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Urban Designers Ponder What's Next for Turner Field

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Copyright 2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Braves are set to move to Cobb County in 2017 and Turner Field is likely destined for the wrecking ball.

Ted Turner hates the idea of his namesake being reduced to rubble and said last week that returning it to nature wouldn't be a bad idea.

Turner, the visionary who created CNN and once owned the Braves, hoped they'd find "a woman's soccer team or something like that" to use the park. But, he told the Associated Press, "the idea of turning it into a green-space park would be wonderful." Atlanta already has enough shopping, he figures.

So what to do with a 60-acre blank asphalt slate? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called several urban designers, asking for some ideas to revive an area whose decay started with 1960s "urban renewal" and continued with decades of civic indifference.

A couple designers say the move may be a "silver lining," a chance to inject new life into the city's urban core. Another sees the Braves' move as pretty close to the worst idea ever and doesn't even want to entertain Plan B. Several said the neighborhood should grow back block by block, with many, different individual decisions made by small developers. Or it could get a governmental boost and a sense of place with a Georgia State University expansion. Or it could be --- warning, audacious idea coming --- a gleaming casino/entertainment complex.

In the "silver lining" camp is Jeffrey Dufresne, executive director of the Urban Land Institute, Atlanta, who sees "an opportunity in the heart of our city" for an area currently "a no-man's land."

A baseball field with thousands of fans coming 81 days a year and parking their cars on a vast expanse of surrounding asphalt doesn't leave much for the other 284 days, he said. The Braves' exodus would remove the force that has kept the area in limbo, he said. A change in perception for the area is needed to prime a rebirth, he said, and Turner, with his notion of green space, might be onto something.

Dufresne points to the 17-acre park that opened in 2011 in the the Old Fourth Ward as an event that changed the character of that neighborhood.

"It has stimulated development around it; it's a completely different place," he said. Putting in green space and expanding Georgia State University to the Turner Field area would "allow developers to see the potential."

The city should swoop in with a mega-master plan, a la Atlantic Station, he said, referring to the development north of downtown that rose from an old steel mill. "You need a vision; you need to make it a place, not a single project," Dufresne said. "It will take time. It's a process."

Bob Begle, a veteran designer with Lord Aeck Sargent, worked with pre-Olympic urban redevelopment in Atlanta. He said the decay has taken more than 50 years and bringing it back must be a slow, well-thought-out process.

The most obvious opportunity, he said is redeveloping the parking lots on the west side of the I-75/85 Downtown Connector and the acreage on the southern end of the land around where the ballpark now stands. Those areas are contiguous to existing neighborhoods. "You have to start restitching the neighborhoods back together bit by bit," he said.

Begle worked recently to complete the Connector Transformation plan --- funded by government and business entities --- that would build two bridges crossing over I-75/85 in downtown and Midtown and also help beautify what he calls a "concrete canyon, a scar sliced through the city."

Trees, gardens, pedestrian walkways and bike paths along the highway help "connect the urban fabric" and change a decades-long view of dead, concrete urban wastelands. "One step begets the next step and starts a cascading effect," he said.

Don Buenger, a principal with Urban Design Group, has one word and says it could be a game changer: Casino.

The recession helped move most of Buenger's practice in recent years to designing gaming complexes, as governments looked to replace declining revenue streams with gambling. Recent discussions about casino gambling --- which is not legal in Georgia --- have centered on downtown's long-fading Underground Atlanta. But Buenger says Underground's footprint is "somewhat constraining to what a casino is these days."

The Turner Field area, at the intersection of I-75/85 and I-20, is the perfect spot for a facility mixing gambling, entertainment, restaurants and lodging. "They usually have 1,200 to 2,000 employees and that's a continuous number," he said. "It could help the convention trade extremely well."

Ryan Gravel is the former Georgia Tech student whose thesis dreamed up the Beltline, the old railroad bed that is now a green space/walkway transforming Atlanta neighborhoods. Gravel didn't even want to entertain the idea of redevelopment plans for the area around Turner Field.

Moving the ballpark to the suburbs "bucks the trend of every sports team in the country," said Gravel, now an urban designer with Perkins + Will. "It's not rocket science, it's done everywhere else. The idea of creating a cool place at Windy Hill Road, I don't think any amount of money can do that. What they'll end up with is lifestyle centers surrounded by parking lots with new exit ramps that they aren't talking about."

Gravel's colleague, David Green, who is also a professor, was in Ukraine and by email said this was "an incredibly difficult issue" that would need "some serious audacity" from many groups that often don't work together.

Green envisioned a progression of public events around the area, aided by relaxed zoning ordinances and creative involvement from individuals and businesses, that included a minor league ball team, a music festival headed by Atlanta natives Outkast, Turner's buffalos roaming around the old stadium and a "Real Housewives of Atlanta" marathon on the Jumbotron.

It may have been humor, jet lag or a planner thinking waaaay outside the box. But in the upcoming years, Atlantans will likely see all of that.

 

December 15, 2013

 

 
 

 

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