Beacon Municipal Center

The Beacon Municipal Center reestablishes what was once the heart of Decatur, Georgia’s vibrant African-American “Beacon” Community. Completed in 2015, the LEED certified campus houses the city’s police department, municipal courts, school system headquarters, and various other city programs in nearly 85,000 square feet of new and repurposed space.
The project is conceived as a carved mass, with distinct blocks framing three sides of a central court. Interstitial spaces rift between blocks provide access to the central green while working to mediate grade change across the site where flood plain proximity and poor subsoil conditions posed significant challenges. The courtyard is an exercise in place-making, drawing equally from the piazzas of medieval Europe and the small town squares of the American southeast. The court compliments the scale of the popular (and pedestrian focused) Decatur City Square located only two blocks to the northeast, generating an implicit dialogue between the two urban spaces. The court serves as the primary ordering element for the entirety of the project, guiding and organizing the locations of circulation spaces, gathering spaces, and threshold areas within the three distinct municipal buildings.
Scalar shifts within the central court are generated by terraced sections of lawn divided further by hardscape pathways and stone-clad knee walls that double as seating during public performances. A section of solid metal panels nest inside the perforated metal brise soleil fronting the school building, creating a projection screen for a proposed series of summertime movie nights. Cast-in-place concrete garden planters sit opposite a movable, exterior steel wall along the courtyard level afterschool space, blurring the lines between interior and exterior and offering the city’s children an opportunity to experiment with the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Groupings of drought tolerant native plantings punctuate the xeriscape throughout the site, providing varying degrees of seasonal color and foliage. Two large onsite detention basins were designed to harvest rainwater for irrigation. A small grove of hardy red maples delineates the fourth edge of the space, creating a filigree threshold between the courtyard and the city fabric beyond.
The previously existing, unconditioned, concrete buildings were originally home to Decatur’s African-American Trinity High School during the segregation era. However, years of neglect rendered a large number of the spaces unsalvageable. Great sensitivity was afforded to the preservation and repurposing of the buildings, as they represent the last standing physical remnants of a neighborhood nearly extirpated by two waves of urban renewal during the mid-20th century. The neighborhood was originally settled by freed slaves and quickly became a close-knit community of residences, churches, schools, and African-American owned businesses. An array of steel platforms located throughout the central lawn displays pictorial and biographic information celebrating the lives and contributions of key figures from the community, marking moments for pause and reflection. A series of Cor-Ten steel placards affixed to a cast-in-place concrete wall flank the ramp at the west side of the courtyard, forming a timeline of milestones in the community’s history while drawing visitors into the site.

Design Challenge

The first major challenge of The Beacon Municipal Center concerned the program. The original RFP described the desire to combine three major, and disparate, municipal departments into a single campus. It included relocating city police headquarters, municipal courts (including discreet facilities for prisoner transport and holding), administrative offices for the city schools department, and a new home for the city’s “Active Living” recreation center - a highly complex program comprised of a gymnasium, classrooms, and additional spaces for afterschool programs for the city’s youth. Careful and thorough programmatic analysis revealed that original square footage estimates were unnecessarily inflated, resulting in a reduction of the overall building footprint. This investigation ultimately led to the creation of the central courtyard. What could have been a simple collection of municipal buildings instead became a new destination within the urban fabric. Given the contemporary political climate, another challenge facing the success of the project was the appropriateness of and manner in which the city police headquarters would occupy the former center of the city’s African-American community. After performing surveys of interested parties (including Trinity School alumni, city government, and police leadership), public forums, and thorough internal design investigations, the resultant design strategy prioritizes proximity, visibility, and transparency. Contrasting with more typical projections of authority and security, the new police headquarters opens itself to the street with a two story, fully glazed façade, symbolically removing the barrier between the police department and the community which it serves. More sensitive programmatic elements are located at the interior-most portions of the building, ensuring that the double height volume at the public threshold remains intact. This volume also provides daylighting to internal parts of the building through clerestories located along the top edges of the upper floor. Communication and prioritization of programmatic requests across numerous municipal departments also presented a considerable challenge. Politics aside, the simple act of educating an unsophisticated client group on the intricacies of the construction process proved to be an arduous task. The commission for the project was won during the Recession and while navigating the demands of a complex, multifaceted client might be common place for a large practice, for an office of only three (at that time) it required an exhaustive amount of coordination. More typical plan and elevation drawings required significant supplementation with perspectives and other experiential drawings, with calculated effort to limit photorealistic imagery that could potentially stifle the selection of materials and the processes of detailing. The proximity of the 100 year flood plain, onsite detention requirements, and poor subsoil conditions also posed problems for the project. Located in a basin and historically vulnerable to periods of flooding, the site required the construction of an enormous underground concrete vault to handle storm water detention for the surrounding area as well as providing auxiliary storm water storage for the site itself. A smaller subterranean detention basin was created to harness storm water on site, store it, and redistribute it as irrigation for the campus’s drought tolerant xeriscape.

Physical Context

The Beacon Municipal Center responds to its existing context through the careful renovation of specific components of Decatur’s former African-American Trinity High School. Although unable to preserve the entirety of the building, key portions were painstakingly protected and repurposed as the Ebster Recreational Center. As a compliment to the system of placards located throughout the central court, a more detailed, permanent installation inside the building’s main entry pays homage to the rich heritage of the Beacon Community and a number of its notable figures. Once slated for demolition, the previously derelict structure now provides the cornerstone to one of the city’s main civic spaces, creating a new destination for the entire community and engendering a sense of inclusivity for all of Decatur’s residents. The campus’s primary design element, the central courtyard, allows for maximum transparency on the building envelopes that define its edges. Raised clerestories and double height volumes bring reflected sunlight deep within the buildings’ interiors. A series of carefully detailed perforated metal panels were fabricated to function as sun shades and brise soleil across the various facades of the buildings. Panels range in both size and color depending on their orientation and feature varying degrees of opacity and transparency, ranging from completely solid to only an exposed metal frame. This series of metal skins allows controlled amounts of light to enter the new structures, framing specific views, and affording a visual connection between each of the individual municipal buildings and the central courtyard beyond. A fully operable and custom fabricated steel door at the lower, courtyard level of the Ebster Recreational Center functions as moveable wall. This allows afterschool youth programs to spill fully out into the courtyard on pleasant days or to convene under the covered outdoor play space when weather is less cooperative. This space abuts the community gardens where fruits and vegetables fill the cast-in-place concrete planter beds. Native plantings for the xeriscape found throughout the site were carefully selected based on color, year round foliage, seasonal transitions, maintenance concerns, and drought tolerance. As mentioned previously, a network of underground storm water detention basins was created to mitigate on site rainwater as well as a considerable amount of water that makes it way from the higher surrounding areas. This water is collected, filtered, detained, and then repurposed as irrigation for onsite plantings. Located directly south of the MARTA’s Blue Line, immediately where the railway exits an underground tunnel before turning along the elevated track into the heart of downtown Decatur, the Beacon Municipal Center becomes the unofficial gateway to the city, a landmark signaling one’s arrival from Atlanta to the west. While many of the project’s design details were considered at a granular level (for example the detailing of the metal panel systems and custom fabricated steel rails) a series of three dimensional studies ensured that the imagery of the overall complex is consistent with the design intent, whether viewed at speed from the passing trains or on the ground at human scale.