It’s a fall Sunday in Denver, and Coors Field, home to the Colorado Rockies, is padlocked. But the streets surrounding the baseball stadium are bustling.
The Denver Broncos, the city’s football team, is playing on TV, and a half a dozen bars and restaurants within a Peyton Manning pass of Coors Field are overflowing. Surprisingly, it’s patio weather in the city that sits at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. That means the party is as much outdoors as it is inside. Revelers are on rooftops. Diners are taking their meals outside, with one eye on the home team and another on the scenery of Lower Downtown — LoDo to the locals.
Welcome to what many urban planners call the best stadium neighborhood in America. LoDo earns such praise because Denver planned and delivered beyond expectation large-scale urban revitalization tied to the construction of its baseball stadium. While some big cities, including Atlanta, have failed live up to plans to use stadium construction as a catalyst for redevelopment, Denver has executed its vision of walkable streets, high-end condos and restaurants and bars that draw visitors 365 days a year.
Atlanta’s decades-long inability spur development around Turner Field is the reason that one year ago the Braves announced the team would not renew its lease. Now the team is looking to Denver and a handful of other cities as a model for creating a live-work-play development anchored by a stadium.
The Braves will play the 2017 season in a $622 million stadium under construction in Cobb County. Cobb taxpayers will finance more than half the stadium costs, betting that the stadium will stimulate enough development to create jobs and additional revenue through sales and property tax growth. The team is investing $400 million to build a mixed-use development that will feature shopping, dining and other entertainment options. The hope to attract to potential residents and businesses to lay down roots and to become a preferred entertainment destination for the rest of the region.
“Denver is a great example (of the type of development) that we have cited for a number of years,” said Braves Executive Vice President Mike Plant. “Denver, Cincinnati, San Diego, Houston are all good examples of taking a ballpark … as a nucleus and creating that destination around a sports facility. That’s what we intend to do in Cobb.”
How Denver did it
Coors Field is two years older than Turner Field, but light years ahead in the impact it has had on its neighbors.
Like Turner Field, Coors Field was built on the edge of downtown in a neglected area starving for new development. But unlike Atlanta, Denver got multi-county, regional buy-in to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into LoDo. First, voters approved sales taxes to build the stadium and the infrastructure surrounding it. Regional voters then approved new tax dollars to fund a transportation plan that expanded light rail, added street cars to downtown and put more express buses on the road to connect downtown with the outer suburbs.
A regional transportation plan was critical to Denver executing a larger plan for downtown, one that relied on the willingness of those living outside of the city to devote resources where they do not live, said Tami Door, president and CEO of Downtown Denver Partnership.
“The region and the city fully understood that placing your biggest cultural and sports assets in the center of your city created an epicenter in the heart of the region beneficial to everyone,” Door said. “It really defined the region and benefited all regardless that it wasn’t located outside the core.”
An additional benefit perhaps not envisioned two decades ago when the investment in LoDo began is how this walkable, upscale community would one day attract the most sought after new residents cities are fighting over: high-income retirees and well-educated millennials.
Rita Huey is one of those retirees, who decided she would invest in the area more than 20 years ago, when the city committed to building a pro baseball stadium even before Major League Baseball awarded Denver the Rockies. She bought a condo in one of the first residential developments in the area. A parking lot separates the front door of her building from the front gate of Coors Field.
Huey’s neighborhood consists of some of Denver’s most educated and affluent residents, where, according to recent Census figures, nearly two thirds of residents were born outside of Colorado.
“I love it here,” Huey said, on a recent afternoon when she was walking her friend’s dog in a courtyard on the Coors Field complex. “And I thought the investment opportunity would pay off and it has. They’re about to build a [grocery store] nearby. You can take the train anywhere. I’m in the center of everything.”
Atlanta’s lost opportunity
Plant says the Braves began working in earnest with the city of Atlanta and Fulton County in 2005 to redevelop the area around Turner Field.
The ballpark and the vast surface parking around it is owned by the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority. There are a little less than 50 acres surrounding the stadium that the Braves wanted developed into an entertainment district, with the goal of enticing fans to come early, stay late and spend more money. In turn, the property values of the surrounding neighborhoods would rise and additional investment would follow, according to those advocating such a development.
A development plan was adopted in 2005. Plans for $100 million in bonds to pay for infrastructure around the stadium was discussed in 2010. Ultimately, Plant said, local government interest in new development never matched the interest of the ballclub.
“For the past nine years, we’ve spent money, did due diligence, brought in architects, started identifying potential partners, all with an eye toward developing the area outside our front door,” Plant said. “In the end, we did not see the same type of willingness from the entities that own Turner Field to make something like that happen. You can’t just have one of the partners make all of the commitment and take the initiative it requires in a partnership.”
The 2005 stadium redevelopment plan was ambitious and was aimed at transforming the neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field, especially Summerhill and Mechanicsville, where poverty was increasing and population was dwindling.
Before the plan could get off the ground, the greatest recession in U.S. history put a halt to building of any kind.
The Braves, the city and AFCRA continued talks nearly up until the time the Braves made the decision to move to Cobb.
The Braves final proposal to the city was to allow the team to lead on the development of apartments, restaurants and hotels that the team estimated could earn it $200 million in revenue over the life of a 20-year lease.
The city balked at the request, in part because turning over publicly owned land to a private business without a competitive bid likely violated the law.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed questions whether that plan would have been sustainable.
“Here’s the deal. I think that in order to really make Turner Field work, you needed a big residential component,” Reed said. “I don’t know a lot of people who will purchase a home at a quarter of a million (dollars), $400,000-$500,000 price-point and have their lives and their families’ lives interrupted 81 times a year with the kind of traffic that goes into the Turner Field area.”
In Denver, there are young people and some retirees don’t mind such activity. They seek it out, as lofts in LoDo rent for $2,000 a month and sell for $400,000 and up to be close to the amenities around Coors Field.
And at least one Braves fan, who lives in Denver and works as a waiter in LoDo, thinks other Atlantans would have liked a stadium experience at Turner Field with a little more activity around it.
Dylan Peters wears his Braves hat to work in LoDo. And while he still roots for the Braves, he prefers the Coors Field experience.
“I used to tailgate at Turner Field and that’s fun,” Peters said. “Here [in LoDo] there’s bars, it’s in a hopping area. Turner Field is in the middle of nowhere. And that big field [where tailgaters congregate] that’s about all you have.”
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