Atlanta – our new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a keeper

By Maria Saporta

From the first time I saw the design for the then-unnamed new Falcons stadium in October 2013, I was smitten.

Architect Bill Johnson poetically described how the first-of-its-kind retractable roof would open with eight panels traveling along octagonal tracks to create the opening by saying: “The heavens will open up.”

While the retractable roof is still being calibrated (it will be fully functional later this fall), the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium did not disappoint during its opening event – an exhibition game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals.

Mercedes Benz Stadium

Fans enter the Mercedes-Benz Stadium Aug. 26 for the first game in the new venue (Photo by Maria Saorta)

Four years ago, Johnson said the challenge in design today is to create “look up” moments – to get people to put down their cell phones and become an engaged part of the stadium experience.

There’ are no shortage of experiences to inhale in the new stadium – from the biggest-ever halo video board to the multiple gathering places where fans actually can be on the field to being able to watch the game from the Skybridge with Atlanta’s skyline as a backdrop.

“This is high cotton,” said Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens while visiting the AMG Lounge next to the Mercedes Benz Club.

And then Dickens expressed nostalgia for the Georgia Dome, a venue he loved – one that felt comfortable and familiar.

This is Atlanta’s story. We build. We tear things down. And then we rebuild. We’re a city of shifting sands. Instead of building edifices to last centuries, most of our mega-sports venues have lasted less than 30 years.

First came the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium – a multipurpose facility that opened on April 9, 1965. It was the first home for the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Braves. It was where Hank Aaron broke the homerun record. And it’s where Atlanta won its first and only world championship in 1995.

It was torn down after the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. By that time the Atlanta Falcons had started playing in the Georgia Dome, which opened in 1992; and  in 1997, the Atlanta Braves moved into the reconfigured Olympic Stadium that was transformed into Turner Field.

sculpture MBS

The gigantic metal bird becomes a gathering spot for fans coming to the venue (Photo by Maria Saporta)

And let’s not forget the Omni Coliseum, the first home of the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Flames, which opened in 1972. It lasted exactly 25 years – demolished on July 26, 1997.

Philips Arena was built on the same footprint as the Omni, and it opened on Sept. 19, 1999. The new owners of the Atlanta Hawks have decided it’s time for a major retrofit of Philips Arena – one that will dramatically change the inside bowl of the venue. But to the credit of the city and the new owners, they are not tearing down the building and starting over.

The year 2017 will go down as a high watermark year for Atlanta’s professional sports venues. On March 31, the Atlanta Braves opened the new SunTrust Park in Cobb County, leaving behind Turner Field. Georgia State University is reconfiguring that stadium as home for its football team.

And on Aug. 26, the Atlanta Falcons played (and lost) their first game in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium – a venue Dickens described as a show-stopper with all the latest “bells and whistles.”

Getting to this point was full of drama – the costs for the stadium with the retractable roof kept climbing – with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank being responsible for all price increases. In order for the new stadium to be built next to two MARTA stations, the Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center had to acquire two historic African-American churches – a painful and expensive move.

But it all felt worthwhile as the stadium glistened on opening day. Those memories of stops and starts were in our rear view mirror. While at the stadium, I saw the steeple of the new Friendship Baptist Church keeping an eye on Atlanta’s modern temple for football, soccer and entertainment.

And the Georgia Dome? It will bite the dust in an implosion on Nov. 20.

My former AJC colleague, Mark Bradley, wrote two excellent columns this week – one thanking the Georgia Dome for its role in the evolution of Atlanta. “The Dome changed Atlanta and Atlanta’s sports,” Bradley wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The Dome made us a destination for every major event. Without the Dome, there would have been no Super Bowl here, no continuing SEC championship, no Final Four beyond the Omni’s 1977 one-off. There would have been no Olympics.”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

The crowd carries a super-size Falcons logo through the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium

And then he wrote a column Saturday night after visiting Mercedes Benz Stadium for the first time calling it spectacular.

“Mercedes-Benz Stadium was always drawn to palatial scale, and it achieves that exalted status,” Bradley wrote. “It’s pretty nice, really nice, nicer than nice.”

A beaming Tommy Holder, CEO of Holder Construction – part of the construction team that built MBS, clearly was feeling good Saturday night.

“I’m very proud and excited this day is finally here and the city can enjoy this facility,” Holder said. “I’m extraordinarily proud of my team.”

Mike Egan, an attorney who joined the Blank organization, smiled as he jokingly said: “Here we go – another stadium.” Egan had helped negotiate several of the complex legal agreements for the Falcons organization, and Saturday night was an opportunity to reap the benefits of everyone’s hard work.

“At long last,” said Kenny Blank, the eldest son of Arthur Blank, said before the game, Kenny, and his wife, Nancy, were in the AMG Lounge – enjoying refreshments before the game. The family had arrived at 2 p.m. to fully savor opening day.

Kenny Blank verbalized my own thoughts. Other great cities treasure their architectural jewels – keeping them as cornerstones for generations, even centuries.

Can the Mercedes Benz Stadium stop Atlanta’s propensity to demolish and rebuild?

Can we as a community finally accept that we’ve spent enough time, money and energy building cathedrals for our professional sports teams?

Can we resist pressure from the National Football League to build or rehab stadiums in order to host mega-events like the Super Bowl?

Can we as a city finally celebrate where we are and not keep trying to reinvent ourselves into a newer, bigger and pricier city?

