Liberty Plaza: Implementing Flexibility & Celebrating Freedom

by Lauren Standish, ASLA

Liberty Plaza (Atlanta, GA) – Aerial image of space, as a parking lot, before site improvements. / image: HGOR; base photo from Google Earth

In 2014, the Georgia Building Authority (GBA) decided they needed a new public space close to the Capitol Hill Complex to serve as a forum, a place where all visitors could exercise their freedom of speech and assembly. The downtown area desperately needed greenspace for large gatherings and public events, and existing options for such spaces and gatherings lacked a strong identity. When the GBA reached out to our team at HGOR, where I am a principal and have been part of the team for over two decades, they were searching for an innovative solution.

From the start, I felt our partnership would benefit everyone involved for several reasons. HGOR has an extensive background in creating meaningful spaces across various topographies that represent a voice for the people and consideration for history in and around Atlanta. Many of these projects allowed our team to lend a solid sense of understanding, backed by a respect for social justice, to design a place representing cultural and civic importance. Additionally, our mission to preserve and expand the historic site while complementing the existing campus grounds prepared us for the challenges within the Liberty Plaza project. It also provided valuable hands-on knowledge that served us well with the design of the Nathan Deal Judicial Center, where we performed research on historically iconic public gathering spaces during our time devoted to designing Liberty Plaza.

Our team faced several initial challenges because of the selected location for this proposed new space. It did not provide an easy, pedestrian-safe route to the Capitol grounds that didn’t involve on-site law enforcement monitoring events. Before Liberty Plaza was a designated gathering space, events took place at the western entrance of the Capitol, Washington Avenue, where it was necessary to shut down the streets for pedestrian safety.

Parking lot demolition provided concrete that was crushed and repurposed as fill material for the newly formed Liberty Plaza. / images: HGOR

We also faced a shorter than usual timeframe for the project’s completion with an impending inauguration and the need to relocate monuments from the previous site. Due to these circumstances, incorporating flexibility was crucial to the project’s success. With the high-profile site representing such importance for the many stakeholders and those who would be utilizing the space, ensuring that each design detail captured the true nature and purpose of the venue was critical.

A significant driver during the design development phase was the social aspect of the development. We strategically designed the space to foster connectivity and provide a safe, pedestrian-focused environment that eliminated vehicular interference.

The space before site improvements / image: HGOR
The space after site improvements, which allowed site lines of the State Capitol with the removal of the bridge. / image: Google Earth

Our goal was to essentially design a new ‘front door’ to the Capitol and establish a true sense of place for the people of Georgia. A primary project component was the removal of certain infrastructural components, which allowed our State Capital to be the focus. This phase involved the removal of a parking deck that previously provided no connection to the Capitol. This removal also provided flexibility for the future phase, which will remove the road in front of the Capitol, allowing the Plaza to extend onto the Capitol grounds. Equally critical for the design plan to encompass its purpose was the relocation of existing monuments to strategic locations where the focal points would create more interest.

image: HGOR

Given its prominent location, the GBA wanted to incorporate trees in the areas where people would gather to reflect the city’s character—as Atlanta is known as ‘The City in the Forest.’ It was also essential for the State to implement best practices for maintaining the space, such as recycling materials and placing trees with sustainability and stormwater management in mind. All stormwater from the site drains to a storage basin below the central lawn for filtration. In response to this desire, and to add a unique element that would complement the space, we incorporated Georgia Oaks, which flank the center stage. On the opposite end of the Plaza, we planted Southern Live Oaks, the Georgia State tree, which also represent the Coastal Plains.

Flanking the stage are Georgia Oaks and Southern Live Oaks border the edge of the Plaza, creating a picturesque view of the State Capitol. / image: HGOR
Southern Live Oaks border the edge of the Plaza, creating a picturesque view of the State Capitol. / image: HGOR

Throughout the process, the GBA’s ultimate goal was to establish a safe, comfortable environment that would provide all individuals a forum to speak out and be heard while economically providing a solid return for the State. In addition to these guiding factors, the State and the HGOR team wanted to build a stronger connection to the downtown government zone. We strategically designed the site for longevity to do this and deliver a well-thought-out venue appropriate for the inauguration and complementary of the Capitol grounds for future events. Through careful planning, we developed Liberty Plaza’s design, including rerouting public streets and plans for the removal of the street in front of the Capitol to improve safety and security. All project elements combined will provide a pedestrian thoroughfare and additional connectivity to and from the Capitol and Liberty Plaza.

We developed the Plaza to accommodate large gatherings of more than 3,000 people with a large, multi-functional open greenspace. The Plaza, bordered by terraced seating and anchored by an elevated permanent center stage, was created for more formal events such as dignitary speeches and provides a suitable setting for the governor to address event attendees. Additional space was designed to accommodate a stage and features the iconic State Capitol as its backdrop—one of the design elements we felt fortunate to embrace in our plan.

This photo of the space post improvements – a flexible open space that accommodates gatherings of up to 3,000 people. / image: HGOR

Today, Liberty Plaza is a three-acre public park that transforms the Capitol Hill grounds into a stately, pedestrian-oriented environment and serves as a venue for farmer’s markets, live music and cultural events, peaceful citizen-led protests, and formal political rallies and speeches. It has given the community an area to gather safely and a forum where they can be heard—and it has created a strong sense of identity and connectivity within a significant portion of the downtown area.

The design of Liberty Plaza also delivered a solid economic return, as we were able to reduce the tax burden and the demands of the State needed to monitor events.

The newly designed Liberty Plaza accommodates cultural events and peaceful demonstrations, making it a place for the people. / image: HGOR
image: HGOR

The overall design, development, and outcome of Liberty Plaza is a prime example of a project that delivers a dramatic impact on the community socially, economically, and environmentally. As a landscape architect, the project was especially meaningful to me, as it highlights all of HGOR’s values and demonstrates our SEE (Social + Economic + Environment) philosophy. With the space’s significance to the State and the people, I was proud to deliver such a unique and memorable design to the community, knowing that it will be around for a very long time.

The design of the park plaza established an area now known for freedom. / image: HGOR

The recent celebration of the nation’s birthday on July 4th, and countless other events year-round, commemorate the many liberties we are so fortunate to have. This project exceeded the GBA’s expectations, but it also was an honor to work on, as it serves the people and gives them a voice. For me and those at HGOR who participated in the project, Liberty Plaza stands for freedom—today and always.

Lauren Standish, ASLA, is a recognized innovator in Atlanta’s planning and design community. She brings decades of experience in the comprehensive development process for the spectrum of project types. Lauren possesses a deep understanding of the intricacies between the owner’s needs and the capabilities of a project’s site and integrates creativity to ensure each project preserves the environment, unites communities, and provides a solid return for clients. Lauren’s most recent notable project: Westside Park, Atlanta’s largest at 280 acres, received a 2022 Award of Excellence for Resilient Infrastructure by the Urban Design Commission. Today, Westside Park serves the community socially, economically, and environmentally as it has become Atlanta’s major emergency water source, providing water for 30+ days.

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