City hopes parking lots around Turner Field could be launching pad for development

If Atlanta officials have their way, the sprawling parking lots surrounding Turner Field will be turned into a vibrant, mixed-use area anchored by retail and parks that draw crowds even when the Braves are on the road.

Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, sent out a request Friday seeking specific ideas from developers on how to transform a 55-acre tract of land north of the ballpark into a sports and entertainment district that would become an unparalleled attraction.

It’s clearly more ambitious than earlier attempts at overhauling Turner Field’s surroundings, such as the ill-fated FanPlex, the $2.5 million entertainment center that closed down in early 2004 only 18 months after it opened. The city wants developers to come up with plans that rival popular complexes near other stadiums, such as San Diego’s Petco Park, which is bordered by a lively nightlife and shopping district.

Officials acknowledge any sort of expensive overhaul in a blighted area is a tricky proposition in this uneasy economy. Even projects in affluent parts of town, like the ongoing redevelopment known as Buckhead Atlanta, have been derailed amid the lending freeze. And even if a sports and entertainment center is built, it will face plenty of competition from Atlantic Station and smaller mixed-use centers scattered across the metro area.

But Ty Rachal, Invest Atlanta’s redevelopment director, said recent signs seem to point to a reawakening of the local market.

“We’ve been working on it for quite some time,” he said. “We’re at the right time to launch this idea phase so that, as we’re coming out of the recession, we’ll be in front of the recovery.”

City officials ultimately want to do more than just bring new energy to the wasteland of parking lots that include remnants of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

They want to ease concerns of Braves fans and residents who are frustrated that new development hasn’t taken root around the stadium. A special tax district established in the area has raised $386,000 in property taxes since it was created in 2006 but has yet to leverage those funds, or other incentives, to foster economic growth there.

And a new sports and entertainment district could appease the Braves, whose lease on Turner Field and nearby parking lots ends in 2016, potentially freeing them up to leave the area. While team owner Liberty Media is unlikely to move the Braves, team executives recently met with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to press for ways to add a jolt to the neighborhood.

“Mayor Reed values our organization staying in Atlanta, and this initiative is something that came out of that discussion: A public-private partnership that keeps the Atlanta Braves in the city of Atlanta,” said Mike Plant, the team’s vice president for business operations.

City officials created the Stadium Neighborhoods tax district six years ago with the hope it would spur construction of new parking decks anchored by retail and other developments. But a city audit released this summer shows city officials have made no concrete progress in reaching those goals.

The city’s request for ideas seeks to change all that. It calls for ideas for a “high density urban destination” that could support thousands of fans on game days and an active neighborhood when the Braves are out of town. But that’s far from all.

Invest Atlanta also wants proposals to include homages to the team, such as a way to honor Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 755th home run, and parking decks with 10,000 spaces into the plan. And it encourages ideas to improve the area’s access to public transportation, highlighting a proposal for a streetcar route that would connect downtown with the stadium and Grant Park.

“We’re acknowledging what everyone knows: There’s a higher and better use for this property than surface parking,” said Amanda Rhein, a redevelopment manager at Invest Atlanta.

Mixed-use projects in the metro area have stumbled during the economic downturn, and attracting the capital required for the project won’t be easy. But city officials readily point to the site’s built-in advantages: a huge parcel of readily available land near the city’s center, leadership eager for a deal and, of course, a guaranteed crowd of thousands of fans for at least 81 home games.

“Stadiums can be a real nucleus of commercial energy,” said Plant. “We’re excited to see what comes out of it. I think the right opportunities are there, and there are investors looking for these types of opportunities.”

Economic development officials stressed that the request for ideas sent out on Friday is only an early step in a process that could take years to develop. Public help, too, would likely be required in the form of bonds that could help finance the project. But it’s far too early to tell how much would need to be raised, they say.

It’s hard for some residents to shake memories of the FanPlex, the government-built complex featuring miniature golf and arcade games near the stadium that bled money from the moment it opened in 2002.

This time, some neighbors are cautiously optimistic.

“Anything that comes to south Atlanta that raises revenue and brings development to remove blight is a good thing,” said Tone Lane, a graphics artist who has lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood near Turner Field for five years.

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