Georgia Capitol Hill remake could include road closings, new annex

Georgia officials are planning the next phase of Capitol Hill renovations, which could include closing and rerouting streets, building a multi-story annex, replacing an old overhead bridge and undertaking a historic remake of the statehouse.

It also could eventually mean moving 3,000 state employees out of a troubled Peachtree Street tower.

The state has already replaced a crumbling parking garage across from the Capitol with a plaza and will be building a $105 million courthouse where the state archives used to stand.

A study committee on Friday began considering the next phase of changes in and around the 128-year-old Capitol.

“We have a beautiful state Capitol here,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, co-chairman of the group. “Some things need to be improved.”

The State Building Authority has been pushing for upgrades to Capitol Hill for years, and recently it has gotten the backing of state lawmakers. The authority tore down an old parking garage across from the state Capitol and built Liberty Plaza, an area for events such as rallies and protests, in 2014.

It tried for years to get money to demolish the old State Archives Building down the street from the Capitol, and succeeded a few years ago. The implosion took place earlier this year and lawmakers approved borrowing money to construct a judicial building for the state courts. It will be the first new state administrative building on Capitol Hill since the early 1980s.

The next phase of the remake may be just as significant.

The state has long sought to close Mitchell Street to traffic between the Capitol and the Legislative Office Building, where many lawmakers have their offices and where many committee meetings are held. Crossing Mitchell Street in front of the Capitol can be extremely dangerous to pedestrians because drivers frequently ignore posted signs telling them to stop for people walking in crosswalks.

Federal Homeland Security officials long ago recommended closing the street, said Steve Stancil, head of the authority.

But Mitchell is a city street, and so far state officials have not been able to come to an agreement with the city to close it. Authority officials say Capitol Avenue also eventually could be closed in front of the statehouse and rerouted.

Authority plans call for replacing a walking bridge over Martin Luther King Drive, renovating the existing judicial building, possibly building a multi-story annex across the street from the Capitol and visitor parking and/or a state museum in the area of the empty old World of Coke building and the state train depot.

The road-closings and annex — with a tunnel to the statehouse — would allow people to walk around the area without having to worry about getting hit by a car, a common concern for Capitol Hill regulars.

One committee member, Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said one of the state’s main goals should also be to do something about 2 Peachtree Street, where about 3,000 employees — many of whom work for health and social service agencies — now have offices.

“There is no air conditioning in the summer, no heat in the winter,” Unterman said. “The elevators don’t work.”

Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, another committee member, added, “It’s awful. It’s hard to justify making people work in that building.”

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation donated the 41-story tower to the state in 1992, and it’s been a costly headache ever since. The state has dumped more than $100 million over the years into rehabbing and repairing the building, which is a few steps from the Five Points MARTA station.

Authority officials said in 2015 the building would be put up for sale. But on Friday, Stancil said, “If we move everybody out of it and try to sell it, it’s got zero value.”

A more likely scenario would be to sell it and lease space from the new owners for the employees, gradually moving them out over time to buildings near the Capitol and possibly other locations.

Steve Fanczi, deputy executive director of the authority, said if the state builds an annex, lawmakers who now have offices in the State Capitol and Legislative Office Building could be moved into the new facility. That, in turn, would make it easier for the state to begin renovations of the Capitol.

Mullis, the committee’s co-chairman, said the panel likely will visit other statehouses to get ideas for renovations.

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