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The stadium effect 

What happens when your neighbor is a multimillion dollar shrine to sports

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click to enlarge KEEPS THE FAITH: The Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of English Avenue’s Lindsay Street Baptist Church, is one of several ministers in nearby communities advocating for community benefits. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • KEEPS THE FAITH: The Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of English Avenue’s Lindsay Street Baptist Church, is one of several ministers in nearby communities advocating for community benefits.

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.)

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