By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on March 21, 2014
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants to build a world-class football stadium for the city, yet he believes that revitalizing the surrounding communities is an even more important calling.
The issue that has the potential of creating a great divide is the future routing of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as it winds its way around the new $1.2 billion stadium. And standing in the middle of divide is another black church — Central United Methodist Church. Inevitably, Central will be impacted by whatever option is picked.
The community bought into Mayor Kasim Reed’s original vision of turning Martin Luther King into a grand boulevard that would be a gateway from the westside to downtown. And the original drawings of the stadium on the site south of the Georgia Dome showed Martin Luther King curving down to Mitchell Street but curving back up to Martin Luther King at Northside Drive.
But more recent designs showed Martin Luther King — a five-lane road — staying along Mitchell Street across Northside Drive. It would continue on that two-lane street for several blocks until Tatnall before it reunites with the legacy Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
A host of community and civic leaders, the four presidents of the historically black colleges in the area and several elected officials have described the revised plan as being unacceptable — saying it would cut off the westside from the downtown area.
Central United Methodist Church would no longer be able to let its senior citizen parishioners park along the street or organize its funeral processions along Mitchell. And access to the church would become much more difficult.
Certain city and civic leaders believe that the best design solution would be to acquire a corner of Central’s parking lot so that Martin Luther King could remain as a continuous street from south of the stadium and swing back north as it crosses Northside Drive — to the existing Martin Luther King.
In conversations with most of the players involved, one thing is clear — the situation is volatile, potentially explosive and a defining moment of how the Falcons, the city and the community will be able to work together in the future.
“We have to work something out,” said Ceasar Mitchell, president of the Atlanta City Council. “This is an issue that has broad and sweeping implications for the surrounding community. I’m not going to accept a solution that’s short of keeping that street continuous and uninterrupted. The economic development implications are tremendous. And the symbolism can’t be ignored.”
Mitchell has endorsed a resolution by Councilman Andre Dickens, who has kept pushing for a continuous MLK. Dickens believes that no matter which option is picked, it will cost money — so he would rather have the money be invested in the best solution.
Clark Atlanta University President Carlton Brown called the recent proposal “problematic,” and assumed it was “reversible.” Brown said it’s important to return to Reed’s original vision for Martin Luther King. Yvette Massey, senior pastor of Central United Methodist Church, said the church is concerned about the current plans to reroute MLK.
“We share the desire of the community that the road would be continuous,” Massey said.
Asked if she had been asked to discuss possible solutions with either city officials or the Atlanta Falcons, Massey responded: “We have not had a conversation about that.”
Offering his perspective, Clark Atlanta President Brown said: “I think they’ve had about as much of church conversations as they can stand.”
To build the new stadium, the Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority had to acquire two black churches — Friendship Baptist Church for $19.5 million and Mount Vernon Baptist Church for $14.5 million.
“We squeezed as much as we could for the churches,” Mayor Reed said. “There is no more. We have very tough time constraints for our 2017 schedule.”
In addition to the deadline pressure, Reed said there also are complicated engineering issues.
“We understand the concern and the desire about how MLK should be routed,” said Reed, who has been moving to the “next best alternative.” But the mayor did add that: “I’m still trying to get to the best solution. I have not closed my mind to getting to the best solution.”
Community leaders don’t seem willing to settle for anything less.
“You can’t say that Martin Luther King is going to be the most glamorous street in America and cut it off from downtown,” CAU President Brown said, adding that his institution has a lot at stake. “Clark Atlanta owns the largest frontage on MLK than any other entity.”
The Atlanta Business League held an all-day conference on the State of Black of Business on March 18, focusing on “The Heritage Mile” — Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from downtown to Joseph E. Lowery. The development future of the corridor in light of the stadium development dominated much of the conversation.
“We probably have the richest black business culture in America,” said Joe Hudson, president of the Hudson Strategies Group. “We’ve got to turn Martin Luther King into a national street of respect, as the mayor says.”
Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the board of trustees for Friendship Baptist Church, is committed to remaining and reinvesting in the community. But the church is closely watching how the MLK issue will be resolved.
“For us it’s making sure we have improved connectivity between downtown and the westside,” Hawk said. “Given what they have shown us so far, I don’t see it.”
Depending on who one talks to, there are different points of view as to why an acceptable solution has not yet been reached. Some blame the city administration. Some blame the stadium designers and the Falcons. Some blame the Georgia Department of Transportation. Some blame the community for getting involved late in the game. And others blame Central United for not reaching out to the decision-makers earlier in the process.
“The Falcons can make this happen,” Dickens said. “And they’re going to need the mayor to make it happen. We haven’t heard from the Falcons.”
At the recent Major League Soccer game at the Georgia Dome, Blank was asked about the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive issue and the community.
“I think it’s all going through this process: it’s political, it’s community, and it’s social,” Blank said. “It has to go through the process. We have made substantial commitments, and we will honor those commitments and go beyond those commitments. We are committed to the stadium project. It is a three-year project. But making permanent changes in the community will take longer. Getting the stadium built is a complicated and expensive project. In many ways it is an easier challenge that making the permanent changes in the westside of Atlanta.”
John H. Lewis, chair of the Historic Westside United Coalition, said Blank should spend time in the neighborhoods and talk to leaders in the area.
“We have yet to hear directly from Arthur Blank,” Lewis said. “He needs to show his face in the community.”
That way, community leaders would be able to tell Blank directly how important the Martin Luther King corridor is to the westside of Atlanta.
“There’s tremendous significance of MLK,” Lewis said. “We are feeling as though we are being totally cut off from the state capitol and the downtown business community.”
Instead of cutting off the westside community from downtown, the new football stadium should be a welcoming bridge between the two.
“This is an opportunity for all of us to come together,” Lewis said. “We want to see as much of the connectivity restored as possible.”