Historic Preservation Commission continues to object city building plans in historic district

The city plans to demolish an old Greek Revival brick building (center) that city officials previously reported was a synagogue annex.

 

Demolition of a Civil War-era building, the plasticine exterior of a new data center and a garage fronting Greene Street are unacceptable changes to the city government campus, members of Augusta’s Historic Preservation Commission said at a Wednesday work session.

The $40 million Municipal Building renovation plans, under development for several years, caught the board by surprise when a city application packet arrived for approval in late October, and the board has yet to approve them.

The plans include demolition of an old Greek Revival brick building, currently used as city IT offices, that Historic Augusta Executive Director Erick Montgomery showed on an 1872 map, although Montgomery said it was likely built the decade before.

The building faces Telfair Street and sits adjacent to a historic synagogue not slated for demolition. Montgomery said the building was likely built as part of the old county courthouse government complex, not as a synagogue annex as city officials previously reported.

In a first meeting Wednesday with architects Virgo Gambill, board members questioned numerous components of the plan, including its shift of the Municipal Building front from Greene Street to Telfair and the inclusion of a 20,000 square-foot, $7 million nearly windowless IT addition that Montgomery said all observers have likened to a big-box store.

“We didn’t have any input,” noted board Chairman Jimmy Anderson.

While Telfair is a historic street, “there is no more of a Main Street in Augusta than Greene,” Montgomery said.

Board member Dave Barbee questioned why a garage door, for use by IT to service law enforcement vehicles, was included in the design facing Greene.

“It bothers me that we’ve got a pronounced garage on Greene Street,” he said. “It’s not fitting.”

Architect Joe Gambill said his firm and Heery International, which represents the city’s interests on the construction project, had examined various options, including making a narrower, three-story addition, and moving IT into the Municipal Building, but all were cost-prohibitive.

Plus, the city wants to build the IT building first, so IT staff can move in before the historic building is torn down for parking, Gambill said.

Historic Augusta trustee Tennent Houston said the group had been pleased with the appropriateness of several new city construction projects, including the new Richmond County Sheriff’s Office administration building and the library, while the reaction of many to the latest plans has been laughter.

“Why we want to key in one building (the IT addition) that does not fit in; I don’t understand,” Houston said.

Gambill said he’d take the group’s suggestions, including moving the garage door to a side road, avoiding large blank walls and sparing the historic building back to Heery and city officials.

While the preservation commission must OK all projects in historic districts, the Augusta Commission can overrule them.

The commission, meanwhile, has yet to secure funding for much of the project. About $14 million in existing sales tax dollars is available, but the rest awaits the commission’s decision to issue $26.5 million in bonds, to be serviced through the next SPLOST that voters have yet to approve.

City Administrator Fred Russell, who proposed designating all of downtown as a “slum” to issue tax-exempt bonds for the project, came under fire for that decision and commissioners recently voted to designate only the Greene Street 500 block and a few other select areas, but the bonds haven’t been issued.

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