The Mercedes-Benz Stadium can be our exclamation point – an anchor for an Atlanta that’s here to stay.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

New Mercedes-Benz Stadium offers many “look up” moments to give fans a complete experience (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Fans watch the scene inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium from the Skybridge (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Friendship Baptist Church

Friendship Baptist Church keeps an eye on the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

From the Mercedes-Benz Club, fans actually can watch the game from the field (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

A view of the Mercedes-Benz Lounge – an area reserved for suite-holders, premium club seats and special guests (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

9 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    Let’s revisit the roof in a year and learn whether it ever operates consistently. Operation will become more challenging as wind, debris, and decay take their toll.
    The roof design is an architect’s conceit and violates a primary rule of good design: Simplicity Is Eloquence. The roof is unnecessarily complex and not eloquent. If it were eloquent it would have been fully operational months ago.Report

    Reply
  2. brainstar8 says:

    Good to know it’s a keeper, as City of Atlanta taxpayers had little say when Babyman Reed and Arthur Blank pushed it through. It’s doubtful it will make much difference in the success of the stumbling Falcons, but this to be seen. Hmmm, I think I’ve thought this many times over the years.Report

    Reply
    • atlman says:

      Funny how so many people who despise the Falcons stadium – which actually cost the taxpayers less than $100 million – absolutely love the new Braves stadium that will wind up costing taxpayers nearly 4 times that. Despite the fact that the Falcons stadium will still essentially be government-owned (by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority) but a private company will own and control everything revenue-generating about the Braves stadium save the stadium itself.

      Incidentally, the state of Georgia merely punted the already done deal for Blank’s new stadium for political purposes … the mostly white state GOP did not want to be seen as acting on behalf of the mostly black Democrat city of Atlanta. The truth is that the deal was negotiated because the state – which actually owns and maintains the Georgia World Congress Center Authority – did not want Blank to relocate to Cobb County, to either Marietta or Smyrna with a stadium that would have cost “only” $750 million dollars. The state knew that if that had been done, the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center would have been stuck holding high school sporting events and third tier concerts and conventions because all of the major sporting events and conventions would have gone to the newer facility in Cobb County. Oh yes, and the vast majority of the public money that went to the new stadium was from a hotel-motel tax that the city can’t use. Even though it is collected in Atlanta, it is technically a state revenue source that can only be spent on the Georgia World Congress Center, the Georgia Dome and things related to tourism. The state specifically acted to prevent the city of Atlanta from spending the money on things like education, infrastructure, housing, health care, law enforcement, fire protection etc. when it created the hotel-motel tax in the 1970s when the Georgia World Congress Center was constructed. The city has never asked for the tax money generated in Atlanta to be, you know, actually spent on and controlled by Atlanta, but if they did good luck, with the state being run by mostly suburban and rural Democrats from the 70s to the 2000s and being run by suburban Republicans now … it wouldn’t happen.

      That is the real story, but hey folks more interested in playing partisan and racial games have no interest in the facts. To be honest both sides do it (to borrow from Trump after Charlottesville, and for the most part Trump did get that right … antifa and BLM is responsible for inciting and committing a ton of violence and have been for years with the mainstream media mostly ignoring it). The Cobb County Braves haven’t become anywhere near the traffic and logistics debacle that nearly everyone predicted that it would be. If anything, the Braves’ moving to Cobb County actually benefited regional transportation by freeing up the downtown connector 81 days a year (more or less). And the city of Atlanta benefited by being able to give the Turner Field site to Georgia State University and private developers, where it will generate far more tax revenue than the Braves ever did (and it will free the city from fighting with the county over running and maintaining Turner Field). But the fact still remains that Cobb County paid far more public money for their stadium than Atlanta did for theirs, and unlike the Falcons stadium with the hotel-motel tax, the Cobb County revenue came from the general fund that could have been used for infrastructure, transportation, public safety, parks etc. That not one GOPer raised a real peep over this shows that the party of alleged fiscal conservatism is often just a bunch of frauds who uses fiscal conservative rhetoric to paper over thinly veiled Dixiecrat impulses. They don’t mind tax and spend politics so long as they get to control the purse strings and use it to benefit themselves and their own communities.Report

      Reply
      • Robert Johnson says:

        Yes….somehow the idea of a “world class city” w/o a football stadium is an intellectual disconnect for some. As to the Braves, there have been no traffic hassles because they suck. Watch any news report and there are more empty seats in the outfield than asses in the seats….hence no traffic issues. As to GSU…what makes you think there will tax revenues from a tax-free entity? Do you somehow think that there will be more events with more people and hence more sales tax than the 82 dates for the Braves? The only increased tax revenues will be from the associated private development when and if the private development actually moves forward.Report

        Reply
  3. Robert Johnson says:

    Architecturally on the outside, this thing is a disaster. On MLK and Northside, there is no relationship in scale to the people who will actually use/visit/work at the site just enormous blank walls; except for the omnipresent MB logos. Inside, I understand it is phenomenal but hopefully we do not judge such a structure only from that perspective. Also Maria, we build, we tear down, and we build again should not be the moniker for a great city. Hopefully, Arthur’s $1.5 billion has created a facility that has more than a 20 year lifespan.Report

    Reply
  4. metitometin says:

    So we’re judging a city by how big our sports stadiums are now? How is that going to create good jobs? How is it really going to improve downtown when it only hosts a few events a year? How can ordinary citizens benefit from it when the ticket prices are too high and most people can’t even get tickets to most events? I like sports as much as anyone but this building is a monument to wealth and the 1%. How about fixing downtown so it’s not a haven for the homeless and the police and looks like Armageddon all the time? How about fixing the roads? How about fixing the schools? How about fixing health care? How about fixing the environment? How about adding to public transit? How about building affordable housing so everyone isn’t moving 50 miles outside the city because that’s all they can afford? How about creating good jobs? This country is rapidly turning into an Oligarchy of the 1%Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?