NFL praises Atlanta's walkability during Super Bowl, but Northside Drive still lacking

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.”

pedestrians Super Bowl

Pedestrians take over the Georgia World Congress Center campus during the Super Bowl (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

Super Bowl

Pedestrians going to and from the MARTA Station to participate in Super Bowl activities (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“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.

Northside

Huge barriers along a closed Northside Drive prevent walkability from the Westside during the Super Bowl (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“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.

Northside Drive bridge

Looking south towards Northside Drive and the Mercedes-Benz Stadium while standing on the bridge (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

Northside bridge

A view of the bridge and the stadium (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“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.

Northside bridge

The pedestrian bridge looks like a snake curling across Northside Drive (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

the bridge

The Northside Drive pedestrian bridge is quite beautiful on the inside with the sun’s shadows. The bridge was only accessible to credentialed media during the Super Bowl (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Northside bridge

After the Super Bowl, the public could exit by using the bridge, but few people did because the barriers along Northside Drive had been removed (Photo by Maria Saporta)

MARTA Vine City Station

Thousands of fans use MARTA to go to and from the Super Bowl. People walked across a closed Northside Drive to get to the Vine City MARTA Station after the Game (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.

2 replies
  1. Avatar
    mike dobbins says:

    Right on, Maria! You know i have ranted along the same lines all along, and my students have too. The bridge is the Atlanta-scaled equivalent of Trump's wall, an egomaniacal-driven pointless trashing of our public money and part of the reason that the Renew Atlanta bond fund comes up way short of its promises. Actually, CAP put forward their eminently sensible plan well before the stupid bridge idea was made public. That plan, which we have both seen, would have achieved exactly what we have been clamoring for, for ten percent of the bridge cost. The city would have done well to change course then. i walked the bridge pre-superbowl, and i found that I had underestimated its length; it's actually a two and a half block long trek, climbing and then descending 25 feet of height. The CAP plan, in sharp contrast, offered four pedestrian-scaled crossing points along that stretch of Northside, each of which covered the 80 foot long crossing distance just fine and making a strong statement for achieving neighborhood connectivity and access. instead, we have a $25 million slinky whose best uses might be for skateboards or leisurely picnics overlooking Northside. The effect puts the lie to the intent.Report

    Reply
  2. Maria Saporta
    Maria Saporta says:

    I still have not given up hope that the CAP plan will become a reality one day. We just need the Georgia Department of Transportation to come on board.Report

    Reply

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