Choices around new Falcons stadium — parking lots or people places

By Maria Saporta

So what is it going to be Atlanta — are we building a central city for cars or for people?

The looming test for our town is the way we develop around the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Several proposals have raised their ugly heads to suggest that we are still tied to the almighty car rather than the vision of a thriving walkable city.

But those proposals are out of sync with everything we’ve been led to believe about what can and should happen around the new stadium.

The Atlanta Falcons, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the City of Atlanta fought hard to locate the new stadium on the site south of the Georgia Dome largely because it would sit between two MARTA stations. Many people attending events would be able to ride transit rather than drive to the stadium — reducing the demand for acres and acres of parking.

More importantly, the hope has been that the stadium would be a catalyst for new economic development in the surrounding communities of Castleberry Hill, Vine City, English Avenue and the southern end of downtown.

The best way to spark new economic development is to create walkable urban places, according to Chris Leinberger, an urban real estate expert who has been studying Atlanta for decades. That’s what he said just last Friday, Nov. 1 at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s annual “State of the Region” breakfast.

“Sixty percent of development in the last four years went to walkable urban places (in metro Atlanta) on less than 1 percent of your land mass,” Leinberger said. “That was amazing.”

In the future, Leinberger predicted that 80 percent to 90 percent of all of metro Atlanta’s development will take place on less than 10 percent of its land — primarily in walkable urban places.

So why would the office of Mayor Kasim Reed introduce a “parking overlay district” ordinance from North Avenue and Northside Drive down to Fair Street and Northside Drive?  Georgia-Dome-Parking-Overlay-Map

When residents of Castleberry Hill found out about the ordinance — imposing on their vision for the area, they reacted in force. And the mayor’s office quickly withdrew the ordinance, saying it was dead. But is it really dead?

At the same time, a zoning application has been filed on behalf of H.J.Russell by Tray Dye to amend the zoning of 12 properties in Castleberry Hill area near the new stadium to permit “park for hire” on those lots.

The zoning application repeatedly says about the properties: “the proposed use is compatible with the comprehensive development plans and timing of development… Given the property’s proximity to the Georgia Dome and taking into account the city’s and the Atlanta Falcons’ future development plans for the area, a park for hire use on the property would serve a public need now and in the future.”

Really? Do we envision that the whole area around the new stadium to become “park for hire” lots to now and in the future? Is that really the best way to generate economic development in the Castleberry Hill, Vine City and English Avenue communities?

That zoning application already has made it through the City Council’s Zoning Committee, and it is supposed to go before the Zoning Review Board on either Dec. 5 or Dec. 12.

“Given the confusion surrounding the parking overlay, it was the right thing for the Mayor’s office to pull the parking overlay ordinance,” said Heather Alhadeff, a planner and a resident of Castleberry Hill. “However, the rezoning application is still active. Ideally, the Mayor’s office, H.J. Russell, and diplomatic residents from Castleberry could meet to determine the best course of action.”

But Alhadeff still has trouble figuring out why Atlanta hasn’t followed the model of other successful cities.

“As a planner, it’s hard to understand why we in Atlanta still favor parking lots over beautiful urban places,” she said.

That’s not all. As currently designed, the new site plan for the proposed Atlanta Falcons stadium will do away with either Mitchell Street or Martin Luther King Jr. Drive for at least several blocks.

New site plan for Atlanta Falcons stadium. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive would curve along the southern edge of the stadium and merge into Mitchell Street. Existing MLK would dead-end on Northside Drive.

New site plan for Atlanta Falcons stadium. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive would curve along the southern edge of the stadium and merge into Mitchell Street. Existing MLK would dead-end on Northside Drive.

Because the new stadium can’t be built over the MARTA train tunnel, it will have to be shifted south so that Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. will merge into Mitchell Street (where Friendship Baptist Church currently stands) and then extend westward along Mitchell to Tatnall Street where it would curve back around to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

But there are several issues that could be problematic with that site plan. Mitchell Street west of Northside Drive is a much narrower corridor than Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and it would be difficult to widen Mitchell without disrupting another important black church — the Central United Methodist Church at 503 Mitchell St.

That design would also have the existing MLK dead-end at Northside Drive at the stadium.

In looking at the site plan, however, it appears that there is room for the MLK-Mitchell Street to swing back around and meet the existing MLK at Northside Drive.

But that would mean that the new stadium could lose some VIP parking that it has placed in the southwest corner of that block. Again, is the design of the area going to be compromised to make room for cars?

Mayor Reed said it’s still early in the process.

“This is very much in the formative stages,” Reed said in a quick interview on Oct. 31. “Right now the ideas around the stadium are really just starting to gel. Folks are starting to look at the surrounding area. There was a lot of energy around the physical structure. Now the conversation will shift to the areas around the stadium.”

Asked about the realignment of MLK specifically, Reed said he still committed to his vision of making it one of the most elegant streets in Atlanta.

