In Atlanta, Two Stadiums Collide With Dreams of a New Downtown

The Braves are moving out and the Falcons are building a new home. But after decades of empty promises, few are cheering.

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AP

Over the next few years, two professional sports teams are in a position to radically reshape much of the fringe of Atlanta's downtown core. South of downtown, in Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown, the Braves’ planned departure for a brand-new ballpark in suburban Cobb County is just the latest in a string of upheavals that began with the construction of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium nearly 50 years ago. Across town, the Westside neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue are similarly bracing themselves for what will come of the more than $1 billion soon to be invested in erecting a new football stadium for the Falcons, while simultaneously dismantling the 21-year-old Georgia Dome.

To varying degrees, these neighborhoods have started to revitalize in recent years – a controversy by its own right. Depending on whom you ask, Atlanta's changing stadium landscape could halt or accelerate this process, both with potentially disastrous consequences.

Neither stadium deal has been the public relations coup that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed surely hoped for. He’s been criticized over the past few months by those upset to see him let the Braves go and those just as angry over the concessions he’s made to the Falcons. There's an inherent messiness to these dual, competing narratives – one of downtown reinvestment, the other a triumph of the suburbs.

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The boundaries of race and class in Atlanta have long had a distinctly geographic component, one that has not disappeared in the 50 years since the peak of the civil rights movement. During the postwar heyday, as in many cities across the country, Atlanta's was a story of urban flight, sprawl, and, eventually, faltering downtown renewal schemes. For Mike Dobbins, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a former commissioner of planning and community development for the city, these processes are directly linked to the nearly unparalleled economic inequality among the region’s residents. “It’s bothered me ever since I got here; it bothers me more and more,” Dobbins says. “It’s the worst city for people born poor to be anything other than poor.”

Atlanta’s reputation as a suburb-oriented, segregated city has become so commonly acknowledged to be nearly cliché. Almost 15 years ago, sociologist Robert Bullard dubbed Atlanta Sprawl City.

But this moniker hasn’t sat well with Atlanta’s downtown leaders, who have become increasingly worried that the city will be left behind in an era of urban revivals in places like New York and San Francisco. Since the mid-1970s, when the Georgia World Congress Center and the CNN Center opened their doors downtown, center-city redevelopment has focused on selling Atlanta as a convention town and central hub of the Southeast’s economy.

As the region geared up for the 1996 Summer Olympics, there was a rapid acceleration of these downtown reinvestment efforts. The crown jewel was the $75 million Centennial Olympic Park, designed to create an appealing connection between the old downtown and the newer development further west. The Falcons’ four-year-old Georgia Dome was used as an Olympic venue. The Braves benefited even more directly, as the Centennial Olympic Stadium was quickly converted into Turner Field after the games ended. With what some have estimated as at least $1.7 billion in private investments, the Olympics were seen as a launching pad for the Atlanta economy. Looking back on the games last summer, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games Chief Operating Officer A.D. Frazier told Atlanta-based alternative weekly Creative Loafing that the Olympics were absolutely a catalyst for renewal. “I've likened it to putting an ink drop in a glass of water,” he said. “I think when downtown came to life for the Olympics, it caused a lot of people to think about reinvesting and redoing parts of downtown.”

But much of the promised revitalization of the center city stopped far short of the still-struggling neighborhoods that stand on the other sides of these massive complexes. The last half-century of redevelopment have largely left behind both of these areas – Vine City and English Avenue to the west of the Georgia Dome, and Summerhill and the areas surrounding Turner Field in Southeast Atlanta.

Like many pockets around Atlanta, Vine City and English Avenue are neighborhoods that hold fast to their rich connections to the city’s storied African American past. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived the last years of his life in a modest, well-kept home on Sunset Avenue in Vine City, and today neighborhood boosters remain proud of their connection to the civil rights movement. These communities also hold close ties with the neighboring Atlanta University Center, home to the city’s historically black colleges.

