GSU awaits a Turner Field of dreams
By Doug Sams and Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on November 21, 2014
Georgia State University President Mark Becker believes a barren stretch of Atlanta’s Capitol Avenue can flourish, becoming a stronger link between school’s growing downtown campus and its proposed redevelopment of Turner Field.
Georgia State students, who use the parking around Turner Field to catch a shuttle bus to the main campus, could instead hop on the Atlanta Street Car.
Turner Field, where the Braves would play until the 2017 season, would become the new home of Georgia State’s football and baseball stadiums, student housing and possibly new single-family residences.
“Our hope is to see the redevelopment of the entire corridor,” Becker said in a Nov. 17 interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We believe its future looks very different from its past.”
Becker’s comments echo similar thoughts about the future of Capitol Avenue, which links Turner Field to downtown’s office sector, its government district and the students and staff of Georgia State. Developers, urban planners, and smart-growth advocates such as Jeff Speck have also emphasized any redevelopment of Turner Field needs to focus on Capitol Avenue.
Several thousand students already use the corridor. Georgia State leases 1,400 parking spaces in one of the Turner Field parking lots, and students catch a bus from there to classes on campus.
Capitol Avenue “creates a continuity,” Becker said, between the center of the campus including Woodruff Park and the proposed redevelopment of Turner Field. Becker said the university would eventually like to see some fixed transit route along the corridor.
Transit options for the area have been on the drawing board for decades. Original plans for MARTA had a line connecting to what was then Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. The Braves also explored a Maglev train from the Georgia State MARTA station to the ballpark.
Before the 2012 transportation referendum, the Metro Atlanta Chamber surveyed which projects would be most popular among voters. A rail line to Turner Field was the top choice, but it never made the project list.
Becker’s comments come the heels of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed saying recently that Turner Field and the parking lots around it are on the verge of being sold. Reed’s disclosure caught the university president off-guard.
Becker, whose school has clout as the biggest economic development catalyst for downtown, said he called Reed for clarity.
“What we know is that he likes our proposal,” Becker said.
Realistically, though, many questions linger over the Turner Field project. The biggest: “How do you bring this site to market,” Becker said.
The property cannot be put up for sale until the Braves agree to end their lease, which expires at the end of 2016. The team is considering how it could opt out of that agreement earlier and yet remain at Turner Field.
The Braves are waiting on the outcome of challenges to Cobb County’s plan to fund the construction of the team’s new SunTrust Park with almost $400 million in bond financing. The appeals have been placed on the Georgia Supreme Court’s February calendar.
The redevelopment of Turner Field would be the long-awaited spark for neighborhoods around the ballpark, such as Pittsburgh, Summerhill, and Mechanicsville.
“It would bring a vitality,” Becker said. “Even Grant Park would benefit.”
Mark Riley, whose Urban Realty Partners has new projects and development sites along Memorial Drive just east of Capitol Avenue, said, “I think Turner Field has proven that a stadium surrounded by parking lots isn’t an active urban area that people want to come to.”
Riley added, “You need people living there every day. Georgia State provides that chance. If those parking lots can become bright, vibrant areas it helps the entire [south downtown] area.”
A streetcar connection along Capitol Avenue is potentially more likely with Georgia State as the anchor tenant of a Turner Field project. Requests continue for a streetcar to serve the ballpark’s surrounding neighborhoods.
Capitol Avenue is part of the “Atlanta Beltline Strategic Implementation Plan” for transit, Jennifer Ball, vice president of planning and economic development for Central Atlanta Progress, said in an e-mail to Atlanta Business Chronicle.
The segment, however, has not been a priority for Atlanta BeltLine officials and the city of Atlanta, which have so far focused their efforts and resources to expand the streetcar along other routes.
The streetcar could connect to the nearby Georgia State University station, which is about a 20-minute walk along Capitol Avenue from Turner Field.
The Beltline, the massive redevelopment of abandoned rail lines to link intown neighborhoods and spark investment across the city, also crosses just south of Turner Field.
BeltLine officials would have to answer why the segment has not been prioritized for transit, Ball said.