After more than three years of construction, it’s down to punch list time to get the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium ready for its grand debut: a Falcons preseason game on Saturday.
The opening of the 71,000-seat arena was always the easiest part of the city’s renewed effort to rebuild Atlanta’s Westside. The hardest task is defying history — leveraging a sports facility to bring revitalization to struggling areas when past stadiums such as Turner Field and the Georgia Dome both failed.
Beginning with the original Atlanta Stadium in the 1960s, which wiped out blocks of the Summerhill community, arenas failed to deliver economic resurgence to downtown neighborhoods.
In exchange for $200 million in bonds for construction, and commitments of hundreds of millions more in public dollars for stadium upkeep and improvements over the next three decades, the Falcons and city officials promised immediate and continuing efforts to improve the nearby communities, some of the city’s most blighted.
Some community leaders say the changes they’re seeing make them hopeful this time things will be different.
Howard Beckham, once a sharp critic of the Falcons’ deal, is one believer.
Beckham, CEO of Integrity Transformations Community Development Corp., a nonprofit in workforce development that is now a partner with the foundation of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, said suspicion by neighborhood residents has waned.
“Good things have begun to happen in terms of job training, housing, security,” he said. “Just about on every front, things are changing in our community.”
Though he can see organizations investing millions in his neighborhood, Vine City citizen activist Tillman Ward said many of the systemic issues of poverty and neglect remain unanswered.
The Georgia World Congress Center and arenas cut off vital roads that connected the Westside neighborhoods to the jobs and vitality of downtown. Seven city streets near his home remain unpaved.
Ward said development pressure threatens to uproot long-time residents if more isn’t done to protect them. The motto of a rising tide lifting all boats, he said, isn’t always true.
“If we don’t identify all the holes in the boat we will continue to sink,” Ward said.
City and civic leaders say they recognize the failures that came more than two decades ago, when $100 million in grants and promises of renewal tied to the construction of the neighboring Georgia Dome failed to make much of a dent.
Richard Dugas, chairman of the Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit created by the mayor and Atlanta business leaders in late 2014 to be the “community quarterback” for community renewal, said decades of neglect in Vine City and English Avenue will take years to fix.
“The sheer physical scope of what we’re dealing with makes it so complex,” Dugas said. “I envision the Westside Future Fund being around 15 to 20 years.”
Commitments by the Future Fund, the city and Blank have led to tens of millions of dollars from other philanthropies, the federal government and business groups that failed to materialize with the Dome, Dugas said.
The communities now have momentum, and many civic leaders and corporations have skin in the game.
Westside revitalization, leaders say, is well beyond the startup phase. They point to new parks, infrastructure and educational programs for kids and job seekers that show signs of promise. In an area notorious for drug trafficking, overall crime is down some 40 percent, Atlanta police data show.
The long-term goal is to return neighborhoods such as Vine City, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived before his assassination, to the prosperity they enjoyed 50 years ago as strong mixed-income communities, hubs of a thriving middle class.
They pledge to do so while protecting residents who have stuck it out for decades from being displaced by gentrification, though pressure is already building as downtown sees a development boom.
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Vine City, English Avenue and other nearby neighborhoods claimed 50,000 residents at their peak in the 1960s. Today, it’s about 15,000, leaving a vacuum of empty lots and vacant homes. Poverty, unemployment, drug use and crime are high, and the housing collapse last decade deepened the wound.
In an interview, Mayor Kasim Reed said the efforts to build the stadium put the spotlight on the English Avenue and Vine City communities, and that without the new arena, those neighborhoods would not have seen the progress that’s underway.
Beyond infrastructure and policing, Reed pointed to a $30 million HUD grant in 2015 to help rebuild the community and a $5 million “anti-displacement” fund to protect homeowners from rising property taxes as values climb.
“We have kept our word and honored our commitments,” Reed said.
‘10 yards at a time’
Little, other than landing pro sports teams, was promised with the first Atlanta Stadium. The Georgia Dome and Olympic Stadium (which became Turner Field) also paved over parts of in-town neighborhoods that were predominantly black and poor.
Turner Field led to some new houses and the ill-fated Fanplex. Now Georgia State University and a private development are attempting to turn parking lots there into a mixed-use community and southern campus. On Friday, the modified ballpark hosted the kick-off of high school football and will hold its first Panthers football game this month.
City leaders promised revitalization with the Dome in 1990s, but the effort was squandered by a lack of planning, incompetence and some mismanagement.
Mickell Gober, 43, said he remembers hearing about money given more than two decades ago to churches and charities near the Dome. It was supposed to support job training and educational programs, but it didn’t pan out.
Gober recently earned a certificate from the nonprofit Westside Works in a construction program, backed by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
“I can honestly tell you that this is a very powerful step in the right direction,” he said.
Invest Atlanta and the Blank Foundation each committed $15 million to improve the lives of Westside residents.
Some critics of the revitalization efforts say it’s hard to tell much has changed just by looking at the communities’ front door, Northside Drive.
The street, which separates the stadium from Vine City and English Avenue, is lined with parking lots used primarily for game-day traffic and conventions at the Georgia World Congress Center. The restaurants, dry cleaners and grocery stores that the community craves are still absent.
