With the announcement last week that Atlanta United Football Club will be building their headquarters and practice facility off Memorial Drive, the latest chapter of Atlanta's sporting history began. The decision was mired in controversy, with local residents concerned about concessions made by the county and the veracity of promises that the facility will have a positive impact on the neighborhood. While the soccer complex may be the largest investment that side of town has seen in years, it's fair to be skeptical. After all, throughout the metro, Atlantans have been promised many things over the years when sporting facilities come to the neighborhood. And often, things don't go as promised ...
Big-time professional sports didn't arrive in Atlanta until the 1960s. As the population of Atlanta boomed, the city welcomed the Braves from Milwaukee, who moved south to Atlanta Stadium in 1966. In the same year the Falcons franchise was established, and for 25 years the two teams shared what later was called Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The stadium was built on 47 acres of the Washington-Rawson and Summerhill neighborhoods. It had once been a wealthy area, home to the Governor's Mansion, but suburban flight took its toll on the neighborhood, and construction of Interstates 20, 75 and 85 sealed the area's fate.
Stadium investment did little to bring further development in the area; rather, the vacuum created by the parking lots exacerbated decline. When it was announced the Olympics were coming to town, the Olympic Stadium — later Turner Field — was conceptualized as a way to bring about a Renaissance in the area that had never materialized.
Closer to the core of downtown, the 1970s saw the construction of the Omni Coliseum just a mile north of Atlanta Stadium on the site of disused rail lines to the west of Five Points. Constructed for the Atlanta Hawks, who had moved to Atlanta in 1968 from St. Louis, the Omni allowed the NBA franchise to move out of Alexander Memorial Coliseum — now Hank McCamish Pavilion — where it had shared space with Georgia Tech. From the start, the facility was surrounded by industrial uses. Doomed by faulty materials and outdated design, the Omni met its fate in 1997 — after only 25 years — to allow for the construction of Philips Arena, coming down the same year as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Before the Olympics, in 1992, the Georgia Dome opened next door to the Omni. Looming over residences to the west of Northside Drive, the stadium drew the sports district closer to historic neighborhoods, amplifying their disconnection to downtown. Despite promises of investment over the years, the Dome proved to be a not-so-stellar neighbor to Vine City and English Avenue, instead resulting in infighting and further degradation of the neighborhood over the decades. The construction of Philips Arena next door in 1999 did little to change things. Like the Omni before it, the Dome was doomed to last only 25 years.
But fear not! Despite the spotty track record of Atlanta's sports venues and their relationships with surrounding communities, the latest wave of development brings a renewed commitment to neighborliness.
The Braves and Cobb County vow that despite the traffic, the new Cumberland development won't be just a sporting venue, but an entire entertainment district and live-work-play community. With diverse uses and de-emphasis on parking lots, there is a chance for the development to become a nexus of activity in the area and sustain itself even when the Braves aren't in town.
Down in the city, with the construction of the new Falcons Stadium, owner Arthur Blank and Co. have committed a pretty penny to bolstering the nearest neighborhoods. The investment brings at least some modicum of hope that the new stadium may actually engage and improve the area, though from the street the edifice looms large. Still, the pending sale of a home priced at $169,000 offers a preliminary, anecdotal indication that at least someone is optimistic.
Finally, with everyone else getting a new venue, discussions have begun about the Hawks finding a new place to roost. After all, Philips Arena is 16 years old and dangerously nearing that 25-year lifespan. With word on the street that they just might relocate across town to the Civic Center site — an area hankering for more investment — the horizon could be brighter for the east side of downtown, too.
So while the folks in DeKalb have a right to be skeptical of the Atlanta United deal, there's hope that the precedent of Atlanta's sports venues being thorns in the sides of their neighborhoods could be coming to an end. Just maybe, once and for all, Atlanta United, the Braves, Falcons and Hawks will recognize it's in their best interests to help their communities thrive.