Same building, New purpose

Atlanta City Detention Center could become mixed-use community development

The Atlanta City Detention Center. (Courtesy Google Maps)

Atlanta could be poised to convert its now-defunct Atlanta City Detention Center into a mixed-use development catering to the formerly incarcerated and the community at large. The Reimagining Atlanta City Detention Center Task Force, which was convened at City Hall by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for the first time last week, is in charge of determining how the 17-story jail facility will be used. With a whopping 471,000 square feet of available floor space, the building will likely serve numerous needs in the neighborhood.

Mayor Bottoms ordered the closure of the jail earlier this year, due primarily to rising costs and a lack of inmates. She emphasized the need for any revisioning or adaptive re-use project to be of benefit to locals, and especially to those who have already been involved in the city’s justice system. Several justice-oriented organizations, including the Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC) and the Oakland-based agency Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, have been tapped to guide the planning process. RJAC director Xochitl Bervera encouraged people to think big when contributing ideas. So far, informal proposals have included spaces for a daycare center, a food service training restaurant, a skate park, recording studios, and a legal clinic with an attached coffee shop. So long as the new development is not cost-prohibitive and is accessible to diverse swaths of the local populous, Bervera says it has serious potential to be successful.

Rendering of a glassy-fronted stone building

Designing Justice + Designing Space’s initial rendering of the Atlanta Center for Wellness and Freedom. (Courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

In terms of the detention center’s physical makeover, concerns that entering the building could be triggering or unsettling to some former inmates have prompted planners to adopt a more transformative approach. The task force and RJAC have asked Designing Justice + Designing Spaces to reimagine the menacing structure with a more transparent and open form. With a glass curtain wall and a far greater number of windows than the jailhouse, initial renderings of the project offer a glimpse of how RJAC and the Atlanta city government will create the proposed Atlanta Center for Wellness and Freedom.

Overall, the effort is reminiscent of similar adaptive reuse projects executed in New York and other cities across the country. In 2016, two years after a film company announced plans to purchase Staten Island’s Arthur Kill Correctional Facility and convert it into the borough’s first movie studio, Deborah Berke Partners won a competition to turn Manhattan’s former Bayview Correctional Facility into The Women’s Building. Elsewhere in the country, detention facilities have been transformed into everything from luxury hotels to apartment buildings. But while the potential for an upscale development certainly exists at the Atlanta City Detention Center, there are concerns that such a proposal could exacerbate changes already seen in one of America’s fastest gentrifying cities.

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