Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The $1.2 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn’t vital to the city’s existence, but its surroundings may still see benefits from it.
Nothing’s wrong with the Georgia Dome. Last week, it hosted one NFL and two college football games in three days. The roof, the lights, the plumbing, the fake grass: They all worked just fine. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.
But in the middle of a relentless nationwide stadium boom, being adequate is grounds for condemnation.
So, rising immediately next door to the 24-year-old venue is the $1.2-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Starting next year, it will mostly host the same tenants and fans as the Georgia Dome currently does. It’ll be filled with amenities as attractive as they are unnecessary: a 360-degree scoreboard under a pinwheel-shaped retractable roof, the world’s largest bird statue, and more.
“When you’re building a stadium today you have to ask yourself, how do you get a fan to leave the living room?” says Mark Carter, one of the architects at tvsdesign working on the new stadium. “Well, you give them everything they want at home on top of a live experience or else you’ve failed.”
Team owners—especially in the NFL—want venues like Mercedes-Benz stadium because it helps them increase revenues and keep up with league aspirations. The few franchises that still play in old facilities are pushed by the NFL into pursuing new ones, even after expensive renovations.
Similar to the perceived need for convention centers in the late 20th century, public officials buy in or at least feel pressured to support opulent stadiums presented as essential not only for keeping sports teams from leaving town, but to secure big concerts and mega-events that keep hotels and restaurants filled with tourists.
In Atlanta, Mercedes-Benz Stadium nearly guarantees that the NFL’s Falcons will stick around for a few more decades; in turn, the city will be rewarded with a Super Bowl in 2019, a NCAA Basketball Final Four in 2020, and a NCAA football national championship game in 2018. A new Major League Soccer franchise will also call the stadium home starting next year.
It’s a similar payoff to what the city got when the state of Georgia built the dome next door in 1992. Prior to its construction, open-air Fulton County Stadium wasn’t good enough for a Super Bowl and the Falcons seemed destined for relocation. A new dome downtown next to the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) meant the Falcons would stay and the city could host national sporting events it didn’t previously qualify for.
“Officials were trying to do all they could for downtown at the time,” says Tom Ventulett of tvsdesign and architect behind the Georgia Dome. “It connected to MARTA, it took an ugly area of the city where all the trains used to come in and just changed it entirely into a vibrant, delightful part of downtown,” he adds.
It also boasted a design milestone—a Teflon-coated, translucent fiberglass fabric roof that created what was then the largest clear span in the world. “It was a delight in there,” says Ventulett. “A lot of light through the roof.”
But hopes from nearby residents that the dome could do even more for adjacent neighborhoods faded quickly, and soon the building was seen more as a wall than a bridge to downtown. “One thing it didn’t do was connect the west and east sides of the city, as had been anticipated,” says Ventulett. Today, 38 percent of Westside households make $38,000 or less and 25 percent of residents are unemployed. “It was supposed to stimulate development on the Westside, but the site constraints at the time didn’t let the connection happen,” the architect adds.
tvsdesign is one of four architecture firms working on the new stadium. With lessons learned by both architects and neighbors, this project may well be better than the Dome was for the average Vine City, English Avenue, and Castleberry Hill resident who can’t afford to attend a Falcons game.
Carter explains that after the Georgia Dome is demolished next year, the site will become a 13-acre public park 310 days a year (when the new stadium isn’t hosting an event). “It plugs into a greenspace necklace that is growing up around the Beltline, extends through Centennial Olympic Park and International Plaza and continues on to the parks in our Westside,” he adds. “It creates a path for bikes and a real obvious pedestrian connection.”
The new stadium, says Carter, will appear as a more transparent design while expanding the “power and energy of Centennial Park and reconnecting the Westside to the heart of the city.”
“We could prove suburban sites would work; that they’d be cheaper and come with less politics,” says Carter, “but Arthur [Blank, Falcons owner] is committed to city.”
And in hopes of doing more for the stadium’s surroundings, Blank’s own foundation has announced a $15 million commitment to his “Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund” that will be spent in its entirety by 2020 and matches the Atlanta Development Authority financial commitment to the same area. That doesn’t guarantee a better life for current Westside residents, but it’s more than most sports owners are willing to attach to new facilities in similarly disadvantaged cities.
Aside from short-term community investments, who’s to say Atlanta won’t be forced into having the same conversation again in 2040? Ventulett, who started tvsdesign in 1968, has lived to see the opening and closing of two downtown Atlanta venues he designed, Georgia Dome and Omni Arena (demolished in 1997). It’s a rare feat for a single architect and goes against the ambition and sense of monumentality that goes into what are often expensive, sprawling, publicly-financed projects. (The city is providing $200 million to Mercedes-Benz Stadium via a hotel-motel tax.)
With a fatalistic chuckle, Ventulett says it “doesn’t feel very good” to see both close down. “You know, the market changes and, unfortunately, change comes especially fast in sports. You just have to respond to it.”
Carter says there’s not much any architect can do about the short lives of sports venues today. But there is a big difference between Georgia Dome—a state-owned project with little design input from the Falcons—to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is nothing short of being Blank’s pride and joy. It’s owned by the GWCC but operated by his football team.
“The dome—for its innovations and its positive reception—it wasn’t designed to be an icon,” says Carter. “Arthur really wants to make this stadium an international landmark that sets Atlanta apart. That’s a much higher calling.”