History, however, hasn’t been particularly kind to Vine City and English Avenue. Two decades ago, as the now-obsolete Georgia Dome rose on the highlands above these neighborhoods, then-mayor Maynard Jackson assured residents that it wouldn’t just be back to “business as usual” when construction ended. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We want the sidewalks fixed and the streets properly paved to make Vine City as good as any other neighborhood.” Bruce Deel, a pastor and the CEO of City of Refuge, a homelessness nonprofit active in Vine City, says that there was palpable excitement in the community in the early 1990s. It didn't last. “We just didn’t really see the positive impact,” he says. “We saw a new building go up and a lot of people go to the edge of our neighborhood.”

The promises of the Dome went largely unfulfilled. According to the most recent Census, just 8 percent of Vine City and English Avenue households are led by a husband-wife pair, and the median household income is well below $30,000. Forty-three percent of the housing units are vacant. Lloyd Hawk, who grew up attending a church in the neighborhood, remembers how insignificant the money that poured into the community during the 1990s ended up being. “Twenty-one years ago when they built the first stadium, there was money committed to the neighborhood,” Hawk says. “But if you go through the neighborhood now, you’d have no idea.”

In Summerhill, the story of failed redevelopment surrounding first the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and later Turner Field has been largely the same. The neighborhood that surrounds “the Ted” is one of the city’s oldest black communities, first designated as a home for freed slaves in the years after Reconstruction. Just as Vine City’s black churches have ties to the Atlanta University Center, Clark College – now part of Clark-Atlanta University – began in Summerhill’s Clark Chapel back in the late 1860s. There were still thriving middle-class black and Jewish communities in this part of town a century later. But over the course of the 1960s, two urban renewal projects destroyed much of the area’s economic base and cut residents off from downtown. First came a tangle of new interstate highways, which cleared blocks of homes and retail and cut those who remained off from the rest of downtown. Then came the construction of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. A riot, quickly blamed on the new head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael, broke out in September 1966 after a white policeman shot a suspected car thief near the newly constructed stadium. Summerhill's troubles shattered the city’s civil rights-era self-image as the “city too busy to hate.”

Rejuvenation efforts over the last five decades in Summerhill have relied almost entirely on professional sports. In the northern parts of the neighborhood, new housing constructed in the 1990s has brought a diverse and educated group of new homeowners to the area. But Turner Field has left an undeniable hole in the community. Surface parking lots are cheap and profitable for Atlanta developers, but they remain empty on days when no games are played. This summer, before the Braves announced their move, a long feature in Atlanta Magazine dug into the fate of these neighborhoods on “The Other 284 Days” when the Braves have no home games. The problems mirror those in the Falcons’ neighborhoods. All the concrete parking lots have created massive runoff and flooding as well as a “heat island” effect. On game days, fans bring traffic and trash, but little else. In 2010, the median household income in Summerhill, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and adjacent neighborhoods was just $29,461, compared to $54,628 for the Atlanta metro area as a whole.

What change has come to the neighborhoods has had fewer tangible benefits for the original residents. More than $66 million in grants and investments poured into the community to build new housing during this period, as chronicled in Georgia Tech Professor Larry Keating’s expansive study on Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion. But few of these new units – and far fewer than were originally planned – were affordable enough for long-time residents to rent or purchase. As Keating concluded, “the revitalization occurring in Summerhill is intentional gentrification.”

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A rendering of the planned new Falcons stadium. (Georgia World Congress Center Authority)

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank hopes his $1.2 billion new football stadium will become a city icon. With soaring panes of glass and a state-of-the-art retractable roof, it’s meant to be “an important structure in the city of Atlanta for many years to come,” he told Atlanta’s Channel 2 News this fall. As if to make this commitment to the city concrete, the plans specifically include a floor-to-ceiling window on the stadium’s concourse level, offering an unparalleled view onto the Atlanta skyline.

This was a downtown panorama that almost didn’t happen. It’s been nearly four years since the Falcons first began talking about abandoning their current home at the Georgia Dome. There was talk of moving to the suburbs, and even vague rumors of a threat to decamp for Los Angeles. But Blank, who bought the Falcons in 2002, has been an adopted son of Atlanta since he co-founded the Home Depot there 36 years ago. As negotiations heated up last winter, Blank reassured worriers that downtown was “the right place for us to be.”

In September, a deal totaling $34 million with two of the city’s oldest African American churches freed up a site just south of the Georgia Dome. And in early December, after months of contentious meetings with neighborhood leaders, the City Council approved a $30 million community benefits package during its final meeting of the term.

