A rendering for a proposed new outdoor area at the Fulton County Government Center. FULTON COUNTY

Palm trees long gone, Fulton to revamp ridiculed government offices

When the Fulton County Government Center opened nearly 30 years ago, it was derided for its high-cost palm trees, waterfall and indoor fountain.

The perceived excess was a factor when voters tried to oust the county commission chairman in a recall effort; the leader of the opposition won his seat in the next election, in part, by ridiculing the foliage.

The palm trees were cut down within a decade. Next year, the water features will be removed, as well.

The nonfunctioning features in the building that came to be known as the Crystal Palace, or Taj Mahal, “set a tremendous bad first impression,” said Ellis Kirby, Fulton’s deputy chief operating officer for infrastructure. They aren’t being maintained and don’t instill confidence in government.

Leaders hope to change that through renovation.

Fulton County commissioners expect to spend about $3 million to renovate the building’s atrium and an outdoor area that was intended to serve as a courthouse lawn but has largely fallen into disrepair. Removing a little-used indoor fountain and paving over an outdoor water feature to create a small park at the county’s front door should create more usable space inside and outside the building.

And, leaders hope, it will improve trust in government.

“The first impression is lasting,” said Bill Mason, Fulton’s facilities programs manager. “People could say, ‘Gosh, is that the way they maintain roads, vital records?’ ”

Commissioners have already approved plans to remove the indoor fountain and waterfall that flowed when the $70 million building between Peachtree and Pryor streets in Atlanta opened in 1990. They will also take out an in-ground skylight near a bridge that connects to the county courthouse. It let light from the atrium into another part of the building, but is in the floor in the middle of a hallway. It gets in the way of the security station between the buildings and is often damaged by carts coming through.

Teal columns will also be repainted gray, and color-changing LED lights will be added to the atrium.

The outdoor improvements have not been voted on yet, but renderings show the existing water feature would be paved over and replaced with a turf-covered gathering place with tables and chairs. The existing paved area would remain; some trees there would be removed. A new fountain, closer to the street, would be built. Kirby said the new area would be easier and less costly to maintain.

The existing outdoor area, he said, does not meet Americans With Disabilities Act standards, and so is largely closed off. Water pumps haven’t been working for at least a decade.

Gordon Joyner, a Fulton County commission candidate who was a critic of the building when he was a commissioner in the 1990s, said the latest changes sound like “reasonable and appropriate renovations.” The fountains and palm trees — which cost more than $100,000 to install — were improper from the beginning, he said.

“It says to me, at long last, that the government leaders get it,” he said. “I applaud them for being willing to come to grips with these relics of the past and close the door on inappropriate excess and extravagance.”

The county in recent years has begun spending millions of dollars to fix leaky roofs — including at the Government Center atrium — and elevators, heating and air conditioning systems and other parts of their deteriorating buildings. Maintenance was deferred during the recession, and even before that the county didn’t spend as much as was needed to keep up its properties.

“At some point, you want the county to look like they care,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. “This particular plan, on the surface, appears much simpler and easier to maintain. It should be a lesson to everyone.”

Kyle Kessler, a downtown resident, said the outdoor work in particular could help create a welcoming urban environment. The building is dated, he said, and in need of repair. But he said he would like the county to study whether people would use the space as intended before spending millions of dollars to make the changes.

Still, he said, aesthetic improvements are welcome. The building is at an age where it needs to be renovated, he said, and more usable space would be welcome in the neighborhood.

“I do think a building of that nature, that so many people come in and out of, deserves the attention,” Robinson said. “It will change the whole experience of a person coming in and out of a county building. We started with the palm trees. They’re all gone.”

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