Cover Story: The stadium effect
What happens when your neighbor is a multimillion dollar shrine to sports
His brown eyes scan the boarded-up homes built among the trees along the narrow streets, the people loitering in the middle of vacant lots, casting hollow stares at passing motorists, and the young men hanging out on street corners, hollering at passers-by and then to lookouts down the street.
The neighborhood, along with neighboring Vine City, has so much potential, says the pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church. Great bones. Great churches. Great people. But Motley, like many Vine City and English Avenue boosters, is disappointed by the poverty, crime, desperation, crumbling houses, and the “idleness.”
Near Northside Drive, the reverend looks up to the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome, the glimmering mammoth convention center and covered stadium which literally and figuratively separates the blighted community from downtown.
“This is Lazarus over here,” Motley says, comparing Vine City to the poor beggar from the Bible. “Sitting here at the very gate of prosperity and nothing being done about it of any significant nature. ... You see you have this monstrosity towering over all this blight. And that’s unseemly. And ungodly, I might add.”
For the past year, Motley and several preachers and community leaders have started organizing English Avenue and Vine City residents to prepare for talks with GWCC officials and Falcons executives to decide how the community will be affected by the new facility.
“It’s coming,” Motley says. “They’ve decided. And it will come.”
As the city, state, and Atlanta Falcons executives finish wrapping up negotiations over a new open-air stadium — they hope to iron out the details, including the exact location, before the end of the year — residents of nearby Vine City and English Avenue, which for years have lived in the shadow of the Dome and adjoining GWCC, are preparing for the next massive structure next door. They know all too well the mix of enthusiasm, promise, money, and challenges the new stadium will bring. In fact, they are already organizing to be sure they have a seat at the table. The underlying question remains whether it’s possible to create a stadium in Atlanta that trumps, or at least mimics, those found in other cities — stadiums that are part of the community, rather than a burden on them.
“This is the fourth time we’ve built a stadium in a poor black neighborhood,” says Larry Keating, a professor emeritus at Georgia Tech’s College of City and Regional Planning. “That’s wrong. And that tells people in those neighborhoods you don’t count, just get out of my way. That’s real ugly. That’s a real punch in the nose.”
Motley and other community leaders, working in partnership with the Dome, hope to change that.
If everything goes according to plan, Arthur Blank and his football team will kick off the 2017 season in a brand-new, $1 billion stadium with a retractable roof, built with mostly his own cash and up to $300 million in revenues from the city’s hotel/motel tax.
Officials have narrowed the stadium’s possible site down to two locations: a large parcel north of the sprawling congress center at Northside Drive and Ivan Allen Boulevard and an undefined area between the Dome and Castleberry Hill. All parties reportedly prefer the latter, though no decision has been made.
Expect much debate on these issues. But often lost in the chatter over publicly funded stadiums, site locations, renderings, and the like is the very real issue of how these facilities, which are used relatively few days and nights out of the year, affect the communities where they’re dropped.
Atlanta’s stadiums have generated billions of dollars in economic activity and hired thousands of people over the years. They have also created countless unforgettable moments, from Hank Aaron’s shot to left-centerfield to break Babe Ruth’s home run record to Muhammad Ali lighting the 1996 Summer Olympics cauldron.
But for the neighborhoods surrounding these multimillion-dollar complexes, the stadiums have been a mixed blessing, delivering traffic, noise, gypsy parking lots, and boorish behavior from tailgating fans. And although the stadiums have added a bit of prestige to the city, they’ve also created dead zones in the surrounding areas on days teams aren’t playing.
“I’ve scratched my head over this a long time,” says Harvey Newman, a recently retired Georgia State University professor considered an expert on Atlanta’s political history. “In Atlanta, the impacts [of stadiums] have tended to be negative. I don’t know if it has to be that way.”
To understand today’s “stadium effect” in Atlanta, you have to begin in the late 1950s. Before there was the Georgia Dome or Turner Field, there was Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the ring-shaped, open-air, cookie-cutter ballpark that hosted Atlanta Braves and Falcons games. Built in the mid-1960s near the recently constructed interstate system just south of downtown, the $18 million arena — that’s around $131 million in today’s dollars — was built on spec by then-Mayor Ivan Allen to lure Milwaukee’s ball team south and boost Atlanta’s profile.
