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Makeover to shrink Bibb Mill

Preservationists fear partial demolition will threaten national landmark mill district


Bibb City's Goliath is about to get rocked.

Too big for its own good -- that was the judgment Monday on the giant Bibb Mill, which the owners want to cut down to size.

They want to cut the central mill building from 650,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet, turning what at a quarter-mile was once thought to be the South's longest textile mill into a hotel and restaurant surrounded by retail shops and residences.

All that would remain of the 128-foot-wide main building would be the original mill, completed in 1900, and the 1920s facade on First Avenue at 38th Street. Local preservationists reluctantly have agreed to the demolition of the mill's 1916 and 1920s expansions, and to clearing an old weave shed and warehouses south of the long mill building, which stretches more than 1,000 feet from the Chattahoochee River to First Avenue.

Owner Brent Buck and architect Will Barnes hope to convert the original mill building to a 140-room hotel with a restaurant overlooking the river. Also remaining will be the mill's water tower, sample house, power office and electrical switch house, along with a one-story addition on its north side.

The power house, sample house and one-story addition already have been renovated, now serving respectively as a dress shop, event center and office.

Besides the later mill expansions, weave shed and southern warehouses, other structures to be demolished are a 1960s brick office building, wooden commissary, railroad trestle and waste tank.

The plans

Representing owner Buck Investments and the Rivermill partnership that's developing the site, Buck and Barnes say the challenges of reusing so monstrous a structure as the main mill became insurmountable. Today's building codes for fire and other safety standards make the behemoth mill unsuitable for residential use. Turning it into a retail center would require devoting too much of the property to parking, Barnes said.

So they plan to clear much of the land and build on 32 of the site's 40 acres a mix of commercial and residential buildings along tree-lined streets, an arrangement similar to the mill village around it.

But instead of single-family homes like the modest houses Bibb Manufacturing built for its workers in the early 1900s, the developers plan primarily to build 200-300 townhouses and condominiums. They have not yet decided how those will range in price, but they intend to vary the sizes to fit a variety of occupants, Barnes said. They do not plan any rental housing.

Buck said so far about

$7 million has been spent renovating the Bibb complex. This plan represents an additional investment of about $100 million over the next 10-15 years, he said.

On Monday, Buck and Barnes took their application to demolish the mill buildings to Columbus' Board of Historic and Architectural Review, which regulates historic property. The board weighed the impact on Columbus' Industrial Riverfront National Historic Landmark District, a prestigious designation lately threatened by rapid changes along the Chattahoochee.

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Noone should be surprised to learn that I have mixed emotions. I have long said that Bibb City is on my radar as the potential Buckhead of Columbus -- serving as the northern anchor in a newly developed linear cityscape with 2d Ave serving as the equivalent of Peachtree. And the Bibb Mill is the ceterpiece of Bibb City.

The proposal sounds terrific and just the sort of development I have envisioned. It would serve as a catalyst to kickstart a whole lot of activity in a long neglected but really unique place. That said, however, as a longstanding member of the Historic Columbus Foundation and a "traditionalist" I get queasy whenever I hear about proposals to demolish another iconic Columbus building. I know that we cannot preserve every old building. But I can remember buildings that were absolutely beautiful and irreplaceable standing on what are now parking lots or tacky structures. There are many many buildings that I wish were still there instead of the dreck that replaced them.

So I have to say that I really wish that it would be possible to preserve the mill in its entirety -- or at least more than that 1/3 that this plan envisions. I thought that the City recently adopted a new code for historic buildings that made it much much easier to retrofit them for present day use. In light of that I am not sure whether I "buy" the argument that the existing mill could not be redeveloped for residential use. Seems that there was no difficulty for the Eagle & Phenix and Johnston Mill complexes -- and they were converted to residential use before this new code supposedly relaxed the retrofit standards.

In the balance, it is better to have a productive partial Bibb Mill than a nonproductive entire Bibb Mill. I trust that the Review Board of the HCF will study the proposal very carefully -- especially since there was so much controversy when Muscogee Mills was demolished to build a parking garage. Perhaps there could be a compromise. Remove as much of the structure as fails to qualify as "historic" (I think that this was the standard used for the Eagle & Phenix complex) but not demolish as much of the mill as proposed. Maybe that is the developer's strategy -- apply for a shockingly huge amount of demolition so as to obtain -- by compromise -- permission to demolish more than might otherwise have been approved.

Guess we will have to see how this plays out. In any event it is great to heat that Biib City is finally on other folks' radars. For what it is worth, I have heard from fairly reliable sources that a number of Atlanta developers have been sniffing around Bibb City. I am not a fan of most Atlanta developers -- like those who create a tacky '60's strip shopping center and pass it off as a "life style center" in the belief that the "rubes" in Columbus wont know the difference. However, if true, interest by Atlanta developers is further evidence that we may be on the brink of some exciting times along the riverfront -- from Bibb City to the Dillingham Bridge.

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I have seen the documents that were provided to the Historical Preservation board. I know that the existing facility is gigantic and difficult to deal with. However, I am very concerned that the void created by the proposed solution will not be developed well.

Bibb City is such a rich canvass to start with. While I am glad to see progress, I hope that the developer and Architect will use an Urban density model and not a suburban plan. The side of the site facing First Ave. really should create a mixed use urban core to serve the surrounding neighborhoods. The area currently occupied by the gigantic one story warehouse would be a terrific place for high end urban townhouses. The development should also include park spaces in keeping with the historic residential area.

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