By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on September 11, 2015.
Atlanta Falcons executives view MARTA as one of the top selling points of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
As evidence, they are working with the City of Atlanta on a pedestrian bridge that will cross over Northside Drive to connect the Vine City MARTA station with the new stadium.
The City of Atlanta has issued a request-for-proposals for a “design-build” 15-foot-wide and 110-foot-long pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive to “provide pedestrians safe and unimpeded access” to the Mecedes-Benz Stadium. Proposals are due Sept. 30.
“The city is working very hard to make sure we deliver a best-in-class bridge,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. “We have drilled down to make sure we deliver a product that is consistent with the building it is being connected to — one of mutual excellence.”
The bridge is only one component of a larger vision to leverage the unique location of the new stadium to rail transit and to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment between the Westside communities and the Georgia World Congress Center.
“We are blessed to live in a city that has two rail stops within 200 yards of either end of the current stadium and the new stadium,” said Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons who has become MARTA’s biggest champion within his organization. “In my mind, long-term MARTA is going to have a very, very positive impact on the stadium and its ability to host a myriad of major events including the SEC Championships. We are blessed to live in a city that has a rail system like MARTA.”
It was by listening to their fans that the Atlanta Falcons developed a whole new appreciation for MARTA.
In a 2014 survey of their fans, they found that 57 percent of MARTA riders expressed satisfaction with their combined arrival and departure experience. That compared to an average of 38 percent for fans driving to the Georgia Dome — or a 50 percent higher satisfaction rate.
Also, of all the fans surveyed, about 35 percent took public transportation.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank plus several members of his team recently held a meeting with Keith Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO. The meeting lasted more than two hours and explored a variety of ways that MARTA and Mercedes-Benz Stadium could work more closely together through marketing, co-branding and partnerships.
“It’s a great credit to Keith and MARTA that fans are saying that the best way to get to the games is MARTA,” Blank said in a recent interview. “We are open to doing anything we can do to create a higher level experience for our fans. MARTA has been a good partner for us. And obviously public transportation was one of the reasons we picked our site downtown.”
The growing partnership is both a physical one and marketing one.
“We have spent the past year talking with them and working with them on how to design the Vine City Station to best serve the fans for the games as well as serve those who live in the neighborhood all the time,” Parker said. “If you are trying to move 15,000 people in a very short period of time, an overpass can work well.”
There is concern, however, that an overpass would detract from a pedestrian experience at street level.
There are many different people currently involved in designing plans for how to create a friendly connection between the Westside communities and the overwhelming buildings on the other side of Northside Drive — the Georgia World Congress Center, the Georgia Dome (which will eventually be torn down) and the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will open in 2017.
When asked about the pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive, Blank responded, “It’s in the plans. It’s going to get built. It will happen. But there are a lot of other enhancements to Northside Drive that need to happen to make it more pedestrian-friendly. All of that is not going to happen by 2017.”
Because it is a state highway, the future design of Northside Drive will need the buy-in of the Georgia Department of Transportation. Several people involved in the community are hoping that GDOT will make it a “complete street” with wide sidewalks, bicycle paths and perhaps a landscaped median as well as well-defined crosswalks.
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, has hired engineering firm Kimley-Horn and Associates “to raise our collective consciousness to what the community could do to improve the pedestrian experience along Northside Drive” from the new stadium to Ivan Allen Boulevard.
“These ideas are aspirational and include sidewalk improvements, new pedestrian crossings and other enhancements that would create a better feel between the neighborhood and property owners on the west side of Northside Drive and the new stadium and GWCC campus on the east side,” Robinson added.
Mayor Reed agreed. “I’m on board with having a boulevard feel to Northside Drive,” he said.
But Robinson brought in a reality check saying it will take money to make those pedestrian improvements.
“We need to figure out how we can prioritize and implement these ideas,” Robinson said. “Of course, access to the Vine City MARTA Station and plans for the redesign of the station will be critically important to the experience of pedestrians.”
When it comes to the pedestrian bridge, Mayor Reed said he is prepared to increase the budget so that it will have a top quality design. Several parties will be able to weigh in on the bridge and the surrounding pedestrian improvements.
“There are a lot of discussions going on about that with lots of interested parties — the city, the community, Georgia World Congress Center, MARTA, Central Atlanta Progress and us,” McKay said. “We have had meetings, and we will have more meetings, and I can assure you that connectivity is a major part of it. We are certainly a proponent of the bridge, but we also understand that the ultimate design of it is important.”
Parker said that MARTA will have an opportunity to give input.
“It would be their design that we would give comments on to make sure it makes sense for MARTA,” said Parker, adding that the street design was at least as important. “We favor creating bikeable, walkable pathways. MARTA wants to play into the concept of creating a great place for people to come to instead of people just staying in their cars.”
The different players also need to decide what will happen to the three-block stump known as the old Martin Luther King Jr. Drive between Northside and Tatnall Street. What is now Mitchell Street will become the new Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from Northside to Tatnall Street.
One idea: turn it into a pedestrian mall with street-level retail on both sides.
As the Falcons, MARTA, the city and other players try to work out the physical improvements, the transit agency and the football team are exploring new partnership opportunities.
One is happening at the first home season game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 14. Coors is offering 12,500 free round-trip MARTA rides to Falcons fans in a tri-party partnership. That keeps fans who have been drinking Coors at the game from getting behind the wheel.
“There are there are tremendous opportunities for us to brand together,” Parker said, including Falcons signage on buses and trains to providing MARTA passes to season ticket holders or regular fans.
A real sea change has occurred Parker said because MARTA officials are now invited to be part of the sales team for major events.
At the announcement of the 10-year extension of the SEC Championships, Commissioner Greg Sankey said one reason Atlanta was chosen was accessibility. “You have hotels downtown for fans, and you have suburbanites who can park and ride MARTA to the games,” he said.
When the Falcons were trying to decide whether to locate the new stadium, McKay seemed to favor the northern site about a half-mile from the Georgia Dome and MARTA.
“I give the mayor credit,” McKay said. “He kept pushing for the south site, and I think long term, that site will be better for Atlanta and the state because we will be to attract the big events for a long time. With the connections to the hotels, the airport, Lenox, you have a real ability to get around.”
McKay, who is taping a radio spot for MARTA to encourage fans to ride transit to the games, is walking the walk. He has pledged to take MARTA to every home game – just as he has to the pre-season games and the Gold Cup.
“I want to see the fan’s experience and to see how we can enhance it,” McKay said. “My experiences on MARTA have been extremely positive and way better than people’s perception of MARTA. I think that’s because people’s perception is based upon the history of what MARTA was, not on what MARTA is today.”