The story so far…
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has produced the most complete coverage of the Braves move to Cobb County, and the complex issues surrounding the effort to recruit the Braves to the ‘burbs and the mammoth undertaking to build a $1 billion-plus stadium and entertainment district. This is the third in a series of stories looking at what has been accomplished in the year since the Braves announced their plans to leave downtown. The series will detail the challenges that lay ahead for the Braves as they move forward. Other stories will look at the specific design of the stadium, traffic and parking around the site, and the future of the area the Braves are leaving behind — Turner Field.
Cobb County officials say they intend to build a bridge to link the Braves stadium and mixed-use development to thousands of parking spaces on the other side of I-285, even though one year after the announcement they still don’t know how much the bridge will cost or how the county will pay for its half.
In releasing information about the bridge the day after the Braves’ announced their move to Cobb County, Commission Chairman Tim Lee incorrectly said the bridge was included in the stadium project budget.
Today, the bridge’s design and importance have come into sharper focus, as has the fact that county taxpayers will likely be asked to cough up more money to pay for half of the bridge construction. All of that is revealed in hundreds of pages of documents — emails, reports, artist renderings and conceptual drawings — obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the Georgia Open Records Act.
As currently envisioned, the bridge would tie into the heart of the Braves’ mixed-use development and grand plaza, which will serve as the gateway between the entertainment district and the ballpark, said R. Lamar Wakefield, the CEO of Wakefield Beasley & Associates which is designing the mixed-use entertainment district.
It would establish a gateway to the needed parking spaces, and months of design work show it supporting a circulator tram that would connect people at the Cumberland Mall, the Galleria Centre and offices or hotels in the area with the stadium and mixed-use development.
Cobb transportation director Faye DiMassimo said late Monday that the bridge no longer is envisioned to support the circulator buses. She said the buses were removed from the plan “sometime about middle of the summer because of concern over cost.”
None of the documents obtained by the AJC indicate removing the buses from the bridge. Likewise, none of the documents have any cost estimates showing what a bridge engineered to support the circulator would cost.
Having a safe path for pedestrians is important since game-day parking will be scattered in lots and decks across the area. The Braves have committed to controlling 10,000 parking spaces when the stadium opens, more than the available spaces at Turner Field. Some will be built within the development, others will be leased from adjacent properties.
“In addition to the thousands of spaces within the development and the various other methods of transit … there are 35,000 parking spaces around the Cumberland area, so there will be cars parked outside of the development, so the bridge is important for pedestrian safety and we are actively engaged in making that happen with our partners from Cobb,” said Mike Plant, the Braves executive vice president of business operations.
The Atlanta Regional Commission agrees that the bridge is important for pedestrian safety.
In signing off on a major study, called a Development of Regional Impact, ARC staff wrote that the results of the Braves’ traffic study are “highly dependent” on the bridge and circulator bus projects.
“If the pedestrian bridge is not in place and circulator buses are not present, approximately 16,000 people … will be required to cross Cobb Parkway to access the site, and the resulting traffic delays associated with these pedestrian movements are not reflected in the traffic study, thus rendering many … estimates invalid,” the report says.
The bridge’s design is also moving forward, although it is still a work in progress, according to documents reviewed by the newspaper.
There are two primary locations that have been discussed over the past six months — one would require a span of 1,700 feet; the other about 1,000 feet. Emails show the county leaning toward the shorter span.
Renderings of the bridge show lighted, sweeping iron curves over I-285 lanes. The plan is to run I-75 managed lanes underneath, with the bridge providing pedestals to support future Revive I-285 lanes overhead, the documents show. The bridge itself would carry trams on one side; pedestrians and bicyclists on the other.
County officials have labeled the $9 million cost estimate “conceptual.” And while it is unclear if the cost will be higher, a 290-foot pedestrian bridge over Georgia 400 cost MARTA $18.2 million to build. The final price tag after engineering was $32 million.
The only event held so far at the Braves ballpark site happened in September, when several hundred people were invited to the stadium groundbreaking.
The Braves arranged for parking at nearby lots and shuttled guests to the site. But even that small event brought out signs and office building attendants to warn off people looking to park in private lots.
“Building Tenant and Building Visitor Parking Only,” a handful of signs read.
The Galleria Office Park, with its 5,500 parking spaces on the far side of the pedestrian bridge, also do not want Braves fans parking there. Connie Engel, a partner with Childress Klein Atlanta, said that while her company supports the Braves move, it has declined the Braves offer to lease parking spaces because “the needs of our office tenants come first.”
Tad Leithead, chairman of the Cumberland Community Improvement District, which is providing $10 million for infrastructure improvements around the Braves site, called solving the parking issue “complicated.”
“The property owners in the vicinity of the Braves stadium are excited about the Braves being there, but at the same time they want to have parking for their tenants,” Leithead said. “They don’t want their tenants or shoppers at the mall to not have enough parking because of a Braves game.
“I firmly believe there’s a way to work that out and it will be.”
Neil deMause, author of the book Field of Schemes who also maintains a blog about professional sports stadiums, wrote last year that the shuttle bus idea along with parking scattered surrounding the stadium is “absolutely nuts” because it requires “showing up way (early) … and taking way longer to get out of dodge once it’s time to leave.”
deMause stuck by that assessment in an interview last week.
“Cobb is going to be the least urban stadium in baseball,” he said. “Not having easy parking seems like a bad plan.”
It’s been a confusing year for news on the pedestrian bridge.
The first indication that the cost of the bridge was not built into the ballpark’s $622 million budget came just three weeks after Lee said it was included: a preliminary agreement between Cobb and the Braves makes the county responsible for most infrastructure improvements, and says the bridge construction is subject to “best efforts” to obtain funding.
The AJC reported in May that the bridge’s future was in question, after Cobb transportation director Faye DiMassimo told the newspaper “I don’t know that anything about it is definite at this point.” DiMassimo went on to say that the county was committed to the project but “it’s hard to know what the funding will be.” Just days before that, design work on the bridge was “put on hold” because of questions about its feasibility, according to emails reviewed by the newspaper.
About one month later, in June, the county notified the Atlanta Regional Commission that it would use federal transit funds to pay for half of the bridge, and cover the other half with local monies.
Lee was pressed on bridge funding after a commission meeting in July, at which the county approved zoning for the Braves mixed-use development.
Lee was also under pressure at the time because of AJC reporting that found the county would borrow up to $397 million toward stadium construction — which seemingly contradicts the chairman’s claim that the county contribution to stadium construction is “capped” at $300 million. The county will use rent payments from the Braves to cover a portion of debt payments.
“Could the bridge be an additional expense for taxpayers,” Lee was asked July 15 as he stood in the middle of a throng of reporters.
“Probably not. No. I doubt it,” Lee responded. “I doubt it seriously.”
“Will the funding be private?”
“We don’t know,” Lee responded. “So good question, but I’d hate to say this is going to happen (or) that’s going to happen when I don’t know where it’s going to be or how it’s going to be used.”
At that time, the bridge’s location had been narrowed to two sites, according to documents reviewed by the newspaper.
When asked last week why he made those statements, Lee responded that he was “hopeful that there would be a funding strategy that could cover the entire cost. But after discussing further with Cobb DOT, I later understood that scenario is unlikely.”
The county says it intends to have bridge construction complete by first pitch 2017, but hasn’t said how it will pay for its share.