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‘Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence:’ New book is sweeping in scope, precise in detail

By David Pendered

A new book by three Atlanta urban planners examines the collaboration by public and private sectors to prepare the city to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

‘Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence: How the 1996 Games Revived a Struggling City’ chronicles the public private partnership that planned and built for Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games. Credit: arcadiapublishing.com

Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence: How the 1996 Games Revived a Struggling City intends to fill a gap in Atlanta’s history. The book provides insights on the synergy established among state, city and private entities to devise and implement a $3 billion construction program for work that had to be finished on time.

Three major entities facilitated preparations for Atlanta’s games, including a state authority (MAOGA – Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority); the City of Atlanta; and a private organization (ACOG – Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games). It was a “messy structure,” the book contends, but yielded significant results:

  • “Given its complexity, the evolving delivery structure was more transparent and interactive than a top-down organization would have permitted, reflecting the inclusive richness of a broader public. Perhaps more important, people with little in common, who may have never even met, had to listen to one another across the chasms of race and class.”

Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence grew from conversations with a Swiss student of city planning who was working on her doctoral dissertation. Margarita Sanudo had visited Atlanta in 2011 in hopes of learning details about Atlanta’s Olympics preparations, which were to be included in her evaluation of the processes used by four Olympic cities – Athens, Atlanta, Barcelona and Sydney. Atlanta was the only city among the four where she could not locate adequate information about preparations by a host city, according to the book.

Centennial Olympic Park represents the public partnership responsible for pre-Olympic preparations for the games. The private ACOG had a vision for the park and the state’s Georgia World Congress Center assembled 21 acres of commercial properties, built the park and manages it to this day. Credit: Jeb Dobbins

The student met with the three urban planners who had shaped Atlanta’s planning effort, and who ultimately wrote Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence – Mike Dobbins, Leon Eplan and Randall Roark.

Their telling focuses on the mandate of Maynard Jackson, the Atlanta mayor who supported the privately led effort to secure the Centennial Olympic Games and presided over initial planning after the 1991 announcement of Atlanta as the 1996 host city. Jackson wanted the city to realize measurable benefits from hosting the games. The book observes:

  • “In 1992, Mayor Jackson put forth a dual agenda for the Olympics. For Andrew Young and others on the bid committee, the city’s task was to put on a successful athletic event. Mayor Maynard Jackson, on the other hand, described the challenge as scaling the ‘twin peaks of Mount Olympus’: one peak was to stage a spectacular Olympics, the other was to use the games to revitalize inner-city Atlanta. Jackson’s more expansive view raised expectations for what could and should be done during Olympic preparations and broadened the debate over what hosting the games should mean for the city’s residents.”
Maynard Jackson

Maynard Jackson
Credit: maynardmovie.com

The twin mandate from the mayor’s office resulted in a complex system to oversee preparations.

The project entailed the requisite venues for competition, and accommodations, eateries and gathering places for spectators and visitors. The second peak of Jackson’s plan envisioned the retooling of public spaces and struggling neighborhoods, much of it within the three-mile circle around central Atlanta that the book notes contained “most of the Olympic venues and the city’s development program initiatives.”

Details that follow are the kind that may survive mainly in the notebooks of urban planners, and speak to the attention to detail in preparing the city for the world’s largest peacetime gathering. Atlanta’s Olympics legacy includes:

The Fifth Street Bridge, over the Downtown Connector, became a ‘tree-lined, green, well-lighted, space for outdoor events and lounging,’ through the collaboration of the state DOT, City of Atlanta, Georgia Tech and other sources, according to ‘Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence.’ Credit: Jeb Dobbins

  • “Over 150 historic markers of various kinds were installed, over half of which were in African American neighborhoods, primarily in Sweet Auburn and the Atlanta University area.
  • “Over 50 pedestrian maps and signs, 29 of which contained historic interpretive panels, in a downtown where there were almost none.
  • “The installation of 1,700 new streetlights and 2,400 trees across 12 miles of fully reconstructed streetscapes and 20 miles of neighborhood street and sidewalk repairs.
  • “More than 3,400 sub-standard houses were demolished, an additional 200 vacant lots were cleaned, volunteers refurbished nearby playgrounds, 280 homes were painted….”

The effort to fulfill Jackson’s goal of reviving blighted neighborhoods included multiple organizational changes, the book observes. One major achievement was the establishment of 12 community development corporations (CDCs) in several poor neighborhoods to help devise and implement planning and public funding.

Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence concludes with this look to the future:

Freedom Park was completed in advance of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games with an assortment of public and private funds. Credit: Jeb Dobbins

  • “Using the Olympics opportunity, the city and its private sector adopted new policies, plans, urban design and projects to respond to and further stimulate the new city building partnerships to benefit all its citizens, not perfect, but a start. Atlanta is teeming with life and civic amenities and just may become a city for all. “

Notes to readers:

“Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence: How the 1996 Games Revived a Struggling City” is to be available May 3 from Arcadia Publishing. The overview page is here.

The author profiles provided by Arcadia are, in their order on the book cover:

Mike Dobbins

  • “Michael Dobbins, FAICP, FAIA, succeeded [former Atlanta Planning and Development Commissioner Leon] Eplan in 1996, becoming Atlanta’s commissioner of planning, development and neighborhood conservation for the following six years. Serving in that position during and after the Games, he was able to finalize several uncompleted ODP projects [Olympic Development Program ] following the Games, as well as oversee several major post-Olympics initiatives that were related to or induced by the Games.

    Leon Eplan

  • “Leon S. Eplan, FAICP, was twice Atlanta’s commissioner of planning and development before and then during the six-year lead-up to the Games. He initiated and prepared the city’s Olympic Development Program and then helped to establish its Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta. [Leon Eplan died April 15. Maria Saporta provides personal remembrances in her story, ‘Atlanta is better because of Leon Eplan (1928-2021′)

    Randall Roark

  • “H. Randal Roark, FAICP, is a retired professor of the College of Planning Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology and served as director of planning and design for the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta for the 1996 Games.”
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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