By Maria Saporta
Funny how the world works.
For decades, Atlanta has been viewed as an auto-centric, sprawling city with few accolades for being pedestrian-friendly or transit-accessible.
But listening to the folks from the National Football League and the Super Bowl Host Committee, Atlanta is being portrayed as a totally different city.
In the days leading up to, during and after the Super Bowl LIII, the Atlanta painted by those leaders was as a city with a walkable and transit-friendly downtown.
“One of things that has made this Super Bowl special is just how walkable and compact this town is,” said Peter O’Reilly, NFL senior vice president of events. “People are able to move so easily throughout the campus. It is as compact a Super Bowl campus as we have seen in recent years.”
Dan Corso, chair of the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee and president of the Atlanta Sports Council, said one of the city’s top selling points is the fact that so many venues are centered downtown within walking distance of more than 10,000 hotel rooms in the central city.
“We’re a top destination,” Corso said. “It begins with our campus. Of the 15 official NFL events, 13 are on our campus. The next highest in recent years was six events on one campus. Everything is walkable. Everything is easier to plan when everything is this close.”
On the Monday morning after the Super Bowl, the messaging was the same.
O’Reilly said Atlanta really stands out among Super Bowl host cities.
“It’s hard to be quite as compact as Atlanta,” O’Reilly said. “Atlanta really showcased its walkability.”
The statistics bear that out.
Of the 15 official NFL events, 13 were within the downtown campus.
“And the 14thevent (the NFL Honors award show) was at the Fox,” said Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons. “MARTA has really helped a lot. It creates connectivity.”
That certainly is true until one considers the connectivity between the Westside communities and the NFL campus. The revitalization of the Westside has been front-and-center of numerous efforts by Atlanta civic and business leaders, including Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy.
But there’s a moat separating the Westside from the downtown sports, convention and entertainment district, and it is called Northside Drive.
“The great divide in the state of Georgia is Northside Drive,” Cathy said in a 2015 interview. “I have a very deep conviction about what it says about our society; about what it says about our own backyard. This is happening on our watch. We have got to fix it.”
At the time Cathy described one of his recurring nightmares – that Atlanta would be exposed as a tale of two cities.
“The horror that I think of is when the Goodyear blimp is flying over the new stadium with Atlanta’s beautiful skyline in the background,” Cathy said when the stadium was just coming out of the ground. “And then the blimp shows the area on the other side of the stadium, and it looks like a scene out of Baghdad.”
For security reasons, the NFL created an impenetrable barrier along Northside Drive during the Big Game – literally sealing off the Westside from all the activities inside the Super Bowl campus.
The controversial Northside Drive pedestrian bridge, which had been sold to the community as a way to connect the Westside communities to downtown, was closed to the general public – except for credentialed media who were covering the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Sadly, there was little walkability and connectivity for Westside residents who wanted to take part in Super Bowl activities.
I am on record for being strongly against the pedestrian bridge from when it was first proposed four years ago and expected to cost between $6 million and $10 million. I argued that the money would be much more wisely spent turning Northside Drive into a complete street – a pedestrian-friendly boulevard with safe, welcoming crosswalks along the corridor.
Recently, it appears that the city spent at least $23 million and possibly as much as $27 million to build the bridge – a clear waste of good money that would have been better spent creating true walkability along Northside Drive. It’s an argument I’ve made repeatedly over the years, and one that has continued to fall on mostly deaf ears.
At the ribbon-cutting of the renovated John F. Kennedy Park on Jan. 31, I asked Mayor Bottoms about Atlanta’s walkability and the closing of the Northside pedestrian bridge.
“We are getting better by the day,” the mayor said about Atlanta’s walkability. “While we haven’t always been considered a pedestrian-friendly city, whenever you have an event downtown, we have a walkable area.”
Bottoms said the decision to close off the pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive was done by the various federal, state and local agencies who wanted to be sure we had a secure Super Bowl experience.
“We know that bridge will be there long after the game is gone,” Bottoms said. “We didn’t make either/or choices. That bridge wasn’t just put there for the Super Bowl. We had the MLS championship. It’s not just about one event. We will not forgo public safety.”
And yet it begs the question. Couldn’t we have spent that money far more wisely and had greater community impact if we had created a pedestrian-friendly corridor along Northside Drive rather than on a bridge that is rarely used?
And that begs another question. Don’t we still need to turn Northside Drive into a complete street with wide sidewalks, bicycle lanes, a landscaped median and safe crosswalks?
The holdup has been the Georgia Department of Transportation, which wants to preserve the state highway for fast-moving automobile traffic. It has been conducting a study of the Northside Drive Corridor from West Midtown to West End.
But the immediate need is the stretch from Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard to the new Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, formerly Mitchell Street. Central Atlanta Progress has commissioned design plans for such a corridor, but those plans have yet to gain much traction.
Here is another irony. Northside Drive was closed to cars for much of Super Bowl week, and it had little impact on traffic. Surely Northside can be tamed from acting just as a highway to being a corridor that serves all modes of transportation.
The Falcons Rich McKay is hopeful such a plan will be implemented one day.
“Northside Drive is a major artery in the city – we know that,” McKay said. “We just hope that over time, as the neighborhood continues to evolve, that traffic on Northside Drive can be slowed down.”
Let me take it one step further, there is perhaps no greater physical enhancement that can be made to connect the Westside with our “walkable” downtown campus than by turning Northside Drive into a pedestrian-friendly complete street.
Redesigning Northside Drive will do more to embrace the Westside’s revitalization than any other public project.
We can truly celebrate having hosted a successful Super Bowl Atlanta experience – one that has helped change Atlanta’s narrative from being a city of cars to a city for people.
Let’s just spread that narrative of walkability to the Westside and have Northside Drive connect rather than divide our community.