But hurdles remain, as unhappy residents continue to push back. Earlier this month, a group of Vine City residents filed a motion challenging the use of more than $200 million in public funds from the city's hotel-motel tax for the stadium. The motion – which claimed that the stadium won't provide "substantial benefit" to Atlanta's citizens – is unlikely to stop the stadium. But the appeals process could slow the funding timeline down considerably (a judge has already pushed back the bond sale another seven weeks). Even with groundbreaking set for this spring, the teams’ planned move for the 2017 season could already be in jeopardy.

Lloyd Hawk, who lives in nearby Castleberry Hill, believes he's already seeing the impacts, both positive and negative, of the Falcons’ planned new stadium. Hawk is the chair of the board of trustees of Friendship Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in the city, which finds itself right in the path of the new stadium site. Last fall the congregation, led by Hawk, made a deal with the Falcons, agreeing to give up the site they’ve occupied since 1881 for a cool $19.5 million. Hawk remains cautiously optimistic, arguing that the stadium deal is a “unique opportunity” because it's bringing in attention from developers who normally wouldn’t give these parts of town a second look. Still, on their own, “stadiums do not improve a neighborhood," he admits. That's something any longtime Atlanta resident has seen with their own eyes.

The next few years will provide an opportunity to change this narrative of failed reinvestment. Penny McPhee, the president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, has a vested interest in the fate of these neighborhoods, with control of half of a $30 million community benefits deal. She says that one of the most important questions has become, “What does it take to make a community that people aren’t fleeing from, and one that is connected to the rest of downtown?” To McPhee, it seems obvious that “these are desirable locations, very central locations; that if they were safe, and had good schools, and had good housing stock, people would want to live here,” she says. “And I think that this can be done without displacing current residents.”

But in both parts of town, residents have grown weary and wary. In an op-ed in Creative Loafing in late November, Summerhill resident Tracey Long asked a question that will become central to the Turner Field redevelopment: “The city couldn't manage to develop this area for the storied baseball franchise Atlanta Braves, with millions of dollars of annual revenue stream on the line for decades to come. Why should we believe the city will develop this area once the Braves leave?” Across the city, the Georgia Dome’s negotiations just two decades ago have similarly fostered skepticism of Arthur Blank’s ambitious promises for the neighborhoods. Bruce Deel, a local non-profit leader, puts the community’s feelings in stark terms: “There’s no energy or excitement.”

A first priority for many is restoring some of the sense of downtown belonging that highway and stadium building have made all but impossible over the last 50 years. Mike Dobbins, who used the neighborhoods around the Falcons stadium project as a case study for his urban planning graduate students at Georgia Tech last semester, says that dismantling the “fortress-like look” of nearby Northside Drive should be a key part of any stadium redevelopment plan. “They walled off downtown from these neighborhoods.”

Over the last two years, Dobbins’s students have put together a concept for how the new stadium could reconnect these neighborhoods to downtown through a series of parks. The plan also includes ditching a lot of the area's reliance on concrete. A decade ago, historically high rain levels and an outdated sewer system drowned much of Vine City in unprecedented flooding. Many blamed the concrete behemoths of the Georgia Dome and the city’s nearby convention center, the Georgia World Congress Center, for paving over much of the former parkland that could have absorbed some of this floodwater.

These maps from the Georgia Tech Connectivity Studio’s 2012 report illustrate how a lack of green space has contributed to flooding in the Falcons stadium neighborhoods. The map at the left shows the impervious surfaces in Vine City and English Avenue. Notice the dark red concentrations around the current site of the Dome. The map at right shows potential green-space interventions to help address rainwater runoff. (Courtesy Mike Dobbins)

Part of this vision would be a mixed-use, mixed-income development plan that would bring traffic and new residents to the area. Mike Koblentz, a self-described smart-growth developer, has worked on these plans as part of his involvement heading up the Northwest Community Alliance. He sees an ideal redevelopment plan as one that could help bring new businesses to the area around Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Northside Drive. “It piggybacks with the mayor’s plan to finally have an MLK in this country that’s deserving of the legacy of Martin Luther King,” he says.

