Photograph by Hector Alejandro. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.
FanPlex hasn’t seen a standing-room-only crowd in a very long time. But at 6:30 last night, the parking lots for the defunct entertainment center across the street from Turner Field were at capacity. Hundreds of people scuffled past the mini-golf greens to pack inside the building—seen as a prime example of local government waste—hoping to have a voice in determining the future of the area.
Back in February, Atlanta received a $212,000 grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission to conduct a Livable Centers Initiative study for the 1,340 acres surrounding Turner Field—it’s the largest grant awarded out of the 112 LCI plans created to date. Planners will partner with residents of Summerhill, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and Pittsburgh in crafting a long-term plan for the area. But the timing of the LCI process, which launched three weeks after the bidding for the property ended, has left some residents wondering whether their participation in the process is a futile exercise.
Last night’s meeting—the first of six between now and next July—was calm by stadium planning standards. Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms—who heads the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, the body that owns Turner Field and its parking lots—both offered assurances to attendees that their voices would be heard in a meaningful manner throughout the LCI process. John Skach, a senior associate with Perkins+Will, the Atlanta-based design firm hired as a consultant for the study, then shared a presentation that showed the area’s once-connected street grid from a century ago and how subsequent plans for the Downtown Connector, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, and Turner Field broke up the area. Now, he said, much of the goal was to recreate a neighborhood street grid in what he deemed to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
“You can’t change the past,” Skach said. “You’ve got to learn from it, you’ve got to listen, and you have to design the vision for the future.”
After that introduction, attendees walked around to different stations where planners fielded questions about the process (some wonky, like one about the finer nuances of MRC-3 zoning) and solicited ideas for the site’s future (submissions ranged from grocery store to zombie enclosure). They also asked community members to participate in interviews to document the area’s history in hopes of better preserving its character.
Though some attendees were engaged, others remained skeptical of the LCI study. Why the mistrust? Three groups had submitted bids for the Turner Field site; only one of them, Georgia State University and Atlanta-based developer Carter, is a well-known commodity (Mercury Youth Organization and the mysterious Rita Pearl World Kingdom, LLC, are the others). GSU’s plan for a $250 million redevelopment—which enjoys Reed’s backing—is considered the leading contender. “To be honest with you, it’s the same old, same old,” said Mechanicsville Civic Association President David Holder. “Come on, we all know who’s going to get it.” Considering the Rec Authority hasn’t released details about the sale’s timeline, Holder has doubts about the LCI and wonders if it’s a charade.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Matthew Garbett, a spokesperson for the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition, said of the LCI study. “What would remove the ‘cautious’ would be timelines. Knowing the final contract won’t be signed until after the LCI is complete would improve the process.”
Bottoms has insisted that time is of the essence. If no buyer is secured before the end of 2016, she’s argued, taxpayers will bear the estimated $5 million annual cost to maintain the property. To ensure the LCI’s findings influence Turner Field’s redevelopment, the Rec Authority asked developers only to apply if they’d be willing to work with the communities during the process. According to the request for proposal, bidders will be “expected to demonstrate a commitment” to incorporate the LCI recommendations into their plans “where feasible.” If a winning bid gets selected before the LCI process finishes, the developer will be expected to join the remainder of the process.
Tim Keane, the city’s planning commissioner, also underscored that point when, during a short Q&A session, he was asked: “What’s the status of GSU’s bid on Turner Field? Is all of this moot?”
“Frankly, the timing is perfect,” Keane said. “We will be in the process, the community will be engaged in designing this plan. [The developer] will be responsible for executing it.”
Suzanne Mitchell, president of Organized Neighbors of Summerhill, agreed the LCI would offer residents the best chance to have their vision for the area realized. “We expect our voice to be heard,” she said. Residents will undoubtedly be heard, but whether they’re actually listened to will likely continue to be a concern.