Thursday, February 20, 2014

Confusion over MLK Drive near Falcons stadium continues, city pledges to make public more aware

Posted By on Thu, Feb 20, 2014 at 12:28 PM

Team officials say reconnecting street with Downtown might be too costly
  • Atlanta Falcons
  • Team officials say reconnecting street with Downtown might be too costly
The plan to realign Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to make way for the new Atlanta Falcons stadium became slightly less confusing - but more controversial - as officials on Wednesday explained another proposal at a City Council committee session. At least 70 residents attended to question the plan, one of several that's been presented.

In the latest version, MLK Drive would merge with Mitchell and Tatnall streets west of Centennial Olympic Park Drive. The hybrid streets do not even have a name yet, though city and Falcons officials tossed around the terms "New MLK" and "Old MLK." But part might still be called "Mitchell" to preserve street addresses, creating an MLK gap.

Acknowledging that public input must improve, city officials said they will hire a project manager to serve as a point person and run more community forums. And Falcons officials will meet next week with a prominent critic, Georgia Tech planning professor Michael Dobbins, about his alternative roadway plan for the area surrounding the stadium.

The street issues revolve around promises to improve car and pedestrian connectivity between Downtown and west side communities, especially Vine City, English Avenue, and the Atlanta University Center. That's intended to be vastly different from the Georgia Dome and Georgia World Congress Center, which blocks several neighborhoods literally and figuratively from the city's core.

MLK Drive runs along the south side of the stadium site. The original concept had the street simply bend a bit to accommodate the stadium. But Falcons officials on Wednesday said that a National Football League guideline requiring a 100-foot security perimeter makes that impossible.

The merger with Mitchell Street solves that problem, they argue. But it also creates the weird situation of potentially two different MLK Drive sections running parallel to each other for two blocks west of Northside Drive, before merging. That kind of confusion was criticized by many residents and representatives from such institutions as Central United Methodist Church, who said the recent surprise demolition of a viaduct portion of MLK Drive demolition and detours are already negatively impacting them with traffic tie-ups and lost drivers.

The confusion also bred a rumor earlier this month that MLK Drive would "dead-end" at Northside. Katrina Taylor Parks, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Kasim Reed, acknowledged that poor or fragmented city communications likely were blame for the rumor.

Confusion isn't the only issue, however. Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean noted that today's MLK Drive and Mitchell Street combined have eight lanes, while the merged plan has only four lanes total. City planners said that will handle traffic about the same, but admitted their traffic model accounts for only the next three years of growth.

"We're not improving anything. We're making it worse," Adrean said. "We're ripping up stuff now... It seems to me we should be planning for capacity for more than three years [ahead]."

Dobbins and some councilmembers also pushed hard for the Falcons to reconsider extending Magnolia Street, which was truncated when the GWCC was built, through the northern end of the proposed stadium site, effectively reconnecting it with Downtown. Falcons officials say it would cost $100 million due to a steep grade changes and other issues.

"It's inconceivable to me, as a registered architect, that it takes $100 million to build a 500-foot street," said Dobbins, who is also a former city planning commissioner.

"That street needs to be reopened," said Councilmember Michael Julian Bond.

Several Reed administration officials, including Interim Chief Operating Officer Michael Geisler, defended the stadium planning as responsive to community input. But as the committee hearing dragged on for three hours, it was clear that many councilmembers and residents were still in the dark on basic facts. Several expressed surprise that the current MLK Drive plan is the eleventh version drawn up so far. And some parts of the plan aren't even on paper at all yet.

Taylor Parks said the city will run more public forums about infrastructure plans and will hire a project manager within 30 days.

The Falcons are showing interest in public meetings in another way. The team has a consultant, who CL observed at work during the session, documenting and "archiving" the entire public process for its own uses.

The hearing of the City Utilities Committee technically was supposed to be about reviewing less controversial plans to hand over some smaller streets to the Falcons to build on top of. But the focus was on MLK Drive issues.

Deborah Scott, executive director of the community development nonprofit Georgia STAND-UP, reminded officials about the street's historic namesake, and how any changes are likely to last for generations.

"History is watching us," she said.

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