As Georgia State continues to expand the Atlanta Campus with new open space,
new buildings and new uses for historic structures, it remains true to a legacy of existing hand in glove as part of the city.
Written by Michael Davis (B.A. ’03)
Illustrations by John Dykes
Woven into the fabric of downtown Atlanta since its founding, Georgia State’s first classrooms were in rented space, vanishing into the existing landscape of offices and retail outlets. As it grew over the ensuing decades, the university remained enmeshed among its neighbors rather than an enclave unto itself.
Over the last 10 years, as Georgia State has undergone the most dramatic period of growth in its history, it has continued to blend into the city even as it has expanded. That Georgia State is part of downtown rather than apart from it is nowhere more apparent than in some of the university’s recent and ongoing projects, which reimagine, repurpose and reinvigorate its campus and the community surrounding it.
While transforming the space occupied by an outdated building and an awkwardly raised plaza at the center of campus last summer, Georgia State had already started construction on a new 8,000-person capacity convocation center a few blocks south. And as the convocation center project wraps up next August, the university will be in the midst of renovating a century-old structure in the heart of downtown, writing a new chapter for a space at one time critically important to the city’s businesses and residents.
The projects elevate the spaces they occupy on campus and further cement Georgia State’s position as a driver of downtown development — and redevelopment.
The buildings at 25 and 27 Auburn Ave., which have been mostly vacant since the 1980s, will undergo a $30 million renovation to become the Student Success Center.
The buildings at 25 and 27 Auburn Ave., which have been mostly vacant since the 1980s,
will undergo a $30 million renovation to become the Student Success Center.
Georgia State’s latest adaptive-use project will inject vitality into a building in one of the city’s most important historical corridors, transforming it into the new Student Success Center.
At 25 and 27 Auburn Ave., what are collectively known as the Bell buildings were acquired by the Georgia State Foundation with the 2007 purchase of the 25 Park Place complex from SunTrust. The buildings were recently transferred to the university.
Mostly vacant since the 1980s, the first of the two structures was built in 1907 by Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company to house a switchboard operation, with an expansion to the building’s east added in 1922.
Thanks in part to a transformational gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation of $15 million — one of the largest in Georgia State history — the building will gain new life through a $30 million renovation project.
Expected to be complete in early to mid-2024, the Student Success Center will house a number of student-facing services including Admissions, Supplemental Instruction, Student Financial Aid and the Truist Student Financial Management Center, which was made possible with a 2016 gift of $2 million from the SunTrust (now Truist) Foundation.
The Student Success Center — which has also received support from the SunTrust Trusteed Foundations — will also be the home of the new National Institute for Student Success (NISS), established last fall.
“We’ve grown student success operations immensely over the last decade and we’ve got one of the best student support models in the country, but we’ve been doing it with inadequate space,” says Timothy M. Renick, the founding executive director of the NISS and former senior vice president for student success. “The office that hosts 70,000 financial aid counseling sessions a year only has space for one or two students at a time to meet privately with a counselor. The offices that serve student success on the Atlanta Campus alone are currently spread out across seven different buildings.”
The Student Success Center will allow the NISS to expand its work designing, testing and disseminating the next generation of innovations in student success. It’s the type of work that has made Georgia State a national leader, led to support from the likes of the Kresge Foundation and attracted the attention of higher-education institutions across the U.S. and around the world. Over the past six years, more than 500 institutions serving more than 3 million students have sent teams to Georgia State to learn more about the university’s approaches to helping students graduate.
“In many cases these are presidents, provosts and deans who are coming to learn from Georgia State,” Renick says, “and we are cramming them into small spaces and bouncing them around from one location to another over the course of the day.”
At the Student Success Center, the NISS will have space and equipment to accommodate large-group presentations and room to facilitate firsthand observation of counseling sessions in action.
In the buildings’ heyday, they housed the latest communication technology — a telephone exchange run by legions of operators patching calls in and out, to and from other telephone exchanges.
According to Timothy Crimmins, professor emeritus of history, such exchanges in the early 20th century were centers of employment, particularly for women, because of all the operators needed to field calls. But while the Bell buildings offered job opportunities to women, those opportunities were limited to white women. The buildings sit on Auburn Avenue but in what remained a predominantly white business district as a thriving Black-owned business district developed further east.
Anchored by the Odd Fellows Building, the Herndon Building and the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, the first home of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founded by Martin Luther King Jr., the district is known as Sweet Auburn.
That the next chapter for 25 and 27 Auburn Ave. will be one of advancing educational equality and ensuring opportunity for all shouldn’t be overlooked, says Crimmins.
“There’s a story to be told about the ceiling that existed for workers in that building, the workers who couldn’t get jobs in that building and the effort to do things to overcome the legacy of that,” he says.
Adds Renick: “It’s fitting that this building, at the very gateway to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district, be dedicated to equity and the promise of a better future for students from all backgrounds.”
The multiuse convocation center, just south of Interstate 20, will host graduation ceremonies, as well as men’s and women’s basketball and special events like concerts.
The multiuse convocation center, just south of Interstate 20, will host graduation ceremonies,
as well as men’s and women’s basketball and special events like concerts.
