With World Cup looming, a push for progress in downtown Atlanta

Residents relish the investment downtown will receive before it hosts eight World Cup matches in 2026. They hope it doesn’t disappear after the final whistle blows.
Downtown leaders say the 2026 World Cup games in Atlanta present the same revitalization opportunity as the 1996 Olympics. This aerial photo shows the Gulch, which is unbuilt but envisioned as the site of major development, Wednesday, August 9, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Downtown leaders say the 2026 World Cup games in Atlanta present the same revitalization opportunity as the 1996 Olympics. This aerial photo shows the Gulch, which is unbuilt but envisioned as the site of major development, Wednesday, August 9, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Scrimmage time is over. Now, it’s time to prepare for kickoff.

Atlanta was awarded eight matches on Sunday in the 2026 World Cup, including a semifinal game. Sports fans from across the globe will attend the matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and bask in the fervor of the world’s most popular game — an energy that all host cities are expected to cultivate.

Atlanta is on the clock to craft a downtown experience worthy of a World Cup stage. But residents who have called the city center home for decades hope they aren’t forgotten once the fanfare dies down.

“We need to roll out the red carpet,” said John Fischer, president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association (ADNA). “But let’s not roll it back up and put it away after the visitors are gone.”

The World Cup is the largest event Atlanta has landed since the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, a pivotal moment that transformed downtown. Some additions like Centennial Olympic Park remain and spurred new investments like the Georgia Aquarium. Others have faded away.

Downtown leaders say the World Cup presents the same revitalization opportunity. It also serves as a challenge to leverage the international attention beyond 2026 to boost the vibrancy in a place that often goes overlooked outside large events.

“We know this is a generational opportunity to set the trajectory for the next 30 years,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “We are excited about the opportunity to reimagine a downtown Atlanta that works for everyone: residents, students, workers and visitors.”

Views of The Gulch in Atlanta shown on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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The World Cup also acts as a deadline for downtown’s largest projects, with developers feeling pressure to try to deliver whatever they can before millions get their first impression of Atlanta.

Brian McGowan is president and CEO of Centennial Yards, a mini-city atop the 50-acre tangle of parking lots and rail lines known as the Gulch outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He said the World Cup should be top of mind for all Atlanta developers.

“We’re going to have a countdown clock to the World Cup installed in our office just to make sure that focusing on doing everything we can to deliver as much as we can by that date,” he said.

Accelerating plans

World Cup competition isn’t limited to just the pitch — host cities also have to jockey for position.

Atlanta is among 16 host cities in North America, but its international exposure is poised to be among the largest. Only Dallas will hold more matches than Atlanta.

Last week, A.J. Robinson, president and CEO of downtown civic organization Central Atlanta Progress, urged Atlanta’s business elite at the group’s annual meeting to rally behind downtown.

“We don’t want to be seen as a place that didn’t measure up to the other cities that have been chosen,” he said.

While downtown is home to many of Atlanta’s most famous attractions, it has struggled in comparison to other parts of the city. The pandemic hit downtown particularly hard, disrupting its hospitality and entertainment industries while upending its office market.

Due to high interest rates and a tough lending environment, new construction has also been a challenge.

Centennial Yards shelved its office tower plans because of lagging demand, choosing instead to begin building a hotel and apartment tower. McGowan said he will announce more vertical projects next quarter, but any developments that have yet to break ground will be on a tight deadline to open by 2026.

“We’re the only ones that are actually building anything, so hopefully this will spur others to accelerate their plans as well,” he said.

Views of The Gulch in Atlanta shown on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Shaneel Lalani, the owner of Underground Atlanta, has delayed plans to build residential towers near his property, citing a tight investment and lending market. His focus has turned inward, trying to lease tenant spaces within the decades-old entertainment complex and provide a landing spot for World Cup travelers looking for fun outside the matches. Lalani said even incomplete projects that are underway have their benefits.

“By 2026, there’s going to be a lot of cranes in the air in downtown,” he said. “That’s a good way to welcome the public too, because they can see the investment that is happening downtown. Hopefully some of those visitors can turn into residents.”

Capturing momentum

Adam Shumaker, who has lived downtown for more than 25 years, see the World Cup as a much-needed catalyst.

“I’m actually more excited about the aftermath of the World Cup,” he said. “... It creates pressure and demand for betterment for the neighborhood.”

Like many downtown residents, Shumaker lives in a condo building that started its life as offices. He said the Olympics created the demand to give his building a residential makeover, and he expects the World Cup will have a similar result.

Atlanta has a lot of renewed interest in office-to-residential conversions, given its glut of unwanted office space. The largest would turn the 40-plus story office tower at 2 Peachtree Street into hundreds of affordable homes. Other initiatives focus on the city’s homeless, such as a recent project using retrofitted shipping containers as homes.

Fischer, the ADNA president, said the World Cup should further beautification and transportation projects. He called those forms of upkeep the “blocking and tackling” of event preparation, from cleaning streets to improving bike lanes.

“Making it appealing to visitors will also make it appealing to future residents,” he said.

MARTA’s planned renovation of the Five Points station, a critical train network node, won’t be complete by the World Cup, but a MARTA spokesperson said platform improvements will be finished by then. The agency said it will “ensure the station is ready to host soccer fans from around the world.”

Views Five Points Marta Station in Atlanta shown on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Filling out downtown’s roster of critical development stakeholders are Atlanta Tech Village founders David Cummings and Jon Birdsong. They recently acquired several blocks of historic buildings near Five Points and have a vision to turn it into a technology and startup hub.

McGowan said collaboration will be key to deliver the city’s large promises before the first whistle sounds.

“All the right players are on the field,” he said. “We just have to get everybody in formation to play together.”


Future of Downtown

This story is part of an occasional series the AJC is starting to look at the future of Atlanta’s downtown. The city’s center has endured much the last several years, from COVID-19 and its impact on the office market and convention business, to inflation and challenging financial markets for real estate. Three high-profile redevelopment projects – Centennial Yards, South Downtown and Underground Atlanta – are poised to bring billions of dollars in new investment into the city’s core. Established institutions, such as Georgia State University, the Georgia World Congress Center, corporations, tourist attractions and local, state and federal agencies, also play major roles in shaping downtown’s future. This series will look at topics such as the upcoming World Cup as a key milestone to implement a number of important projects downtown, but the series will go further and examine ways to improve and enhance downtown’s livability, mobility and image for years to come.

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