Yet these visions of a reconnected, green connector to downtown are already beginning to look like they might never happen. Though the Falcons stadium’s site was chosen to maximize access to the city’s MARTA transit system, the copious amount of parking included in the latest renderings doesn’t seem to be designed for an urban stadium. Maria Saporta, a prominent local journalist, questioned these plans on the Saporta Report in November. “So what is it going to be Atlanta — are we building a central city for cars or for people?” she asked. The final report that Dobbins’s students prepared this fall concludes that, despite the very real opportunities to break down barriers between downtown and the Westside, “the current design fails.”

The sketch at left shows the Westside Connectivity Studio’s vision for a new Falcons stadium that would offer connections, largely through parkland, to downtown (Courtesy Mike Dobbins). The current site plan for the mezzanine level, at right, shows plans to replace the old Georgia Dome site with parking. (Courtesy Georgia World Congress Center Authority).

Over in Summerhill, the vague beginnings of a post-Braves neighborhood reconstruction plan provide a potential counterpoint. By removing the monumental architecture – and the superblocks of parking that comes with it – Atlanta has a far greater opportunity to make good on the failed plans for mixed-income community building that began during the run-up to the 1996 Olympics. At a public meeting in early December, Suzanne Mitchell, the president of Organized Neighbors of Summerhill, commented that the Braves’ departure would give the neighborhood a chance “to really create what we want.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, in justifying his rejection of an expensive deal with the Braves, promised that the site could become “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had.” Tracey Long, who moved to the neighborhood ten years ago, says residents are looking for a combination of middle-income housing, restaurants, and green space. At a minimum, she adds, it would be nice to have a grocery store. “When I bought my house in 2003, there was talk then about development – ‘Oh, we’re going to bring a grocery store,’” she says. “I have to drive six miles or so to get to the nearest grocery store. Living in a huge city, that’s weird. That’s a problem.”

But the loss of the Braves as an anchor, one that has come to define the neighborhood for the past five decades, is significant as well. The team's decision in some ways parallels the white flight debates of the post-war era. A December Associated Press report explored some of the tensions of race and class that have popped up throughout debates over the Braves’ move, noting how much richer and whiter the Cobb County fan base is than the metro area as a whole.

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“No single organization – not the Blank Foundation, not the city, not a developer – is going to be able to singlehandedly turn around a community that has been disinvested in for such a long time,” says McPhee, the Blank Foundation president.

The Falcons have chosen to reinvest in Atlanta's downtown, opening up a range of possibilities. On one end of the spectrum, Blank's dollars could be focused on helping the surrounding neighborhoods change, with the very real chance that local residents will need to contend with higher rents and, ultimately, the potential for displacement. On the other end, the neighborhood could remain one of the most troubled in all of metro Atlanta.

At least one vocal group of Atlantans worry that the Falcons deal is a modern-day re-hashing of the worst moments of the civil rights era. At a hearing on Monday, Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore, one of the lawyers challenging the Falcons bond sale, explicitly drew this connection. She called the stadium a “new Peyton Wall” – a reference to a physical barrier built in 1962 to discourage black Atlantans from buying homes in an all-white subdivision nearby.

Further south, the neighborhoods adjacent to Turner Field are facing similar concerns as they begin to adjust to their new post-Braves reality. Reed has promised that he won’t “leave a vacant Ted,” vowing to tear down the facility and replace it with new development. But residents worry that the city’s attention will soon turn away from Summerhill. "My overall feeling is kind of distrust. I don’t think I’m unique in that," Long says of the proposals for this new round of development. "I’ll believe it when I see it.”

For Deborah Scott, a community advocate and the executive director of the nonprofit Georgia STAND-UP, these ongoing debates, many of which she sees as having bypassed neighborhood advocates, are an updated version of the old civil rights-era “Atlanta Way.” While protests rocked much of the South during the height of the civil rights movement, the community here chose the “negotiation model,” earning Atlanta the moniker “the city too busy to hate.” Fifty years later, the current debates over the role of downtown stadiums are inextricably linked to those deep legacies of race and class. But for Scott, the “Atlanta Way” doesn’t bode well for the old stadium neighborhoods. “It’s called that affectionately by some, but I actually beg to differ. The Atlanta Way has cost low-income and under-served communities land, education, and opportunities.”

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