Terror fears at Georgia Capitol drive effort to shut short street

Citing concerns about terrorism, the state is again calling for the short street between the Capitol and Supreme Court building to be permanently closed to vehicles.

The Georgia General Assembly recently passed a resolution to shut down part of Mitchell Street because a terrorist could use it to run down pedestrians, as in last year’s attack in London that killed five people near the British Parliament.

"This is a safety issue," state Rep. Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, said during a March 23 speech in the House of Representatives. "Every branch of government right now is open and accessible by these roads and for anything that could happen."

The street was temporarily closed by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in February, days after a man allegedly displayed a handgun and loaded a round when a security officer told him to stop for pedestrians.

State legislators praised her for making it safer for them to cross the busy street from the statehouse to committee meetings.

But the street reopened the day after legislators left town March 29. City and state officials would have to negotiate an agreement to keep Mitchell Street closed permanently.

“Future closings of Mitchell Street remain within the prerogative of the city of Atlanta,” said Cindy Presto, the director of legal services for the Georgia Building Authority. “The General Assembly has made its position known by the passage of a resolution, but actual closure authority remains with the city.”

The city is continuing discussions with the governor’s office on the future of Mitchell Street, said Michael Smith, a spokesman for Bottoms.

Several state representatives objected to the Legislature’s resolution to seek the closure of the street, saying it could create a legal fight over the rights of city and state governments.

"I don't oppose the plan. I oppose the process," said state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. "I have enjoyed crossing that street and not having to see whether I have to run for my life."

Senate Resolution 537 doesn't say the state will take over or condemn Mitchell Street. It says the part of the street between Washington Street and Capitol Avenue "shall be closed to unauthorized vehicular traffic" without explaining how.

Still, turning the street into a pedestrian area has been a goal of state officials for at least 13 years.

A homeland security report from 2005 sought to secure the street, Hatchett said. State agencies declined to disclose the report under the Georgia Open Records Act, saying doing so could compromise public safety.

As far back as 1927, plans called for all roads around Capitol Hill to be closed to vehicle traffic, said Steve Fanczi, the deputy executive director for the Georgia Building Authority. That never happened, though it's envisioned in the GBA's 2040 master plan for the area.

“These things have been recommended for many, many years,” Fanczi said. “We’re very pleased with how much we’ve already accomplished and have in the works.”

Other changes around the Gold Dome have been planned since Liberty Plaza, a venue for rallies and protests, was built in 2014.

A new road is scheduled to be completed this year behind Liberty Plaza, connecting Jesse Hill Jr. Drive to Capitol Avenue. That $4.5 million road, called Capitol Square Extension, will allow drivers exiting from the southbound Downtown Connector to access the area without having to circle around the Capitol

In addition, a state courts building is being constructed at the site of the former archives building, nicknamed the White Ice Cube, which was imploded last year.

If the city and state can agree, the 2040 master plan includes an image of what Mitchell Street could become: a tree-lined pedestrian walkway, free from traffic.

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