Photograph by Max Blau
Last night at the Ted, the bleachers were empty, much like they will be in December 2016 when the Atlanta Braves vacate their home for the past 19 years and head north to Cobb County. But in a private room on the stadium’s club level, which boasts a bird’s-eye view of left field, more than 200 local residents found out how the forthcoming sale of the stadium and its sea of parking lots would happen and how their voices would be heard.
At its first public meeting, the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, the owner of the 87-acre Turner Field site, discussed the sale and outlined a plan for community input. For an hour and a half, a panel that included AFCRA Executive Director Keisha Lance Bottoms, AFCRA Board Chair William K. Whitner, Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane and others answered questions and responded to criticism from the crowd.
First, however, officials announced their plan to fast-track a sale.
“I don’t stand here as an alarmist,” Bottoms said. “I stand here as a realist. Time is of the essence.”
Starting in October, AFCRA plans to start the bidding process for Turner Field with the help of CBRE, the real-estate firm that will market the site to interested developers, as it did recently with the Atlanta Civic Center and Underground Atlanta. AFCRA will review the bids, Bottoms said, based on their potential for economic impact, enhancing the neighborhood, and preserving the legacies of nearby communities.
Because time is of the essence, the months-long bidding process will begin before the start of the Livable Centers Initiative study, the $250,000 Atlanta Regional Commission-backed process in which residents from Pittsburgh to Peoplestown will chime in to create a long-term plan for how they would like the site to be redeveloped. According to Keane, the city’s new planning commissioner, the LCI process will include a series of public meetings from November 2015 to February 2016, followed by the drafting of a plan based on that input. The Turner Field Benefits Coalition, a loose collective of community organizations pushing for transparency and involvement in the Turner sale, has called for the LCI to be completed before any bids are accepted.
“We will have your input,” Bottoms said defensively in response to several questions about the process. “And at the end of the day, the county and the city will come to the table and speak to the people they represent. An ultimate decision will be made not just for you, but for the entire community.”
Officials fiercely defended the decision to have the bidding and community input process take place simultaneously. Whitner said that option is the most prudent way to find a buyer for the Turner site—without burdening taxpayers with more than $5 million in annual upkeep that would come with a vacant stadium, should a buyer not be in place before the end of 2016. However, some local residents clearly didn’t agree and occasionally talked over panel participants—whose microphones weren’t working—to vent their frustrations.
“Local government doesn’t have a good track record of listening to the community,” one resident shouted to a round of applause.
About halfway through the meeting, Mayor Kasim Reed joined the panelists, where he attempted to quell some fears. If the sale is done right, he said, the process would attract multiple bidders and result in at least a $250 million redevelopment project. He emphasized that he wants a developer who’s not just on board with building in phases over decades—but one who would complete the entire development in just five years. The focus on speed, Reed continued, had to do with ensuring today’s promises don’t go unfulfilled—in contrast to previous efforts that failed to spur development in the surrounding communities.
“Nobody’s delivered anything except Putt-Putt,” he said, referring to FanPlex, AFCRA’s public-funded 11,000-square foot entertainment center across from the stadium that cost millions to build, hemorrhaged money, and shut down in less than two years.
Before leaving the meeting early, Reed argued at several points that taking advantage of a favorable real estate market, even if that meant speeding up public engagement process, trumps taking the time needed to craft a community vision. “We don’t want to blow an opportunity,” he noted about the volatile real estate market. When the topic of potential buyers arose, the mayor once again expressed support for a potential Georgia State University bid—suggesting state lawmakers should make a “necessary appropriation” to the public school—and he slammed the door on casinos at the stadium site.
“I hear you! I hear you! I hear you!” he exclaimed in response to a submitted comment that simply said “no casinos, no casinos, no casinos.”
When the meeting ended, Bottoms reminded residents that the community engagement process is just beginning. But some residents, like Richard Quartarone, who lived in Summerhill before moving to Grant Park, believes that starting the bidding process before the community has been heard could undermine the long-term vision for Turner Field.
“It makes me nervous,” he says. “I want them to move quickly, but not at the cost of harm down the line. If you rush something at the beginning, you often times mess something up at the back end.”
Standing outside in the parking lot once occupied by the old Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, longtime Peoplestown activist Columbus Ward said he hoped things would finally improve for his community, but he also reflected that the current situation isn’t far different from past opportunities.
“As somebody who’s seen 50 years of destruction from both stadiums, and nothing but negative development coming from both, my dream is for something better,” he says. “But knowing our politicians, I’m not sure I can trust them to do the right thing, until they actually do it.”