Historic concerns stall downtown government construction project

The demolition of a former synagogue annex, center, was declined by the Historic Preservation Commission due to questions about the site's historical value.

A massive renovation of the city government’s downtown campus hit another snag this week when the Historic Preservation Com­­mission declined to approve several components, including the demolition of an annex building at a historic former synagogue.

Chairman Jim Anderson said the commission received the application only a few days ago and voted 5-0 Thursday not to approve it.

“For a major project like this, we just needed a whole lot more information than we had to make a decision,” Anderson said.

The application packet calls for the demolition of the synagogue annex to make way for expanded parking on the complex’s front side, which is moving from Greene Street to Telfair Street. The former synagogue has housed the city Planning Department for decades.

“I feel like they do have some historical value; we just wanted more time to evaluate it,” Anderson said.

Augusta Chronicle archives show a synagogue being erected in the 500 block of Telfair in 1870, but the annex, which resembles the synagogue and has housed the city IT Department since it was formed, was added at a later date.

Additional parking is needed in part because of spaces the city will lose when it constructs a 20,000-square-foot, two-story office building for the IT department, which is planned to face Telfair and back up to Greene just east of the Municipal Building.

Commission member Dave Bar­bee said the board was aghast when it laid eyes on plans for the IT building, which he likened to those of a big-box electronics retailer and include a garage door facing Greene Street.

Inside the annex, an aging, cramped honeycomb of offices that has been reconfigured several times, city IT Director and Deputy Administrator Tameka Allen said she was unaware of the commission’s decision until a reporter asked about it. A plaque in the building commemorates renovations made in 1950 for what then served as the office of the Clerk of Superior and City Courts.

Barbee and Anderson were surprised the city hadn’t consulted the board over such substantial additions to an area heavy with history, such as the monuments on Monument Street that the campus will no longer face and the old Academy of Richmond County building across Telfair Street from the campus.

“We did not have any input at all,” Anderson said. “Last week was the first I heard of it, and I am the chairman.”

The snag isn’t the first for the proposed $40 million renovation project, which has evolved over the past year from a partial renovation of the Municipal Building to a full remodel with the IT building addition. Though the Augusta Com­mission approved the project in March, several commissioners have objected to the funding mechanism recommended by Ci­ty Admin­is­trator Fred Russell. Rus­sell was out of the office Friday.

Seeking a way to issue $26.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund the project, Russell has proposed designating all of downtown Augusta, including the government parcel, as a “slum” under state laws to make it eligible to borrow money at lower rates.

Commissioners have yet to approve the mechanism, and the city has no other existing funding source. Commissioners are expected to discuss funding options at a committee meeting Monday.

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Municipal Building Facade (.pdf)
Front of Information Technology building as it faces Telfair Street (.pdf)
Back of Information Technology building as it faces Greene Street (.pdf)

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Mon, 12/05/2016 - 22:47

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