“My goal is to significantly improve Martin Luther King Drive as part of this development,” Reed said. “My vision is a European boulevard vision.”

Another issue on the horizon is whether there will be a bridge over Northside Drive to connect the Vine City MARTA station with the new Falcons stadium.

Georgia Tech professor Mike Dobbins, who used to be Atlanta’s planning commissioner, is against a bridge, believing that Northside Drive needs to become pedestrian-oriented corridor that bridges the stadium with the community. His students have been developing alternatives for the area.

Bill Johnson, the senior principal for 360 Architecture — the Kansas City firm that is leading the design team for the new stadium, said a MARTA skybridge currently is not in the cards.

“Until there is a funding mechanism identified to go up and over, we haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Johnson said. “We are proceeding as if Northside Drive would be the primary corridor for pedestrians and cars.”

As we move forward, let’s remember that quality urban design will help us become a more prosperous city. And we will get there, not by paving more parking lots, but by creating inviting places for people.

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Tensions Erupt At Falcons Stadium Impact Meeting 

By Jonathan Shapiro

Enlarge image Protesters at Wednesday's community benefits meeting.

Simmering tensions exploded Wednesday night between Atlanta city officials and representatives of the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed new Atlanta Falcons stadium.

For months, the two parties have worked to develop a plan to divvy up millions in community redevelopment money. The process must be completed before $200 million in city funds can be channeled to the team to help build the new stadium.

The meeting, held at Atlanta City Hall, began as many had in the past, with leaders from the various stadium neighborhoods, including English Avenue and Vine City, frustrated over the prospect of ending the process merely with a “plan” of recommendations, rather than a legally-binding “agreement.”

The mayor came and visited us at a meeting and said that we’d develop a plan and from that we would go to an agreement… that’s my question. When do we get to an agreement?” asked committee member Dexter Johnson, a Vine City pastor.

As in previous meetings, city officials stressed that a binding agreement would be discussed only after the committee agreed on a plan.

The meeting took a highly contentious turn when Councilman Michael Julian Bond, the chair of the committee, mentioned that the plan they had been working on for months was already making its way through City Council. Bond personally sponsored the legislation at Monday's full Council meeting and now said final approval was out of the committee’s hands.

“It is not before us properly any longer,” said Bond. “We can no longer amend this document because it is before City Council now.”

Neighborhood leaders were stunned.

“How could a document move from this committee without the committee having any knowledge of the fact it was moving,” said Yvonne Jones, a committee member who heads the neighborhood planning unit representing Vine City and English Avenue.

About 50 onlookers, mostly residents from the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium, erupted in anger, directing chants of “shame” at Bond and other committee members representing the city.

“There ain’t no way in the world this should go down like this,” said Jones.  

Over shouts from the crowd, Mayor Kasim Reed’s representative on the committee, Katrina Taylor-Parks, explained that the legislation submitted to Council was a mere “placeholder” in case the committee finalized the benefits plan in the next week. That way, she said, the City Council could vote on it Dec. 2, its last meeting before holiday break.

“This was all about process. That is it,” Taylor-Parks insisted.

She batted back claims it was an end-run around the committee. She said submitting the placeholder legislation to Council was discussed at last week’s committee meeting.

“We came back to our last meeting and talked about it at this table and said we were going to put forth a draft. We did discuss it. If no one listened, I apologize, but it was said,” explained Taylor-Parks.

Jones and other neighborhood representatives said they had no clue such action was being taken.

“There was nothing that was sent to us via email. There was no phone. There was no communication to let the committee members know it was moving in that direction,” said Jones.

Enlarge image From left: Neighborhood leader Yvonne Jones, City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, Invest Atlanta's Ernestine Garey, and mayoral designee Katrina Taylor-Parks.

A clearly agitated Taylor-Parks said the city was already doing much to accommodate committee members.

“We were expecting to talk about it tonight. If anyone else has read the legislation, it is clear, number one, that this body does not even have a vote,” said Taylor-Parks.

“Why didn’t you tell us,” interjected committee member Demarcus Peters.

“You can read. We’ve said this all along,” said Taylor-Parks.

“Your tone is disrespectful to the community,” said Peters.

Since committee meetings kicked off this summer, neighborhood leaders have expressed deep distrust of city officials, due in large part to unfulfilled promises of community revitalization related to building the Georgia Dome in the 1990s.

Committee member Howard Beckham, who represents the Vine City and English Avenue Ministerial Alliance, said Bond’s procedural move was further confirmation that the city couldn’t be trusted.

“You wonder why we want an agreement? Because we don’t trust you! And you proved yourself untrustworthy tonight!” said Beckham.

Council President Ceaser Mitchell, who has attended some of the committee meetings over the last few months, said the city’s actions were inexcusable.

“What I have just heard is the most twisted thing I’ve ever heard in my 12 years of being on this Council,” said Mitchell. “The word bamboozled comes to mind.”

He railed against the procedural move and eventually stormed out of the room.

