Beneath the proposed site of the Atlanta United FC soccer complex, workers unearthed a hidden vulnerability: decades of buried household trash and construction debris, 35 feet thick in places and acres long.
The old landfill posed an ongoing risk and doomed the project that many hoped would be an economic catalyst for central DeKalb County, according to a study obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request.
Faced with a $20 million cost to excavate the landfill, Atlanta United fled DeKalb, abandoning plans to build a 3,500-seat stadium, six practice fields and the team’s corporate headquarters there. The team, which will play its first season in 2017 in the Atlanta Falcons’ new downtown stadium, announced Nov. 6 it will instead build practice facilities in Marietta.
Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May said he was aware of the landfill when the county approved more than $12 million worth of incentives Aug. 4 for Atlanta United to build on the site, which is located near Interstate 285 and the county jail.
The landfill was the reason that the county conducted the study, May said. After learning the results of the study, he and team owner Arthur Blank agreed that the soccer complex wasn’t financially viable.
May said the government land, which is near two MARTA stations, could be used for different purposes that don’t require a pristine, flat, grassy surface. If landfill materials shift and settle, the study concluded, that could have created an uneven playing surface on the team’s practice fields.
May said his proposal for a Downtown DeKalb, with a government building and mixed-use development, would still be possible for the area.
“We’re disappointed, but we still have tremendous opportunities to advance development along this corridor,” May said. “There were unique challenges for a soccer facility of this nature for this site. There would not be the same type of challenges for a mixed-use, commercial or industrially oriented development.”
Supporters of the soccer complex said it could have jump-started economic growth in the area by attracting fans, restaurants and other businesses.
“I had very high hopes that they would come, and I was heartbroken that they chose another place,” said Joscelyn O’Neil, who lives near the area and wants to see it revitalized. “People would have started looking at us as a place to bring better businesses.”
Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who voted against the incentive package for Atlanta United, said county leaders should have evaluated the viability of the site before striking a deal to build there. When the agreement fell apart, DeKalb was left with more bad publicity, she said.
“They just wanted it to work so badly that they didn’t do their homework,” Gannon said. “We’re not in a position where we can jump on things and not have thought them through and done good reconnaissance.”
A separate county study found minimal soil contamination, which the county estimates would cost about $1 million to clean up. The DeKalb Commission budgeted $3 million in July to demolish government buildings and clear land on the site, and some of that work had already begun.
DeKalb’s government spent nearly $1 million on site preparations — moving heavy equipment, uprooting parking lots, relocating staff and tearing down buildings — before Atlanta United and the county mutually decided to part ways. May said that work cleared the way for future development.
Outside engineers said decommissioned landfills are frequently re-purposed for other kinds of development.
“The top will continue to settle over time. That’s an issue for a soccer field, which has to remain perfectly level,” said Susan Burns, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “You don’t want any lawsuits if people break their legs or something playing soccer.”
It’s not unusual to study the site’s feasibility after a project is proposed, instead of before, said Marc Barter, a structural engineer who owns Barter and Associates in Mobile, Ala.
“If it works out, great. If not, now you have a study and you can look for other things for it,” Barter said.
Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, whose district includes the former soccer site, said she believes the area near I-285 and Memorial Drive will draw interest from other businesses.
“It’s very disheartening” that Atlanta United relocated from DeKalb, Johnson said. “I would like to see some economic engine brought to DeKalb because that’s what we need.”
The $12 million incentive package had been approved Aug. 4 on a 4-3 vote, with dissenting commissioners arguing it wasn’t a responsible use of tax money. Now those funds will remain in the county’s general fund and available for other purposes.
“I’m glad we don’t have this liability hanging over us,” said Commissioner Nancy Jester, one of the those who opposed the measure. “That kind of financing, no matter how you slice it, was going to be a bad deal for the taxpayer.”