Allen, however, set an unfortunate precedent. City officials chose to build the project on much of the once-vibrant neighborhood of Summerhill. Longtime residents today recall neighbors working at a poultry plant, frequenting the neighborhood ice cream shop, visiting the city’s main library, and worshiping at the community church. Georgia Avenue, which features a small commercial strip that, with some tenants and paint, could easily become a mini East Atlanta Village, was filled with local businesses. Piedmont Hospital’s original location was on the site. “It was thriving,” says Greg Burson, a longtime resident who has lived all but two of his 60 years in Peoplestown, the diverse and tight-knit neighborhood along Turner Field’s southern edge. “The businesses supported the neighborhoods. And vice versa.”
Newman says the stadium construction relocated 75 businesses and 948 families — most of which didn’t receive any relocation assistance.
In less than one year, construction crews erected the 52,769-seat stadium — as well as parking lots to accommodate fans, which longtime residents say would eventually cause great harm to the community. Charles Rutheiser, writing in Imagineering Atlanta, his unsparing take on the city’s development and efforts to stage the 1996 Summer Olympics, said the construction of parking lots “had a ripple effect, displacing more than 10,000 of the adjoining Summerhill neighborhood’s approximately 12,500 residents, who were among the city’s poorest.”
In the late 1980s, Falcons executives signaled their desire for a new home. At the same time, Atlanta corporate bigwigs prepared a bid for the city to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, a once-in-a-lifetime event that demanded a sparkling new shrine for athletic competitions. No one complained because the original stadium was, by many accounts, hideous and obsolete, lacking sufficient luxury boxes and boasting terrible sight lines.
Olympic organizers chose to build a new stadium south of the existing one, which, after the Olympic games, would become the Braves’ new home. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was razed, and the Falcons settled into the new domed stadium across town along Northside Drive next to the Georgia World Congress Center.
To make up for the hardship caused by the new facility, millions of dollars were pumped into Summerhill, helping turn shotgun shacks into the two-story Craftsman-style houses you see today. Olympic officials also cut a deal stipulating that more than 8 percent of parking revenue from Braves games and other events would be stored in an account known as the SMP Community Fund and then split between the three neighborhoods — thus tying revenues from parking lots to community benefits.
Residents of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville have varied takes on the quality of life when one lives in the shadow of a stadium that sits empty more days than not. Many will tell you that, despite the loud crowds, the out-of-towners’ shenanigans, and the game day litter, they love living in their community. Some, such as Kevin Lynch, will even say the stadium is an asset and gives the neighborhoods a sense of identity.
“We sit out on our back deck, listen to games on the radio,” says Lynch, the president of the Peoplestown Neighborhood Association. “You hear the crack of the bat a full second before you hear it on the radio. It’s kind of neat.”
But nearly everyone CL spoke with for this story yearns for the economic development and opportunities which longtime residents remember existing before Summerhill was razed. Aside from a dry cleaner, convenience store, and a barbecue restaurant, few retail options exist.
“I’d like to see true economic development in the areas around Turner Field to where there are entrepreneurs owning businesses and people who live, work, and play,” says Burson. “Sustainable businesses that would be there for the next 50 years. And more partnership with the Braves. They’re trying to but they can only do so much. Once you get to where people can live, work, and play and walk to viable businesses around there, that’s when you get a true sense of community coming back.”
On days there is no game scheduled, the stadium’s surrounding area is a ghost town — a sea of parking lots more than three times the size of the ballpark’s footprint. It’s easy to see how the vacant properties immediately surrounding the stadium would be ideal for mixed-use development, parks, and businesses that could serve the young couples, families, and elderly residents living in the neighborhoods. (Many of whom told CL that they pine for a decent place to buy groceries, eat a meal, and drink a beer.)
“No developers have stepped up to the plate and pushed this to get it started,” Burson says.
While noise and traffic can cause headaches for some residents — Keating recounts a post-game Friday night fireworks show that resulted in a home catching fire — the greatest annoyance, residents say, are so-called gypsy parking lots. These are illegal operations set up during game days by entrepreneurial ne’er-do-wells — everyone from nearby homeowners to complete strangers who wave cars onto residential lots and charge fans to park. Legend has it that, at one point, frustrated Peoplestown community leaders dug trenches in front of some problem lots to curb the practice and send a message.
A few neighborhood property owners began to notice that parking cars on their lots was quite lucrative. In a few instances, Keating says, a home would mysteriously catch fire, clearing the way for a parking lot.
“Somebody said if we burn this [house] down we can put a lot in there,” says the Georgia Tech professor, who focused on the stadiums’ effects in his book, “Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion.” “It stimulated more destruction of the neighborhood. Who’s gonna build a house next door to an informal parking lot? You’re gonna come back and your car will be on blocks. It retards development.”
Adds Josh Murtha, president of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill: “It’s an ongoing battle to keep people from charging to illegally park. Sometimes it’s the same people doing it, sometimes it’s random people doing it. It’s teenagers from surrounding neighborhoods who say, ‘Hey, $10 to park here,’ maybe then break into a couple of cars, and then they’re gone. Sometimes they’re charging to park on other people’s lots. It just makes the neighborhood look bad.”
Not all lots are illegal. According to property tax records, shortly before Atlanta officials submitted bids for the Olympics, parking companies started scooping up and rezoning property on the stadium’s perimeter. One neighborhood resident estimates that the lots, depending on their size and the Braves’ opponent, could generate the owner several thousand dollars a game. The revenue stream, one would assume, is more tempting than selling off what could one day become more valuable property — provided the surroundings improve.
“All of us would like to see something happen in terms of development,” says Violet Ricks, the recreation authority’s executive director. “I think the city would love to see something happen. With the economy the way it is, that’s a big question mark for all of us.”
Makeda Johnson used to be able to stand on the porch of her Vine City home on the Fourth of July, look west at the downtown Atlanta skyline, and watch the fireworks pop above Centennial Olympic Park.
“It was very nice,” says Johnson, a soft-voiced longtime community activist.
But then the Georgia World Congress Center added another hulking building to its campus along Northside Drive, obscuring the view from Johnson’s porch. As the 200-acre campus, which includes the Dome, has grown over the years, so have the number of hassles for its neighbors.
Residents have complained that, much like the neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field, the communities of Vine City, English Avenue, and Castleberry Hill find themselves under siege by tailgaters and rubberneckers.
“It’s such a heavy onset and a load at one time,” says Greg Hawthorne, the executive director of the Vine City Health and Housing Ministry. “You’ll get 80,000 people from the metro area in the community.”
The majority of those fans — only 20 percent or so ride MARTA — need places to park and party. When the dome and private lots fill up, they venture into Castleberry Hill and Vine City and park along the narrow streets — sometimes on both sides, blocking traffic, Johnson says. Hawthorne says people will sometimes tailgate in front of people’s homes on a Sunday. He once arrived at the ministry’s offices to find three or four cars parked on its lawn. “That’s unfair to those people,” he says. “Someone has waved them in and taken $10 to $12.”
Much as it does in neighborhoods around Turner Field, using vacant parcels of land as parking lots stymies the plans for an organization like Hawthorne’s, which aims to rebuild Vine City.
“It makes people not want to sell those vacant lots or put those vacant lots that they have into a productive use for housing or other activities,” Hawthorne says. “Because they get periodic parking revenue from it.”
Churches also suffer. Lindsay Street Baptist, like many in English Avenue and Vine City, predominantly serves people who live outside the community and who travel as far away as Henry and Gwinnett counties. On Sundays during football season, Motley estimates as many as one-third of his 1,000-member congregation parishioners stay home to avoid traffic.
“We lose not only the revenue,” Motley says. “We lose their presence.”
And then there’s the issue of the GWCC campus and the Dome. Totaling more than 3.9 million square feet, it’s considered one of the premier exhibition spaces in the country. But from an urban design perspective, its massive size — the largest building is more than twice as long as Atlanta’s tallest skyscraper is high — virtually dominates Vine City, which sits just across Northside Drive.
Though long separated from downtown by railroad tracks, Vine City and English Avenue were only further divided from the rest of the city center with the construction of the Dome in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, additional exhibition halls have been added to the campus, only expanding the GWCC’s footprint. Streets that once ran from Vine City into downtown became dead ends, creating a headache for residents and cutting off economic opportunities. In addition, according to a recent study by Park Pride, an estimated 30 million gallons of water drain from the asphalt-covered blocks around the Dome and GWCC into the Vine City and English Avenue communities and toward a nearby creek during a single heavy rain, which residents claim contributes to persistent flooding issues.
Although Summerhill was partially demolished to make room for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the construction of the stadium and a parking lot to serve the adjacent convention center wiped one community completely off the map — Lightning, a small neighborhood that included a garbage incinerator and is rumored to be named after moonshine. According to a 1990 AJC report, nearly 130 homes were razed for the project.
“It depends on whose ox is being gored,” says Dan Graveline, the congress center’s first and only executive director until he retired at the end of 2009. “If you lived anywhere else in Atlanta, you’d think that’s a good place to build a stadium. Lot of rundown areas, abandoned houses, abandoned businesses, close to the Georgia World Congress Center. On the other hand, if you’re someone who lived in Vine City, you’re gonna say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re gonna put that in my backyard?’ I don’t care what people tell you, if you have something as big and as massive as a stadium that draws 70,000 people to your backyard, it has some negatives.”
To compensate the community, the state, city, and Fulton County set up a $10 million housing trust fund to pay for affordable homes in Vine City, using favorable fixed-rate mortgages and home refinancings. But Motley claimed the program was “structured for failure.” The fund would only reimburse developers building affordable housing after they completed the work, which required securing a loan, a difficult move for the local nonprofit builders.
Graveline says the authority tried its best to work with the surrounding neighborhoods. Rev. W.L. Cottrell, the founder of the Vine City Health and Housing Ministry, vouched for this view. He says some parts of the housing trust fund, such as refinancing and renovating rundown properties, were much more successful than he anticipated.
“I was personally leery about who’s going to keep track of this, will it create positive results,” Cottrell says. “I have no doubt it did. Did it help everyone? Of course not.”
GWCC helped the community in other ways, Graveline says, including installing air conditioning units for free at an elementary school across the street and exhibiting local students’ art. An authority spokeswoman listed many philanthropic gestures, including donating nearly 200 tons of food to the Atlanta Community Food Bank, providing culinary training to men living in nearby homeless shelters, and other programs. Last year, nonprofits and charities working in the Dome’s concession stands raised $891,000. Ten percent of the complex’s employees live within surrounding ZIP codes.
“You try to be a part of the community,” Graveline says. “But you have to be realistic and realize that you’ve made some disruptions and major changes to life in the community. So you try to work with them and be good neighbors and help them where you can within boundaries. It’s not a perfect process.”
But overall, Graveline says, when you factor in the estimated $1.75 billion annual economic impact of the Dome and GWCC, the jobs created and sustained, was it worth doing?
“The answer,” he says, “would always be a resounding ‘hell yes.’”
For the past year, Motley, Hawthorne, and several other faith and community leaders in Vine City and English Avenue have each been discussing how their neighborhoods can be compensated from the headache the stadium will cause — and use the massive activity hub next door to their advantage.
One possibility: funding proportionate to the housing trust fund and additional investment that could be spent on a capital project that would become an asset to the community. In addition, some community members would like to see “profit-sharing” in the stadium or related businesses such as concessions, vending, parking, and advertising to create a regular funding source for social programs. Imagine activity centers or small-business loans that would boost economic development, which the communities sorely need.
“We want to create a revenue stream that will bring transformation to both the community and the people of the community,” Motley says. “We want to transform that community into what we believe God wants it to be: multiracial, multicolored, multicultural, which reflects what’s going on in Atlanta and in downtown’s college and corporate buildings.”
Newman, the retired GSU professor and urban affairs expert, relays a story often told by former United Nations Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who helped win support for — and boost the communities surrounding — Lakewood Amphitheatre by helping local out-of-work residents start businesses that worked with the music venue. For example, veterans partnered and formed a firm that provided security at the amphitheater. Single mothers trying to raise children on welfare started a small concessions business and worked at Lakewood selling cotton candy, sodas, and other items.
“Eventually everyone in the neighborhood was invested in the success of Lakewood,” he says. “The less people feel like it’s something being done to them, it’s something being done with them.”
It’s also possible, local urban designers and planners say, to stitch a stadium into the fabric of auto-oriented, tailgate-addicted Atlanta that could engage people and surrounding neighborhoods — rather than simply dropping a monolith on downtown, A-bomb style, killing all businesses in a one-mile radius.
As conversations with the Falcons move forward about a new facility that could alter the city’s landscape, and the Braves making clear they’re not leaving Turner Field any time soon, there are signs that some of residents’ concerns are landing on the radars of top officials.
In 2010, a group of Georgia Tech students conducted a one-year design studio — which they presented to Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm — looking at how to break up Turner Field’s mammoth parking lots into small, walkable blocks that could handle a variety of mixed-use possibilities. Think Wrigley Field in Chicago, Camden Yards in Baltimore, or, even better, San Diego’s Petco Park, considered the gem of new ballparks. Parking could be used in decks on the periphery, perhaps even in the barren space between the stadium and the interstate.
Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, the area’s councilwoman, has high hopes that the redevelopment plan the neighborhoods created and approved in 2006, would pave the way for such mixed-use redevelopment to take place and make the area immediately next to Turner Field not just a place to visit for ball games, but possibly to live. “You could invite people over and hang out on your porch and listen to the game,” she says, almost giddy with excitement. “It’d be fun.”
It’d also be a better experience for Braves fans who, instead of walking though a parking lot, could first cross a park featuring the baseball diamond where Hank Aaron made history. Or they could opt to spread out a blanket in an adjacent public green space nearby, and watch the game on a massive big screen.
Mike Plant, the executive vice president of the Atlanta Braves business operations who says the team has been a part of “a lot of conversations” about improving the area in such a way, played coy when asked about the future of the property surrounding Turner Field.
“Look at San Diego, Denver, Houston,” he says. “Those were challenged areas. And a stadium came in and became the nucleus for some pretty interesting and attractive development. It’s not rocket science. It’s a little bit timing and finance. ... Stay tuned.”
But football stadiums, which tend to be stand-alone behemoths, are different beasts. How much Falcons and GWCC officials will take surrounding neighborhoods into account when they design the stadium remains to be seen. Numerous sources tell CL that neighborhood residents have not been privy to conversations regarding the stadium nor have GWCC or Falcons officials visited community meetings. Residents did submit a list of the stadiums’ “potential impacts,” including parking, vandalism, and business development, to GWCC officials late last year.
In an interview with CL, Mayor Kasim Reed says he — and, based on his conversations with the team, the Falcons as well — want the stadium to “be a vibrant and real part of the community.”
“We have to be heavily focused on strengthening the neighborhoods around what I believe will be an iconic stadium and another jewel in the crown of the city. But we have to really connect neighborhoods to the opportunity that will be created by this investment.”
He adds: “There’s a real feeling that those neighborhoods are disconnected from everything that’s on the eastside of Northside Drive. As we make these infrastructure improvements, I want people who live in those neighborhoods to feel like they’re a part of this effort.”
The Falcons, which have helped fund parks and children’s programs in nearby communities, have pledged to help surrounding neighborhoods, though they’re focusing first on the deal with city and state officials before looking at community benefits.
“A new stadium will enhance the perception of the state, region and city, help drive economic development, and cement our franchise’s stability well beyond its current ownership,” Rich McKay, the Falcons president and CEO, says in a statement to CL. “Our commitment is to go further. We will seek to positively impact the surrounding community with our time, our talent and other resources as we plan for the new multipurpose stadium and beyond.”
It would seem likely that the team or Blank, whom community leaders have praised and called a good neighbor, would help build Mims Park, a 16-acre green space envisioned for mostly vacant parcels on the border of Vine City and English Avenue. The project is being pushed by Rodney Mims Cook, a well-heeled and well-connected Buckhead booster of classical monuments who built the Millenium Gate, Atlantic Station’s Arc de Triomphe.
Such an investment would jibe with Blank’s past philanthropic contributions and corporate ethos: a targeted investment that could reap dividends, rather than a one-time lump of cash to be tapped by civic groups — something community leaders say they wouldn’t want.
“I think it’s inevitable that these two communities will be transformed, because it’s an embarrassment to the city,” Motley says. “If you don’t change it, it’s going to continue to happen. You’re going to have this kind of idleness.”