We’ve got five years to create a thriving area around new Falcons stadium

By Maria Saporta

As Invest Atlanta voted for a new Atlanta Falcons stadium on April 4, board member Joseph Brown said success would be measured by “what does it look like across the street from the stadium” in 2017.

Brown, a co-fund manager for the New York-based Centerline Urban Partners Fund, was referring to whether Northside Drive and the communities of Vine City, English Avenue and Castleberry Hill would be significantly improved by having a new $1 billion stadium as a next door neighbor.

Two facts were not lost on those present.

After the Georgia Dome opened in 1992, it has been hard to identify any lasting positive contributions that development has made to the surrounding community.

Also, football stadiums around the country traditionally have not served as catalysts for community reinvestment and revitalization.

And yet, two strong personalities — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank — believe Atlanta can create a different outcome.

At the Invest Atlanta board meeting, Reed explained that when the Georgia Dome was being built, Atlanta’s attention already had shifted to hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Also, there were three different mayors in office during that time frame.
Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young was finishing his second term when the Georgia Dome deal was being put together; Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson was then elected for a four-year term; and then he was followed by Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell who took office a couple of years before the Olympics.

“We have a unique opportunity,” said Reed, adding that if he and his colleagues on the Atlanta City Council are re-elected and if most Invest Atlanta board members continue to serve, the story will be different.

Especially if the new stadium is built on the preferred South site next to the Georgia Dome, the belief is that the development can become part of the fabric that connects downtown with the community. A fall-back option is a North site about half-mile away at Northside Drive and Ivan Allen Boulevard.

“We have a five-year window where all of us will be around this table,” Reed said. “We can hold one another accountable. We have a record in terms of our commitment.”

But really the looming question is that after five years, how will we define success? How will we hold ourselves accountable?

From my perspective, there will be at least two measuring sticks.

First, how the communities are developed and revitalized from a physical and urban design point of view.

Second, how the needs of the people living in the communities are being addressed — from education, health and quality of life. Essential in the second measure is helping people be able to have secure places to live and recreating a sense of community that has been lost as people have moved away.

Neither of those efforts will be easy or inexpensive. This column will focus more on the physical development of the area around the stadium.

As we move forward, we might discover that it’s nearly impossible to find a shared vision that satisfies both the needs of the Atlanta Falcons and the needs of the city and the community.

The greatest potential for conflict is the amount parking needed for the stadium — especially surface parking for tailgating experiences before games. Already, Blank and related companies own a lot of property across Northside Drive that are being used for parking.

During the City Council work sessions, several experts said that if the new stadium is surrounded by parking lots, it will have a negative economic impact on the community. Parking lots become dead spaces — a no man’s land — on days when there are no games.

When asked about whether Northside Drive would be parking lots five years from now, both Mayor Reed and Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay spoke of the advantage of the South site having two MARTA stations as bookends.

“They made the harder decision to make the south parcel work,” Reed said of the Falcons. “MARTA significantly diminishes the demand for cars. Look at the decisions that were made, the decision to favor the South site. It’s a more sustainable solve.”

McKay said “a lot of business leaders” felt the South site would be a better solution for the city. Because it is closer to the Georgia World Congress Center, a large inventory of parking already exists.

“Surface parking is important to our fans for tailgating,” McKay said. “We also understand there are limits to having surface parking. It will not be asphalt parking lots. I do not envision Northside Drive being a bunch of parking lots. We are really fortunate to be an urban stadium that has parking. And connectivity to MARTA is important.”

Previously, when the North site was the favored location, McKay said he could envision creating “green” surface parking lots that could be transformed into parks on non-game days.

But given the fact that there has been an exodus of people living in the nearby communities and the fact that crime has been an issue, a vacant lot with grass might not be the best definition of success five years from now.

Brian McGowan, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta has another vision of what would make a successful area around the new stadium.

“One of the greatest things is that this is a stadium located in an urban core, and we have an opportunity to capture the economic spillover of events that are held in the stadium versus a suburban stadium where people literally drive there and back,” McGowan said.

“What excites me the most is the ability to do something across the street so you really get a 360-ring of economic activity around the stadium, McGowan added. “You can’t do that with a suburban stadium. But you can do that with an urban stadium.”

If we do want to declare “across the street” success of a new stadium in five, or even 10 years, we will have to change the equation of how most football stadiums have fit in central cities.

We will need to get the most creative minds among architects and urban designers who can figure out unique ways to satisfy parking and game-day tailgating experiences for Falcons fans without depressing the surrounding communities for the remaining 355 days of the year.

If any city can do it, it’s Atlanta.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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