A tale of two roofs, a bridge and a widening wealth divide

By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINSa professor of the practice of planning at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture who has overseen several Tech studios that examined Northside Drive and its neighborhoods

We often view buildings, architecture, as symbols of the times and the cultures in which they are built. The implosion of the Georgia Dome juxtaposed against the Mercedes Benz Stadium call on us to reflect on what they both mean. They have in common the destruction and obliteration of significant African American history and culture.

Mike Dobbins

Mike Dobbins

The Dome erased the Lightning neighborhood in the early ‘90s. The Falcons stadium erased Friendship Baptist Church, birthplace of Morehouse and Spelman colleges and the pulpit of Maynard Jackson, Sr. State action and funding destroyed Lightning. Private action, abetted with funding from the mayor and the city council, wiped out Friendship.

The spaces and the experience inside the two, however, are as different as day and night. The Dome, with its expansive luminescent fabric roof, projected a calm and unifying space. It was an evenly lighted envelope, highlighting the field as the main event. Outside, its appearance, access ways, and engagement with the city were bland and uninspiring.

It reflected the state, which paid $214 million for it. While perhaps dull and impersonal, it was nonetheless an expression of public will at the time, including destroying the neighborhood it replaced.

The Falcons’ nest, on the other hand, is a fragmented, spiky collision of angled shards of glass and steel, topped by a troubled, hyperactive roof structure. The result is a multi-tiered conflict of disjointed forms and tangled structures that prop up the compression ring base for the “retractable” roof. This roof, intended to be the stadium’s crowning icon, is made up of nested slivers that are supposed to open and close like an old time camera lens. But will they?

The Mercedes Benz Stadium is an arresting presences that projects an image of being all about itself, rather than the events hosted inside, according to columnist Mike Dobbins. Credit: mercedesbenzstadium.com

Outside, though, it projects an arresting presence, carrying the eye into and through the building. Inside, looking back downtown is equally dramatic in its exposition of the skyline. Of course, facing the neighborhood on the other side of Northside Drive, it presents its service gates and blank walls, farther extending the neighborhoods’ barrier to downtown. This $1.5 billion venue is about itself, not so much about the events it’s supposed to house. It’s the expression of one man’s will, what architecture critics might term a “look at me” building. Its route to realization required a twisted path of political complicity and lots and lots of city money, beginning with a direct infusion of $200 million, ultimately projected by some to total as much as $900 million over the life of the building.

Yet, like the Dome, the Mercedes Benz Stadium is a fair expression of the current times and values. It reflects a culture of great individual wealth and extravagance, commanding public largesse, unbridled by accountability. It echoes the Shard tower in London and any number of other fragmented buildings designed by trophy architects for uber-rich patrons intent on memorializing their mark. Interestingly, like the Shard, a number of these employ fracturing, deconstructing forms that, however consciously, seem disturbingly appropriate in an ever more splintering society.

The Shard

The Mercedes Benz Stadium shares design elements with the Shard, in London, by architect Renzo Piano. Historian and critic Charles Jencks described the Shard’s design as, ‘typical Late-Modern Malapropism − ‘Monothematatis.” Credit: e-architect.co.uk

And then there’s the question of when the other shoe will drop. That would be the new bridge, slated to swoop over Northside Drive between the Vine City MARTA station and the Mercedes Benz. The deal on this one is for the city to fully fund the project to the tune of some $24 million, or half again more than the city’s commitment of funds collected through the area’s tax allocation district to the whole of the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods.

Touted as overcoming the barrier that Northside Drive represents, it will enable people to cross over the roadway by ramping up 20 feet and then back down for a walking distance of some 700 feet or about two blocks worth of length. Instead of simply walking across the 70-foot wide roadway on the level at a traffic signal. Design-wise, as a shimmering tubular metallic slinky-like concept, it’s all about glittering twists and curves, in sharp contrast to the spiky triangular sheets of the stadium.

It would appear that the city leadership made some kind of a deal to match the stadium’s extravagance with its own. The bridge’s actual use, however, is likely to compete in numbers with the use of the Atlanta Streetcar. Different users, though: A $24 million skateboarders’ paradise for the bridge and people who just need a rest on the $100 million streetcar. All this against the larger city backdrop of a widening wealth divide and one out of five Atlantans living at or below the poverty line.


Georgia Dome

The rubble of the Georgia Dome frames its successor, the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Credit: Kelly Jordan


The planned bridge across Northside Drive to serve the Mercedes-Benz Stadium stretches more than 700 feet. Credit: Atlanta


7 replies
  1. Sally Flocks says:

    The $24 million bridge will be paid in part by funds diverted from Renew Atlanta — a program intended to address the city’s enormous backlog of infrastructure maintenance. The bridge was not on the Renew Atlanta project list. Nor was it publicly vetted.

    You’re right.Transportation engineers have long known that pedestrian bridges are rarely an effective safety solution. Pedestrian bridges are useful for crossing highways, rivers and railroad tracks. But few, if any, people will walk 700 feet to cross a surface street. For the same cost, the City of Atlanta could install over 200 traffic signals. Or even better, address nearly 10% percent of the city’s enormous backlog of broken sidewalks.

    Atlanta officials also plan to divert $2 million of Renew Atlanta bonds to pay for a pedestrian bridge between the Municipal Court building and its parking garage near the intersection of Capital Ave, Garnett Street and Pulliam. According to the presenter at a recent information session for contractors, Mayor Reed wants the bridge to be a “marquee project.” Again, no public vetting. It also violates downtown’s zoning ordinances and doesn’t fit with the Connect Atlanta Plan or the Downtown Atlanta Master Plan, all of which have been publicly vetted.

    Thank you for raising awareness of the misuse of public tax dollars and the negative impact that extravagant projects often have on surrounding communities.Report

    • Maria Saporta
      Maria Saporta says:

      Maybe the next mayor will revisit this misguided bridge.

      Improvements need to be made at street level by developing a dramatic and safe pedestrian crosswalk and turning Northside Drive into a complete street with a landscaped median and pedestrian improvements all along the corridor.

      That would cost much less than $24 million. And we would get so much more than a rarely-used bridge.Report

      • Art Frazier says:

        AECOM under the direction of GDOT is developing concept “complete street” plans for Northside from 1-75 south to I-20…… but have left the portion by stadium to be designed by others!Report

      • jay scott says:

        Let us hope so, Maria. This is a great article that makes so many points – not the least of which is that we continue to trample our important past for a bit of extravagant immediate ‘glory’, all the while continuing the practice of creating a building with a ‘back side’. It is extremely sad that we, as residents of Atlanta, will continue to pay for this when the money could have been put to so many more uses that would benefit our communities.Report

  2. Not playin says:

    Surely an organization (NFL) that touts 9 billion a year, of which 150 million a year are given to each team for improvements to the arenas, can build their own venues….instead of forcing taxpayers to pay..,..


    once on the front end, and then on the back end….

    “for second rate team”

    as stated by one of the parishioners that attend Friendship Baptist Church when it was soldReport


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