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Critics Say Proposed Building Would Hide Capitol Dome

Mon February 25, 2008 - Southeast Edition

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Alabama’s pension system has reshaped downtown Montgomery with high-rise office buildings and luxury hotels. But critics say its latest project in front of the historic Capitol threatens to destroy a view that has been revered by everyone from Civil War soldiers to civil rights marchers.

The Retirement Systems of Alabama is planning a modern 12-story office building one block in front of the Greek revival Capitol. Opponents say it will reach slightly higher than the Capitol’s dome.

“This is a ghastly and grotesque contrast in style,” said Mary Walton Upchurch, a landscape architect from Montgomery.

The chief executive of the Retirement Systems said the pension fund has invested about $900 million in downtown Montgomery to keep it alive, not damage it.

“Without these buildings, your downtown would have been dead 20 years ago,” David Bronner said.

The Capitol sits on a hill at the head of Dexter Avenue, Montgomery’s main street. The broad avenue begins six blocks away at a fountain located where slave auctions were once held.

The view from the fountain to the Capitol has been as much a part of Alabama’s history as the view from the National Mall to the U.S. Capitol has been a part of America’s history.

Critics said the proposed building, the highest on Dexter Avenue by three floors, will overwhelm a view that spans two of the most important periods in American history.

Supporters of the Confederacy saw that view in 1861 when they walked up Dexter Avenue to the Capitol steps to see Jefferson Davis sworn in as the first president of the Confederate States.

A century later, thousands of voting rights marchers walked up that same street and saw the same view as they completed the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery march and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Capitol steps.

“That hill has seen Alabama history, American history, even international history. That hill is one of the most precious sites in the state of Alabama,” Montgomery historian Mary Ann Neely said.

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has joined state and local historic preservation groups in opposing the existing plan. In a letter to Gov. Bob Riley, Moe called for “a more moderate and sensitive plan” for the site.

Riley, whose Capitol office looks toward the building site, has encouraged the two sides to talk. But he said, “The rendering that I saw that Dr. Bronner brought over was a very attractive building.”

For Bronner, who describes himself as “a Yankee from Minnesota,” this is another round in the battle he’s been waging since he started using the pension fund to invest in downtown Montgomery 20 years ago.

Each project, including office towers that now house 6,700 workers, has run into opposition because the construction required the demolition or removal of old buildings. Bronner said the opposition has come from people who want downtown Montgomery to look like a quiet Civil War fort rather than mixing old with new.

“You have a situation where people are not smart enough to think: Do we want history that is alive and vibrant or do we want history that is dead?” Bronner said.

Bronner’s supporters describe him as blunt and bullheaded, but also brilliant.

He used the $30 billion pension fund to build a string of championship golf courses known as the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and construct luxury hotels alongside the courses. Nearly everyone predicted failure, but the courses became among the highest rated in the country and enhanced Alabama as a tourist destination.

In downtown Montgomery, Bronner has erected one luxury hotel, financed another, and built six office buildings, including a 23-story structure that’s the highest in the capital. He has also renovated — and filled — two large buildings that had been empty for years.

Bronner actually thought he was currying favor with Montgomery’s history buffs when he planned his seventh office building.

Alabama’s old Supreme Court building had been sitting vacant for 15 years, becoming a deteriorating eyesore on Dexter Avenue. Bronner proposed saving the old structure by building an office tower over it, much like a table top.

To make it financially practical to spend $30 million to save the old structure, the new one needs to be 12 stories to provide enough space for rent, project manager Ron Blount said.

Opponents point out that Montgomery’s building code limits privately developed buildings downtown to six stories — below the roof line of the Capitol — but state agencies are exempt. They predict Bronner’s $200 million, 500,000-sq.-ft. (46,500 sq m) building will overwhelm Dexter Avenue and take the focus off the Capitol.

“Nothing should dwarf the Capitol because it represents all of us,” Upchurch said.

Bronner said the Capitol is still plainly visible up Dexter Avenue, and 13 vacant buildings on the short street do far more to detract from it.

Critics are concerned that the proposed building will also overwhelm the small two-story church across the street where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor and first rose to national prominence as leader of a boycott in 1955 to integrate Montgomery’s buses.

The building “is too large for that site,” said David Braly, president of the Landmarks Foundation, which has restored several historic buildings in downtown.

Bronner’s project has caught the attention of the U.S. Park Service, which manages the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail. The trail follows the path of voting rights marchers, whose work led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the end of all-white government in the South.

“It is important to the nation the trail be protected. You can’t do it if you destroy what you are drawing people to,” trail Superintendent Catherine Light said.

Light said she is researching what role, if any, the Park Service could play in trying to bring about changes.

Bronner said opposition hasn’t stopped his previous buildings and it won’t now.

“The whole downtown would be abandoned if it weren’t for RSA,” he said.

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