private funds would be raised to help allay the costs. After the recession, that became more difficult.

In the intervening years, architects and other fans of the concrete 1980 building, the last designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer, have become increasingly vocal about their desire to see it remain a library. At a public meeting held at Central Library earlier this summer, more than half of the approximately 80 attendees said they were in favor of renovating the 265,000-square-foot building. It is estimated the cost will be between $40 million and $55 million.

When it was opened, the library had plenty of components that were innovative for its time, such as a cafe and an auditorium, said Kyle Kessler, a proponent of renovation. But the library has been underfunded since it was built, and both are now closed. If they were open to the public, Kessler said, they would be well-used.

The library’s roof leaks. Elevators are broken. And the automatic doors sometimes don’t work.

“It would be a tragedy for us not to let the original vision for the library play back out,” Kessler said. “I’m a fan of what the building can be.”

The proposal commissioners agreed to this week calls for renovating five or six floors of Central Library and leasing the rest, perhaps to arts groups or other organizations with missions complementary to the library’s. Determining who fills in the additional floors, though, will come later.

Eaves said he envisions it like a mixed-use center, calling it a “novel concept” for the building.

Before they can officially access the remaining bond money, commissioners must meet next month to declare a new library unnecessary, repudiate it as impractical and not feasible, and amend the master plan of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. They also have to determine a more specific cost for the project.

In addition to the renovation of Central Library, the county also intends to spend between $45 and $50 million to renovate 15 branches. There is $104 million remaining from the original $275 million referendum. The rest was spent on new branches and other renovations.

Those renovations get far less attention than Central Library, library director Gabriel Morley said, but are critically important to library users.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington told Morley he didn’t see the sense in spending money to buy land to build a new main library. There’s a months-long wait for audio books and money would be better spent buying more, he said. Other commissioners also said they were in favor of the renovation, and the vote was approved 5-0. Vice Chairman Liz Hausmann and Commissioner Joan Garner were not at the meeting.

“Hopefully, we’re turning a new leaf,” Kessler said. “Rather than rushing to judgment on buildings that are falling out of fashion, we can maintain them and keep them moving forward.”

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