Questions surround the building of a new open air football stadium

It constantly amazes me that in the United States a 20-year-old dome or a 30-year-old stadium can be viewed as old and out of date. Our practice of tearing down relatively modern structures is the ultimate example of our throw-away society.

We tore down the original Omni Coliseum when it was only 20 years old. We tore down the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium — an open-air, multi-use facility — when it was 30 years old.

(Several local leaders — including my father — Ike Saporta, architect Cecil Alexander and consultant David Peterson — led an unsuccessful Save the Stadium movement. If we had kept the old stadium, we would have had a place to house multiple events including major league soccer).

And on Sunday, Georgia Tech played its last basketball game in Alexander Memorial Stadium along 10th Street. The structure, built in 1956, is being dismantled and will be replaced with a newer sports facility.

Now we’re talking about building a new $700 million open-air stadium for the Atlanta Falcons — which would become the team’s third facility in Atlanta in only five decades.

Given the dollars involved and the public policy issues involved, the community needs to be integrally engaged in forming the best possible solution.

Does the community even need a new stadium? After all, the Georgia Dome has been more than adequate as a home for professional football.

If the decision is made to build a new stadium, is the best location the current leading site — the truck marshalling yard that serves the Georgia World Congress Center?

That site has several drawbacks, including the disruption of the truck marshalling yard. Currently, the yard is ideally located to service the convention center with an underground direct access to the center. This minimizes the number of 18-wheelers traveling on downtown streets, and it also offers great convenience to trade show operators because of its proximity to the center.

The GWCC Authority, and its consultant — Populous, have said land would have to be acquired for a new truck marshalling yard. That begs the question — perhaps we should keep the yard where it is and look to buy another site for the stadium.

Another major drawback of the site is that it is about a 15 minute walk (and not a pleasant walk at that) from MARTA. By comparison, the Georgia Dome sits in between two MARTA stations each less than five minutes away. Perhaps there’s another location that could be better served by MARTA.

The Atlanta Falcons appear to be more interested in the availability of parking — surface parking at that — than being close to transit.

They would like to locate more tail-gating opportunities and envision 10,000 to 20,000 parking spaces surrounding the new stadium.

That’s an awful lot of land dedicated to parked cars for just seven to nine days a year. Nothing destroys an urban area more than acres and acres of vacant land dedicated to surface parking. As evidence, all one needs to do is go to the site of the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium next to Turner Field to see the negative impact of acres and acres of asphalt.

No matter where a new stadium is located, the Falcons and the community must do everything they can to enliven rather than deaden the surrounding area.

Across Northside Drive from the truck marshalling yard is the Antioch Baptist Church North.

“We have been sitting here for 133 years,” said Joe Beasley, Antioch’s human resources director. The church, with its 15,000 members, has two services on Sundays — one at 8 a.m. and one at 11 a.m. “We are not going to allow an amusement center to come in here and disrupt our services.”

Beasley, however, said the community would welcome a new stadium if it would help build the community. Antioch just happens to own 38 acres around the church, so it has a vested interest in the impact the stadium will have on the neighborhood.

“To have 10,000 parking spaces and an open air park, I don’t know if that’s the highest and best use,” Beasley said. “It would be great if we could have something that could draw people in 365 days out of the year.”

Later Beasley said: “We are not going to let them cram a stadium down our throats, but we are open to a partnership.”

The proposed open air stadium also brings up some other questions. The stadium would have fewer seats than the Georgia Dome — 65,000 versus 80,000 (even though the new stadium could add another 10,000 temporary seats for special events).

It would have fewer suites — 111 versus about 140 in the Georgia Dome. It would have more club seats — 7,500 than the current Dome.

The financial scenario would call for more expensive suites and club seats. The idea is that they would be able to command higher prices from companies that would pay more so they could enjoy the games while being protected from the elements.

But that will make games even less affordable for the Average Joe or Jane. And for those sitting in the regular seats, they will be subjected to rain and cold weather. In short, it’s quite possible that Falcons games will become less pleasant experiences for the regular football fan.

And that doesn’t include the premium parking charges, which could be as much as $50 a space for tailgaters.

I can’t help but wonder whether that’s a smart strategy for the Atlanta Falcons and the National Football League.

After all, with advances in technology, it may become more and more attractive (and certainly more affordable) to just watch the game from the comfort from one’s own home with our HDTVs. Plus, the beer is closer and cheaper.

How sad it would be if this new open air stadium became obsolete in 10, 20, 30 years — after hundreds of millions of dollars had been sunk in the ground.

But again, that is the American way.

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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