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Atlanta Life plans to sell buildings to GSU, relocate in Downtown

June 11,2012

Georgia State University plans to buy the Atlanta Life Financial Group building, a move that could add vitality to the endangered Sweet Auburn Historic District and allow the university to expand its urban footprint.

"This was a difficult decision from an emotional standpoint," said William J. Taggart, president and chief executive of ALFG. The company " has a tremendous amount of history here on Auburn Avenue and many of our employees have spent their entire careers in this building. As a native of Atlanta, I have deep emotional feelings toward Auburn Ave, the legacy of Sweet Auburn and its contribution to African-American history. However, we made this very difficult business decision to ensure that our 107 -year-old company is well positioned for growth."

Atlanta Life Insurance Co., a subsidiary of Atlanta Life Financial Group, was founded more than a century ago by Alonzo F. Herndon, a former slave. The company played a prominent role in Atlanta's African-American business and social scene . The current 150,000-square-foot Atlanta Life building was  constructed  in 1980, but the company has had a presence on Auburn Avenue much longer. Its former home, where it moved in 1920, sits vacant next door.

The university wants to house its GSU Honors College, the alumni and admissions offices and a welcome center on the Atlanta Life site. Students will be able to get information about GSU and applications at the welcome center. The Piedmont Avenue site will be used as the university's student housing office.

The deal is expected to close by the end of summer.

"We recognize the historic nature of the district and look forward to being good neighbors," said GSU spokeswoman Andrea Jones. " Our welcome center is a gateway to campus for prospective students and the first interaction many have with GSU. Housing our Honors College in Atlanta Life, which serves our highest achieving students, honors the neighborhood as well."

Just this week,  the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Sweet Auburn Historic District, formally known as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic District, to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

This is the second time that the district has been on the list since the the trust began keeping the list a quarter century ago.

"What has changed since the district was included on the list the first time is that Georgia State University has a much bigger presence in terms of student housing, their offices and classrooms in the neighborhood than they did 20 years ago," said David J. Brown, executive vice president of the trust. "There's lots of opportunity."

He said he would like to see GSU follow the lead of the Savannah College of Art and Design in using historic and older buildings for their facilities. "It's really a big part of who they are," he said.

GSU already has several buildings in the area, including some designated for student housing. President Mark P. Becker said expansion is necessary as the student body and programs have grown. He said GSU projects a record number of freshman to attend in the fall. He also expects a ripple effect. "We welcome others to the neighborhood as well," he said. "This will breathe a lot of life back into that area."

Designed for a single tenant, the Atlanta Life building has been on the market about two years. "This makes the costs of maintaining the building very expensive," Taggart said.

ALFG and its companies use about 30 percent of the building. The rest is rented out to other organizations. As the company expanded into other businesses, there was less need for that much space.

Taggart said ALFG is in the final stages of selecting a new downtown headquarters, mostly likely on Peachtree Street.

Part of the first floor and the entire third and fifth floors of 100 Auburn Ave. and all of the Piedmont Avenue  building will be leased to the current tenants for 120 days. The second floor of the Atlanta Life building is currently being leased until April 30, 2017.

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents the area , said  local, state, and national leaders should change their approach to investment and development in the historic district. "Sweet Auburn doesn’t need another master plan," he said in a statement. " Sweet Auburn needs a Marshall Plan, with historic preservation and the adaptive reuse of existing buildings as the principal drivers for investment and development in the corridor."

Courtesy, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution