Opinion - Stadium should do no harm to surrounding communities

Blank, city, and state have responsibility to not create a sea of asphalt outside new facility

Late last week, Atlantans were treated to brand-new drawings of the proposed Atlanta Falcons stadium.

The $1.2 billion complex, according to the slick renderings, will be wide enough to fit an aircraft carrier. The Statue of Liberty would be able to stand at the 50-yard line, its torch just brushing against the retractable roof. Some of the complex's walls would open to reveal Atlanta's skyline, giving the stadium an open-air feel on game days.

But there was one rendering — an aerial view of the new stadium — that didn't garner a lot of attention. In the drawing, the Georgia Dome was missing. In its place: a surface parking lot. The slide was released right around the same time that city officials proposed legislation that some feared could make the sea of makeshift parking lots that surround the stadium into an asphalt ocean.

The unveiling of both was a worrying sign that, even decades after watching the neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field stuck in limbo, Atlanta hasn't learned its lesson when it comes to parking lots and athletic stadiums. But there's a chance to change direction moving forward.

Falcons fans might not see the effects that their presence has on the area. But the residents who live in the surrounding communities have had to tolerate noise, trash, and antics that, according to Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association President Robin Gagnon, are "10 to 12 hours of what amounts to a festival that, under a normal circumstance, would have to go before city and be permitted." And the rest of the years, the lots are dead zones.

Last week, the city pressed pause on a proposal that would have created a "parking overlay district" near the proposed stadium. Residents feared the proposal would have set Castleberry Hill on the same road as other neighborhoods around athletic facilities and lead to a "barren asphalt jungle."

Gagnon says residents feel that they "won the battle but we're not finished with the war," as some form of the proposal might return. And well-connected developer H.J. Russell wants to rezone multiple parcels into park-for-hire lots, a proposal that's winding its way through the city process.

West of the Dome, the proposed stadium site, and the Georgia World Congress Center, Vine City and English Avenue also have felt the ripple effects of parking. Makeshift parking lots have found their way into the interior of the neighborhoods, giving property owners little incentive to develop the parcels, leaving blank spaces where there could be people.

In addition, the asphalt and concrete around the GWCC and Dome contribute to stormwater runoff, which flows down into Vine City. Some residents have argued that the large paved surfaces prevent water from seeping into the ground and contribute to flooding that occurs in the neighborhood.

Under the preliminary design approved by the GWCC's board of directors, the Dome would be demolished. The Dome's removal could potentially open up a street or path that could reconnect English Avenue and Vine City residents to Downtown. But a surface parking lot could mar those efforts.

Though nothing's written in stone just yet, the Falcons have every reason to pursue such a strategy - and make the lot as large as possible - as the team gets to collect parking revenues. A Falcons spokeswoman told me last week that the team plans to use the property for tailgating parking and that it will most likely feature "grass-crete" - a mix of concrete and grass that would allow some water to seep into the ground.

But there are other options available. A class of Georgia Tech students studying under Professor Mike Dobbins, who in the past has led deep looks into improving Fort McPherson and Northside Drive, and Bruce Gunter, a noted affordable housing developer and expert, has been brainstorming ways to ensure Vine City, English Avenue, and Castleberry Hill don't become collateral damage in the stadium's development. In addition to studying environmental impacts and economic programs, they're trying to find ways the Falcons, state, and city can soften the blow that parking will have on the communities.

In a perfect world, fans would walk, bike, and ride MARTA to the stadium and parking would not be necessary. Kyle James, one of the students in the planning studio, says the class understands that's not the case. Parking will play a role in the new stadium. But he and other students argue that it could be designed in such a way that, on non-game days, it is not an obstacle or eyesore. It could be integrated with parkspace, perhaps even with a natural water feature. (Underground parking is not currently under consideration, says a Falcons spokeswoman.) Lots in Castleberry Hill could mimic parking decks that blend in with the surrounding environment, say, by featuring street-level retail or innovate designs.

This new thinking has found some fans in the stadium neighborhoods. It's something that all involved should consider — and not just when it comes to parking.

Now that the stadium is a done deal and moving forward, what matters most is how this massive addition to the city will blend in with its surrounding environment and do no harm to the people who live near it, be it on game days or the rest of the year. The complex can't be an island. To not carefully consider this will effectively call time out on a neighborhood's development. The Falcons and parking lot owners will win while the communities lose. All the money spent on programs and initiatives in surrounding neighborhoods would be for naught.

Arthur Blank has an opportunity to change the look and feel of Vine City and English Avenue, two long-neglected historic parts of town, and help make Castleberry Hill, an already great neighborhood, even better with what he envisions for the areas surrounding the stadium. And the city has a responsibility to make sure that the people who must live alongside this public-private project aren't victimized by its design. Now's the perfect time to make sure that doesn't happen.

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