Remake of Capitol Hill includes new, ‘Liberty Plaza’

Georgia’s improving finances are giving state officials the chance to undertake the largest remake of the Capitol Hill grounds since Jimmy Carter was president in the late 1970s.

Crews will soon start demolishing a 60-year-old parking deck across from the statehouse to create Liberty Plaza, a public area with green space and enough real estate to hold rallies of more than 3,000 people.

Work has already started on renovating the Great Depression-era Department of Transportation building at the corner of Capitol Square and Capitol Avenue, and on giving a face lift to the entrance to the “front door” of the Capitol on Washington Street.

Combined, the projects are expected to cost more than $17 million. But they may be only the start of renewal of the Capitol Hill, which was once home to factories, homes and rail lines. Other projects on the horizon:

  • A new judicial complex on the site of the old state archives building.
  • Renovation of decades' old state office buildings near the Capitol.
  • Closure or rerouting of some roads around Capitol Hill.

Officials are also likely to seek legislative go-ahead to create a history museum out of the old World of Coke building the state bought seven years ago for $1.1 million. 

They are able to think big in part because the state’s bottom line continues to improve as Georgia recovers from the Great Recession. After years of governors and lawmakers making big spending cuts and stressing that the state could only afford the bare necessities, the budget approved for the upcoming fiscal year is finally back to about where it was before the recession hit. Tax collections were up 5.7 percent, or $700 million, over the first nine months of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Former state Sen. George Hooks, an amateur historian who championed funding to renovate the statehouse during the 1990s, said the remaking of Capitol Hill — and in particular the addition of Liberty Plaza — is “long overdue.”

“Our Capitol has probably the smallest amount of green space of any Capitol I know of in the country,” said Hooks, onetime chairman of the Senate appropriations committee. “I think it’s a good move.”

The plaza would be the most visible, non-parking state addition to the area around the Capitol since the Sloppy Floyd Building — known as the Twin Towers — was completed in 1980, the year Carter lost re-election to Ronald Reagan.

The go-ahead for the plaza was given last fall by the board of the Georgia Building Authority (GBA), which is headed by Gov. Nathan Deal and includes a mix of state officials and citizens appointed by state leaders. The $4.4 million needed for the project came from the sale of unneeded state-owned buildings, not from the state budget, so it was never voted on by lawmakers. Authority officials said legislative leaders were briefed on the plans.

There have been plans for a such a public gathering area next to the 125-year-old statehouse for more than 100 years, according to building authority officials. A color rendering from 1910, the earliest concept on record, shows a grand, tree-lined boulevard approaching the Capitol with the caption, “A Dream of the Heart of Atlanta, Ga., The Half Million City.”

“We didn’t think this up, we just stole from the past,” said Steve Stancil, a former state lawmaker and the authority’s director.

‘Funding in good times’

For years, state officials have had to close Washington Street — a major north-south thoroughfare downtown — to traffic because protests and rallies on everything from civil rights and immigration reform to abortion (pro and con) have been too big to be contained on the steps of the Capitol. During three-month legislative sessions, at least some lanes of traffic are closed almost every day. GBA officials considered the setup a safety hazard.

But getting funding for projects around the Capitol hasn’t traditionally been easy. Legislative leadership has long come from outside of metro Atlanta and many lawmakers had minimal interest in spending to improve Capitol Hill. Even when governors proposed spending on Capitol Hill, lawmakers frequently transferred the money to local projects they preferred.

A Capitol preservation commission was set up in 1993. But it took a crash of falling plaster as the General Assembly was meeting almost two years later and the discovery that more than 60 percent of the building’s ceiling was ready to collapse to push officials into action. Georgia State University history professor Timothy Crimmins, who chaired the commission, said the group took an incremental approach to getting funding over several years for a renovation project that eventually cost more than $60 million and included adding gold leaf to the Capitol’s dome.

“For the Capitol itself — because it is a historic building and revered by Republicans and Democrats alike — there is funding in good times,” said Crimmins, co-author of “Democracy Restored, A History of the Georgia State Capitol.”

That’s not always been the case for other parts of Capitol Hill.

Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2008 proposed spending $15.6 million to turn the old World of Coca-Cola building into a state history museum and another $8.4 million to design a green space project, including a pedestrian bridge over I-75/I-85 to connect a huge new lawn area in front of the Capitol with a park along Memorial Drive.

Lawmakers rerouted the money to other projects. A little of it went to design a parking deck behind the old DOT building. The deck was eventually built and opened last year. It has parking for lawmakers and includes a walkway that allows legislators to go from parking into the Legislative Office Building without having to go outside.

Funding to tear down the old state archives between the Capitol and Turner Field has been in and out of the budget in the past decade, but the buildings still stands. A history museum has been talked about for more than two decades but never funded. Plans to turn at least one of the streets around the Capitol into a pedestrian-only area have stalled.

Carlos Campos, spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, said the city “is aware of the state’s plans for Capitol Hill and is working with the state.” He said city officials have remained in contact with building authority officials over several state projects, including the proposed history museum, which is located on city property.

“We feel like we have a good working relationship with the city,” said Paul Melvin of the building authority.

Liberty Plaza

In recent years Deal, has been more successful in getting what he wants from the General Assembly. That’s because he sets aside about $100 million in bond money each year for lawmakers to spend on their own projects. Since they have a pot of money to spend, they generally leave his projects alone.

The biggest ticket Capitol Hill item in next year’s budget is the old DOT building renovation, which Deal recommended money for during the 2014 session. When completed, it will provide 30,000 square feet of office space for the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.

The building authority hopes to have that job done, as well as Liberty Plaza, by the time lawmakers return for the 2015 session in January.

Liberty Plaza, which is being called the Capitol’s “new front door,” will include a grassy center surrounded by pavement and speaking areas. Besides replicas of the Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty, it could someday house the statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. that lawmakers approved during the 2014 session. The statue could be on or near the Capitol grounds, but no decision has been made.

Genevieve Wilson, executive director of Georgia Right to Life, said her group has already reserved the Washington Street side of the Capitol for its 2015 event, which typically attracts several thousand people. She was surprised to learn about Liberty Plaza and that the state was planning to move events to the new area.

“It will matter to us because it’s confusing enough for people to know where to park,” she said. “It’s going to effect what we do and how we do it.”

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he’d heard about plans to move rallies to the new plaza.

“I certainly don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “Ultimately, the grounds of the Capitol should be accessible, in whatever venue.”

Gonzalez said the move shouldn’t present a problem for the huge Capitol Hill pro-immigration rallies that have been common in recent years as long as groups are allowed to continue holding street marches, which are permitted by the city of Atlanta.

Besides offering a place for protests and rallies, tearing down the parking deck and creating the plaza will give people a clearer view of the statehouse, which opened in 1889. Supporters of the project say that could enhance a Capitol Hill area that has gone aesthetically stale in recent years.

“The whole idea of a Capitol is that it is the representation of the government of the people,” Crimmins said. “There is an incredibly important symbolic dimension to it. It should be something that is visible.

“What green space does is it provides perspective you need to get the grandeur of the building to have an effect on you,” he said. “Just think of the view you get of the (U.S.) Capitol from the National Mall in Washington.”