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Life after the Braves

Community gets a seat at Turner Field planning table

From the Downtown Connector to the old county stadium to the '96 Olympics, the Turner Field site was built amid a history of demolishing neighborhoods to little local benefit. With the Atlanta Braves moving to Cobb County and the property again poised for redevelopment, the local community is organizing to get an early seat at the planning table for a change.

One tactic is Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith's Turner Field Redevelopment Task Force, which aims to update the stadium area's zoning and land-use plans, and prepare for life after the team. Meanwhile the community-organizing nonprofit Georgia Stand-Up is a few months into series of neighborhood meetings to come up with a "vision" and a community benefits agreement. Stand-Up, which is based in Mechanicsville, has been a player in the Falcons stadium community benefits debate, too.

The first Task Force meeting, July 23 at City Hall, drew 100 residents from Summerhill, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, and other area neighborhoods. Smith introduced her new Task Force as a way to find "negotiating tools." She added, "How much teeth we have depends on how nice a developer we have buy the property."

The primary goal is to update the Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown redevelopment plans. The key is Summerhill's, which includes the stadium land. That plan was last updated in 2007 in conjunction with a tax allocation district in the unsuccessful hope of redeveloping Turner Field's sprawling sea of parking lots. It zoned the stadium site to allow tall, mixed-use, high-density buildings. Disputes between the city and Braves over proposed developments helped contribute to the team's exit.

It remains to be seen who would run and pay for the redevelopment plan revamp — the city, private firms, or a combo. And the property sale timeline is still guesswork, as the Braves haven't set a specific move-out date. In addition, a plan to build a mixed-use athletics and housing complex on the site has gained traction.

The agenda for the first meeting was to brainstorm ideas for getting residents involved and determining the public process. Many attendees called for transparency and requiring the Atlanta-Fulton Recreation Authority, which owns and operates the stadium site, to wait for the task force's plan before selling the property.

"Everything needs to be on the up-and-up," said Ocie Fulford, vice president of the Mechanicsville Civic Association. "No handshake deals. Everything should be written down."

"The main thing is, we don't want to see this happen like the Braves move just did, under cover of darkness ... after a small group of good ol' boys made a decision," said Jackson Faw of the Peoplestown Neighborhood Association.

Georgia State University has been the most visible suitor for the Turner Field site, circulating early plans for a sports-centered housing and commercial redevelopment. Rod Teachey, an executive with Columbia Residential, GSU's housing development partner (along with the real estate firm Carter) on the plan, lives in Summerhill and served as his table's note-taker. Columbia Chairman and CEO Noel Khalil said the firm was pleased to see the level of engagement.

The Braves are technically a member of the Task Force but had no visible presence at the meeting. Some residents said that's a good thing. One man said Braves input would be like a tenant about to move out of your house but "still telling you what to do with it."

Deborah Scott, Stand-Up's executive director, said the separate community benefits process she's running, at the behest of the local neighborhood planning unit, is "complementary" with Smith's Task Force, not "adversarial." Scott's group is focusing more on community benefits, Smith said, while the task force is concerned with land-use planning.

The community advocacy group has been facilitating smaller meetings of 20 to 30 representatives from about a half-dozen surrounding neighborhoods. Scott said residents are pro-development, hoping for basics like a grocery store and a laundromat, as well as lively restaurants and bars. Local job training and placement in the new development are important, too. GSU is generally seen as a good potential neighbor, as long as its development is not geared only to students.

"Of course, no one wants asphalt parking lots anymore or game day as the only economic development," Scott said. Her group also provided historic information, such as maps of what the neighborhood looked like before huge areas were torn down for stadiums. "We talked about what happened with displacement," she said. "They wanted to make sure that didn't happen in this case."

Scott said the energy at both her meetings and the Task Force meetings is encouraging and positive, because it's a rare case of residents getting their foot in the door early on a massive Atlanta redevelopment. She said Stand-Up will support whatever they decide.

"If the community is optimistic about a potentially good opportunity, we support that. But if they feel like this is going to displace them ... we support that opposition, too," she said.