Harris Street renamed for John Portman, capping controversy

The huge green road sign was unfurled over the street, proclaiming the first day of "John Portman Boulevard." A crowd of 300 gave a standing ovation to the developer who helped shape Atlanta's skyline above them.

Based on Wednesday morning's ceremony in downtown Atlanta, you would have never known that the renaming of Harris Street played a part in a controversy over how City Council handled of the process, raising questions about openness and accountability to citizens.

As Atlanta continues a longstanding practice of honoring citizens by naming -- and renaming -- streets after them, a bigger question is whether city officials can avoid the public scrapes that characterized recent renamings.

The original plan to rename Harris Street, which runs east and west to Centennial Olympic Park, resulted in a lawsuit that alleged the city did not involve the public in key decisions, as required by a 2003 law. Critics said city officials routinely ignored that rule.

"I think Mr. Portman is worthy of a stand-alone honor," said attorney W. Wright Mitchell, who challenged the plan to rename the street. "I think what got people exercised was the idea that the City Council could get together with a few powerful business leaders and do whatever they want to do."

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Under pressure, City Council rescinded its original vote to rename the street. In the end, the thoroughfare was christened "John Portman Boulevard at Historic Harris Street."

That was a proper compromise, said City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell, who was 20 years old when he first met Portman.

"I believe that someone like John Portman deserves to be honored," Mitchell said. "There were elements of compromise throughout this. I had many conversations with the community. I tried really hard to find some common ground."

Portman helped build Peachtree Center in the city's central business district and also developed AmericasMart, the massive venue where retailers sample and stock up on the next year's offerings of clothes and other goods. A leading designer of atrium-style hotels, Portman's work stands throughout the United States and in India, Malaysia, China, Singapore and elsewhere.

Atlanta has renamed many streets over the years. But combined with an attempt to rename Cone Street for civil rights worker and broadcaster Xernona Clayton, the renaming of Harris Street touched a public nerve.

After protests, the Cone Street imbroglio was resolved by dedicating a street and park plaza at the intersection of Peachtree Street and Baker Street in Clayton's honor. A plaque in Hardy Ivy Park now commemorates her career.

"We very much appreciate the fact that the Xernona Clayton commission met with us and came up with a compromise," said Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. "That was what we felt was appropriate."

Mitchell said that approach -- combining old and new street names -- could point the way forward as Atlanta tries to honor chosen citizens while soliciting input from the residents and businesses who have to change their mailing addresses.

On Wednesday, a succession of speakers -- including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former mayor Andrew Young, WSB-TV anchor Monica Pearson, Mitchell and downtown booster A.J. Robinson -- praised the developer for spurring the revitalization of downtown.

"I've admired you since I was a boy," Reed told Portman.

Portman, 86, recalled riding a second-hand bicycle around downtown as a young boy.

"I had dreams and aspirations, as all kids do," he said. "I never dreamed -- it never crossed my mind -- that I'd be standing here today."

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