While Georgia State plans to adapt the existing Auburn Avenue property for a new use, it’s constructing a new building on an underutilized lot south of Interstate 20 that once was home to a collection of mobile Department of Driver Services offices.
Travel north along Hank Aaron Drive from Center Parc Stadium, the home of Panthers football, and you’ll find the $85.2 million multiuse convocation center under construction at the corner of Fulton Street and Capitol Avenue. It’s expected to be complete in summer 2022.
Eventually, between the stadium and the convocation center, there will be a new baseball and softball complex situated on the site where Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium once stood — the stadium where the late Aaron famously broke Babe Ruth’s record with his 715th home run.
Georgia State Athletics Director Charlie Cobb says bringing baseball in from its eastern outpost in Panthersville and moving basketball from the downtown Sports Arena to the larger convocation center is the realization of former President Mark P. Becker’s vision for consolidating athletics closer to the downtown campus.
The university also recently finished renovating the football team’s former practice facility at 188 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., converting it into the new home of men’s and women’s soccer in time for both teams to host their first exhibition matches of the 2021 season.
“The idea is creating an athletics neighborhood,” Cobb says. “If we can bring the facilities where our kids practice and compete closer to campus, it gives us a chance to build fan support from our students, faculty and staff. I think on any campus, athletics plays a big part in student engagement and certainly making it convenient for kids to come to games and providing them an opportunity to enjoy the experience is something we’re about and really interested in accomplishing.”
With a capacity of 7,300 people for basketball, 7,500 for graduation events and 8,000 for concerts, the convocation center will far exceed the seating available in the Sports Arena, which was built in 1972 with a capacity of 3,500.
Cobb notes its location just off Atlanta’s major interstates makes it easily accessible to alumni and their families, sports fans and concertgoers, with limited traffic impact on the neighborhood, an area known as Summerhill that’s in the midst of a redevelopment renaissance.
Since Georgia State’s 2017 purchase of the Atlanta Braves’ Turner Field and the property that surrounds it, much of what sat as largely unused parking lots most of the year is also being transformed.
Along with converting the former baseball stadium into the college football venue now known as Center Parc Stadium, Georgia State’s partnership with Atlanta-based developer Carter & Associates has brought mixed-use residential and retail buildings to Summerhill. What was once a food desert will soon have a Publix grocery store. The convocation center, the football stadium and the baseball and softball park mean Georgia State will have a 24/7/365 presence in the neighborhood.
“At the end of the day, facilities speak commitment,” Cobb says. “If you want to have a top-notch science program, you need facilities. If you want to have a top-notch law school, you need facilities. If you want to have a top-notch athletics program, you need facilities. It’s another piece of the evolving, growing puzzle that is Georgia State.”
The greenway connects the center of Georgia State’s Atlanta Campus with the heart of downtown.
Another piece in Georgia State’s evolution forms an artery through campus.
The greenway, completed last summer, reimagines the university’s central outdoor gathering space. Where once stood an elevated L-shaped plaza and an outdated hulk of a concrete classroom structure built as a parking garage, the greenway helps people move.
And it offers them a place to relax.
Students, faculty, staff and visitors can walk from Peachtree Center Avenue — at ground level — into the beating heart of Georgia State. Rather than kicking back on a brick-and-concrete planter box, they can sprawl on a lush, freshly cut lawn.
The greenway’s boulevard-style path links the core of the city to the core of Georgia State, with access to important facilities like Sparks Hall and Library North, which has a reconfigured entrance featuring a rooftop terrace.
According to Ramesh Vakamudi, vice president for facilities management, the idea for a campus greenway dates back to the strategic development blueprint known as the Main Street Master Plan, which was adopted by the institution under former President Carl V. Patton in the late 1990s, and updated in 2012 under former President Becker.
Along with adding student housing downtown, the goals of the plan included creating a sense of place and establishing a central core made up of campus facilities.
“Since we could not create any large, open areas because we’re in downtown Atlanta, we have to be very creative in how we accomplish that goal,” Vakamudi says. “What the master plan suggested was to create and utilize pedestrian circulation paths, and that’s exactly what we did with this project.”
To make room for the $9.5 million greenway project, Georgia State removed the eastern part of Library Plaza and took down Kell Hall, a process that took several months to complete in part due to the building’s sturdy construction. Built in the mid-1920s as the city’s first multistory parking garage, it had been converted into a multiuse building by George Sparks, an early director of the school that would become Georgia State.
As the school grew into the building and outgrew it, some of the departments and classrooms remained in what was named the Wayne Kell Science Hall in 1964, after its first dean.
Long recognized as an outdated, inefficient and frankly bizarre structure, Kell Hall somehow persisted in avoiding the wrecking ball until 2019, when it made way for another chapter in Georgia State’s evolution.
“From the day I arrived on campus, I thought Kell Hall was antiquated and really should be torn down,” Patton, the former president, told this magazine as part of an oral history of the building. “Removing Kell Hall opens up the campus to the city and allows the city to look in. … It goes back to a concept from my time at Georgia State: ‘We want to be a part of the city, not apart from it.’”
Video by William Davis (B.A. ’11)