Bond defended himself and said due to his absence at last week's meeting he was under the assumption, through Taylor-Parks, that the committee’s work was nearly done and the procedural move was necessary to get a plan finalized by the end of the year.

“If I owe anyone an apology and people didn’t know, I apologize because I assumed and I believe Ms. Taylor-Parks. I know her character and I believe what she told me and I believe it was mentioned at [last week’s] meeting as was stated,” said Bond.

Ivory Young, a committee member and city councilman who represents several neighborhoods surrounding the proposed stadium, vowed to halt any Council action until the committee approved a final plan.

Ultimately, neighborhood leaders on the committee spearheaded a motion to hold off finalizing the community benefits plan, which they argue is still far too preliminary and vague to be approved.

Bond proceeded to call another meeting for Monday at 5:30 p.m. in hopes of finalizing the plan.

Meanwhile, a City Council committee is scheduled to consider Bond’s community benefits legislation Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., and possibly send it to full Council for approval.

After the meeting, a disturbed Bond said the process needs to draw to a close.

“We’re going to put standards in place so that people can’t mess up this money anymore. Almost every person that was engaged in the shouting and the disruption has had a loan or grant from some city organization and they’ve all defaulted. And so now they want people to come back and give them more money?”

He singled out Council President Mitchell for inciting much of the disruption.  

“He’s raising false expectations. I’m personally deeply dissatisfied with his conduct and I was quite frankly embarrassed by it. I was born and raised in Vine City and for him to come into the community and disrupt it on such important issues is outrageous. He has no credibility with me and only has credibility with the scoundrels in that community.”


Must it always be "either-or"?

The notion that we can either have people-friendly sustainably developed places OR we must live with acres of permanently blighted moats of asphalt surface parking around the new stadium smacks of ignorance and inability of the designers and the client ( the City and The Falcons) of just how many wonderful examples there are out there in the world of both.

Direct pedestrian connection to MARTA should only be the beginning. Parking can go under, over, or be imbedded at the center of livable urban mixed-use developments and green spaces. The alternative is as others have said here: permanently blighted derelict-feeling area where no one wants to go except on game day. Game day is only 8 or 9 days a year. What about the rest of the time?

For several hundred million dollars that it will take to build the stadium, there not only can be but should be as standard opening-day equipment the direct connection to MARTA via sky bridge or other means. It's hard to imagine that it would be otherwise.

urban gardener
urban gardener

Mike Dobbins has saved Atlanta's bacon more than once. Hopefully he can pull another rabbit out of his hat, and Reed will actually have the presence of mind to listen and implement.

But since we can readily observe the wonderous impacts of parking lots on neighborhoods surrounding the Ted, and this is what Reed's office has come up with for Castleberry Hill, I doubt Reed has the intellectual fortitude to comprehend and execute.


Proof that the city really hasn't learned from the mistakes of its past, or from anything else either. There's a large  amount of evidence by now that parking has lots of negative unintended consequences. The amount of parking available is a major factor in determining whether people choose to drive versus walk, bike, carpool, transit, etc., which means it is a major factor in determining traffic congestion, crashes and injuries, local levels of air pollution, and the general transportation environment that people experience in that district. There's also plenty of evidence showing the inverse relationship between the amount of parking and economic development.

If you aren't convinced by research, the lessons are also readily apparent around our current stadiums, especially when it isn't game day. Empty lots, trash, shuttered businesses, neighborhoods that are defined by pavement instead of stores and jobs. When people come to a sports event from out of town or just OTP, they see Atlanta as a depressed and underdeveloped, and they get out as fast as they can. Who would want to stay and shop or dine there? As in some other cities, our sports stadiums should be surrounded by sports bars, restaurants, shopping, as well as offices and condos/apartments that benefit from a lively commercial district year round. Instead, the city has missed out on numerous valuable economic development opportunities - the absence of all those potential property and sales taxes affects the city budget, and all the other taxpayers have to make up the difference.

Not that you don't need any parking. But there are ways to align with market forces so that it has the most positive impact. Counter-intuitively, the city's best strategy would actually be to eliminate parking requirements in this area, and eliminate most of the zoning too... It could be replaced with a 'form based' ordinance that would deal with questions about building height, pedestrian-friendly design (even for garages), etc. But developers could have more options to build what will be successful - some offices, some residences, some stores - and how much parking they need. Most developers know that they have a lot of empty parking spaces at their intown, transit-adjacent residential properties, but they're still required to build it by zoning code. But if they could build a shared garage that had more usage by residents at night, office workers during the day, and sports fans on the weekend, they could actually build much less parking and still meet the needs of all those different people (and maybe charge less for their apartments, too). 

 When will they ever learn?


This shouldn't be a surprise. The 2 main complaints that the Falcons have about the Georgia Dome is that there aren't enough expensive luxury boxes for them to sell and there wasn't enough outdoor parking for "tailgaters" which they believe is desirable to season ticket holders.


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