Hemphill's heyday ended with westward campus growth
A 1965 plan called for extensive building projects west of a main thoroughfare
As Georgia Tech is in the heart of its trek to conquer the land across the highway that until recently defined the eastern border of the school, campus has once again been thrown into a chaos of endless fences and torn-apart roads. The campus students once knew will become a memory as they shuttle instead of walk to class and dine in instead of run for safety from the building across Fifth Street. The school is undergoing massive growth, but this is not, by far, the greatest change ever. This is the tale of those times.
In March 1965, a plan was developed by an architectural firm to address the possibility of student enrollment reaching 25,000 in 1985. The Comprehensive Campus Development Plan was a blueprint for expanding the campus' size from 153 to almost 400 acres. It involved tearing down a bordering neighborhood, utilizing massive federal funding and virtually unprecedented cooperation between the city and the university.
Georgia Tech had been expanding for some time, grabbing up pieces of land around it in small bursts. This new plan would expand the school across Hemphill, at the time a major thoroughfare of the city. This was not Tech's first attempt to cross a major road. During President Brittain's years, the administration hoped to convert Techwood Homes, the first federal housing projects, into student dormitories. The 1965 plan sought to bulldoze and build on top of about 220 structures such as homes, apartments and churches.
The place we now know as west campus was, at one point, a vibrant neighborhood. The Couch Building was an elementary school that provided the local residents' children their education. The Burger Bowl functioned as a city park for relaxation from a developing area. The land the police station and a portion of Woodruff dorms are on were once churches. Unfortunately, it was a neighborhood in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Federal Housing policies changed in 1959 to relax urban renewal spending to universities for development. The area to the west of Hemphill was a vibrant neighborhood, but it was also poor. Of the 220 structures, 122 were substandard residential and 13 substandard commercial. With over 61 percent of the buildings in a poor state, the neighborhood was susceptible to expansion plans by Georgia Tech.
The school's plan was simple: either residents sold their land or the school could condemn it. The administration, working hand-in-hand with the city, would then purchase all the condemned land. J.R. Anthony, Georgia Tech Vice-President/Comptroller, explained in a interview years after the expansion that only about two to five percent of the land was condemned. The prices they offered were acceptable to most residents.
To prevent costs from rising beyond the original estimates, Georgia Tech actively intervened in order to prevent individuals from obtaining business permits that might raise their property values. In an un-mailed letter, J.R. Anthony explains, "We have...tried to discourage major property redevelopment which would have to be acquired in the near future, adding both substantial costs to the public and inconvenience to the private investor." Rebecca Hooper, an owner of residential property in the area, had her efforts to rezone her land into a commercial area thwarted by Georgia Tech . The offer she received from Georgia Tech was woefully unacceptable to her, so she pursued legal action. Her appraisers valued the land at $140,000 with rezoning, while the Atlanta Real Estate Board found a price of $70,000 more appropriate. After dispute, the property was condemned in order for Georgia Tech to purchase the lot at a cheaper price.
Very little opposition came from the community. Most residents' concerns centered on difficulty in getting to church amid all the construction in the neighborhood.
These concerns were great enough that President Harrison gave this unique response, to justify his school's development of the land with the idea that students were poor and in need of on-campus housing; the dislocated people from the Tech area could then move to the students' former residences. "Because of known poor financial status of many of these [Georgia Tech] students, it is very probable that some of them are living in substandard housing throughout the city." He claimed that 85 percent of the development was residential; therefore, moving students on campus opened up housing elsewhere.
Information about the buildings that were destroyed is only a minor part of the story. Unfortunately, finding out about the people is extremely difficult. Letters saved in desk drawers tell a tale of World War I veterans on $125-per-month pensions and ladies concerned about saving plants from demolition. Census records show that the area was about 60 percent white and 40 percent black. By 1970, during the height of construction the neighborhood had dramatically changed to 83 percent white and 13 percent black.
Georgia Tech removed many housing units, but this was not uncommon for the city of Atlanta.
As Ronald Bayor, a Georgia Tech professor, explains in his book Race & the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta by 1968, 95 percent of those displaced in Atlanta's urban renewal plans were African American and that the city actually became more segregated over the course of the time period. The same dollars that funded Georgia Tech's dorms came from a national policy that also funded the destruction of about 243,000 housing units while only creating 68,000. Because of the vastly disproportionate number of African Americans affected by these policies they earned the nickname "Negro removal."
Taken within the framework of city and national policies, Georgia Tech was well-behaved in comparison to the level of unethical politics that occurred at the higher levels of government.
J.R. Anthony recalls a specific example of Tech's benevolence: the story of one neighborhood resident who spent all of the money she received by selling her house on furniture. Upon hearing of the incident, the school was able to bargain with the furniture store to refund the woman's money without penalty. This way, the woman had money instead of a set of furniture with no place to put it. Tech's seldom use of its condemnation powers also indicates a resolve by the school to make their transactions as legitimate as possible.
The process of development at such a large scale ceased for the school by the mid-1970s. National urban renewal dollars were diverted to other programs. The campus found itself without additional funding, but at a size two to three times larger than when it began. Eventually, the campus would finish expansion towards Techwood Parkway during preparations for the Olympics during the 1990s.