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Twelve-Story Building to Rise in Front of State Capitol

Tue June 17, 2008 - Southeast Edition
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Alabama’s pension system is moving ahead with construction of a 12-story building in front of the historic state Capitol despite complaints from preservationists that it will damage a view that has inspired citizens for more than 150 years.

David Bronner, chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, said crews are doing foundation work for the RSA Judicial Office Building and steel will start rising in the fall. Bronner sees it as another step in revitalizing downtown.

“When you add jobs and people, you add viability,” he said.

Mary Ann Neely, a Montgomery historian who has helped save many old buildings, said preservationists tried to get the pension program to reduce the height of the office tower, but didn’t succeed.

“They were really not interested in what we had to say,” she said.

Alabama’s Greek revival Capitol was built in 1851 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. Downtown Montgomery fans out from that fountain.

Bronner’s Judicial Office Building will sit along Dexter Avenue one block in front of the Capitol. Critics say the 500,000-sq.-ft. (46,500 sq m) building will be the highest on Dexter Avenue by three floors, will reach above the Capitol’s dome and 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 in 1965.

“It will power over the Capitol and it will be a hindrance to that classic view we have,” Neely said.

Neely led an effort to preserve several blocks of historic buildings within walking distance of the Capitol, but she knows there is no way to stop Bronner from changing the Dexter Avenue view.

“It’s something we will have to accustom ourselves to,” she said.

David Braly, president of the Landmarks Foundation historic preservation group, said the judicial building will also diminish the historic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, located across Dexter Avenue. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served that church when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, and it has become a popular tourist attraction in conjunction with the Capitol.

“It’s an equal historic landmark,” Braly said.

Bronner has used the state’s $30 billion pension program for public employees to reshape downtown Montgomery in the last 20 years, financing two convention hotels and six office buildings, including the tallest in downtown at 23 floors. He also purchased and remodeled two vacant buildings and filled them with workers.

The buildings’ occupants are a mix of state agencies and private businesses, and they serve a dual purpose of making money for the pension system and bringing new life to downtown.

Several of Bronner’s projects have upset preservationists because old buildings had to be torn down to make way for new. But he figured the Judicial Building would be the opposite.

Bronner proposed to save Alabama’s old Supreme Court building, which had been vacant on Dexter Avenue for 15 years, and encapsulate the three-story structure and dome inside the new Judicial Building. The new building will be constructed atop the old building, somewhat like a table. The building has to stretch 12 stories to provide enough office space to make it profitable, project manager Ron Blount said.

Despite public meetings and an aggressive letter-writing campaign, preservationists never could get the governor or other prominent state official on their side. The criticism quietly died away after Blount, but not Bronner, met with them.

“They either decided I wasn’t going to change my mind and they were wasting their time, or they decided to go on to other projects,” Bronner said.

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