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Atlanta Hawks eye railroad gulch near Philips Arena for new attraction

By Douglas Sams and Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on April 4, 2014

The Atlanta Hawks aren’t sitting on the bench as the city’s other pro teams try to lure more fans with new stadiums and entertainment venues.

Bruce Levenson, managing partner of the Hawks, said team officials are in the preliminary stages of “reimagining” their home, Philips Arena, and the area around it, a 120-acre collection of downtown parking lots and railways called the Gulch.

The idea comes as the Atlanta Falcons prepare to start construction on a more than $1 billion downtown stadium and the Braves get ready to name the development team for a mixed-use project around their proposed Cobb County ballpark. Like the Falcons and Braves, the Hawks want to create a richer experience to pull fans off their couches and get them to the game.

“We have this enormous, infamously called Gulch area right next to our arena,” Levenson said in an exclusive interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We’ve got to figure out how to make that a destination spot for our fans.”

At best, the plan is in its infancy. The Hawks have not hired an architect or master planner. They haven’t had formal discussions with developers. For now, it’s essentially brainstorming. Ideas include adding a hotel/casino. (See related story on Page 23A.)

“What we envision is everything from a world-class practice court, to a modern sports medicine complex, to a sports entertainment center,” said Rutherford Seydel, co-owner of the Hawks.

The next step could involve exchanging ideas with political and business leaders and stakeholders.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the highest-profile businessman in Atlanta sports, said he would welcome those discussions.

“We would certainly be open to talking to the Hawks and Philips Arena,” Blank said. “As much connectivity as we can have, the better off we all will be.”

The Hawks’ timing seems sound.

This year downtown will open two big attractions, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame.

“With all the activity downtown, it’s a good time for the Hawks and Philips Arena to be looking into this,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “We are entering a new environment among our sports teams where they are coming outside their arenas to increase the fan experience.”

The heart of the city — though it hasn’t seen the influx of capital that Buckhead and Midtown have since the Great Recession ended — is still poised to benefit from a national trend toward greater investment in urban areas.

The Gulch is one of Atlanta’s best-known and most complex development sites — a former freight yard surrounded by Centennial Olympic Park Drive, and Mitchell, Spring and Marietta streets. Most people simply drive over the Gulch without even noticing it.

“It’s a symbolic hole in the heart of the region that is difficult to traverse,” said Douglas Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“It’s a phenomenal amount of land in a major city and it’s ripe for something to happen,” said Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc.

But redeveloping The Gulch remains challenging.

It has a slew of stakeholders, including MARTA, federal agencies, state and city leaders, Norfolk Southern and local businesses.

In recent years the Georgia Department of Transportation and other groups have worked on various plans that could turn The Gulch into a regional hub called the Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal for MARTA rail and buses, Gwinnett County Transit, Cobb Community Transit and Greyhound, among others.

But the momentum for that project has stalled because there’s little political will for it at the local or state level.

“A multimodal station is in our future, hopefully sooner rather than later,” Seydel said. “It will happen when we get some visionary political leadership that understands that we can’t have a strong metro area without a strong central core.” Cousins, Forest City Enterprises Inc. and the Atlanta developer The Integral Group LLC completed a master plan for The Gulch last year. The project awaits a federal environmental impact assessment that could take another year to complete.

Any developer that acquires the site “can do whatever they wish,” but until the environmental work is done and approved, the project can’t receive federal funding, the Georgia DOT said in a statement.

Gellerstedt said it’s difficult to predict what impact the Hawks can have on The Gulch without knowing the scope of their project. That may take a while to come into focus.

Even so, Gellerstedt said, “Any effort to continue to revitalize that area of town with more activity and to bring more people there for reasons other than the game is fantastic.”

Hawks officials look to several existing arenas for inspiration.

This January the team got its first look at O2 Arena, known as a world-class music and sports venue, when it played in London. Other arenas, such as Staples Center in Los Angeles, have seen hotels, stores and restaurants spring up around them.

The Hawks believe something like that is possible next to Philips. The question is how to make it happen.

“It all has to be about creating a richer experience for our fans,” Levenson said. “That’s the bottom line.”

“It’s a phenomenal amount of land in a major city and it’s ripe for something to happen.” Larry Gellerstedt

­— Staff Writer Amy Wenk contributed to this story.

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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