“This is not going to be Matt Ryan throwing 90-yard touchdowns,” Blank said at recent gathering of the Future Fund. “This is going to be getting first downs 10 yards at a time.”
A community-driven master plan for the Westside will help guide future development of desperately needed retail, affordable housing and improvements to the neighborhoods’ streets, Dugas said.
Dugas, the former CEO of Fortune 500 homebuilder PulteGroup, said for nearly three years the Future Fund worked to define four key areas to improve the lives of residents of English Avenue, Vine City, Ashview Heights and the Atlanta University Center area.
Dugas said the goals center on developing mixed-income housing while protecting existing residents, improving crime and safety, health and wellness and “cradle-to-career” education.
The Future Fund also has a venue for immediate feedback and accountability. Twice a month, the group convenes a community meeting, the Transform Westside Summit, that’s part devotional, part briefing and part pep rally.
Reed, Blank, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, whose foundation started the summits in 2014, and other high-profile leaders often speak.
Early meetings were raw, with residents, church leaders and community groups suspicious of the Future Fund and its intentions. Those early tensions have eased, because Dugas said the Future Fund and its partners are delivering results.
A three-year sweep led by federal authorities that targeted dope peddlers reduced violent and drug-related crime by 40 percent, authorities say, and heroin dealers aren’t as likely to ply their deadly trade in broad daylight.
In November, five Atlanta Police officers moved into the neighborhood in homes built by a partnership between PulteGroup, the city, the Atlanta Police Foundation, the Atlanta Housing Authority and the Blank Foundation. The idea was to increase the presence and visibility of law enforcement in the community. More are on the way.
In a natural bowl in the earth north and west of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a park designed to capture storm runoff will one day cure the persistent flooding that wiped out 150 homes in Vine City a decade ago.
That park is named after Rodney Cook Sr., a white city and state elected official who was a noted civil rights advocate. It will honor Vine City’s rich civil rights legacy, with monuments to leaders including Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. It will also house the library of C.T. Vivian, a civil rights icon and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
Hundreds of residents helped build the stadium, and hundreds more took part in jobs training programs through Westside Works, learning skills in culinary arts, construction and other trades.
At a stadium job fair in July, dozens of neighborhood residents turned out to interview. Aides trained residents on interview skills, workplace apparel and basic technology.
“We’ve had individuals who don’t even know how to use a mouse,” said Africa Robinson, a workforce development manager for Center for Working Families.
In July, the Future Fund and Atlanta Public Schools announced a five-year, $16.4 million partnership to create “innovation schools” in the target neighborhoods. It will start with a pilot at Hollis Innovation Academy, a K-8 school founded last year focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
John Ahmann, executive director of the Future Fund, said Hollis students are among the state’s poorest.
Statistically speaking, Ahmann said, the stadium neighborhoods are “some of the worst neighborhoods to be born in Atlanta.”
“But I would love to say in 20 years that these are some of the best,” he said.
Choosing English Avenue
Antonia Thomas had heard about English Avenue’s Bluff area when she moved to Atlanta eight years ago and she knew it was not a place for her. Notorious for its drug sales and violence, the Bluff was off limits, even if it fit her budget.
But she moved to the Bluff five months ago, because of decreasing crime.
She said there is a real sense in the community that help has finally come.
“Before it was drug-related,” she said. “[There was] nothing for kids to do. So now they have built a youth center for the kids, giving them opportunities and making it more safe.”
Kelly Brown, an English Avenue resident who runs a video production company, records the twice-per-month community meetings run by the Future Fund to share with neighbors.
Brown said she can see positive changes happening, including reduced crime.
But while the Future Fund and other groups have the best intentions, she said she hasn’t seen answers for individuals on the street suffering from crippling addiction, chronic homelessness, mental health issues and other vexing social problems.
Others quietly expressed similar frustrations.
Brown said a neighbor is the sole breadwinner and caregiver for a mentally ill sister and child, which puts her livelihood at risk almost monthly if one or both needs help and she has to miss work.
Some she knows get by with odd jobs and work that isn’t exactly legal.
An addicted person might not trust an outsider or some large initiative for help, though he might trust a neighbor.
“There is a sincere effort for change to happen,” Brown said. “But how will they keep the people that have lived there for a lifetime from being left behind?”
Though boarded up houses still dot the landscape of Vine City and English Avenue, land prices are on the rise.
Instead of last decade’s housing bubble, which was fueled by flipping and mortgage fraud, speculators with cash sense deals of a lifetime. The next section of the Beltline trail, the New Urbanist dream of trails and future transit that ring downtown, is soon to open.
The speculation is one indication the market likes what the city and community are doing. But it also leads to an unintended consequence: displacement.
“The first few years it really was a concern of residents that it was going to be just like the Dome, broken promises and things really won’t change,” said Frank Fernandez, who steers community efforts for the Blank Foundation. “The concern has moved in the opposite direction, people see the changes and now they are concerned, ‘we are a going to be displaced.’”
The Anti-Displacement Tax Fund will help homeowners at-risk of seeing taxes spike as new development takes hold. Fulton County froze assessments this year, and Ahmann said he expects the first payments from the privately-funded program to occur next year.
Future Fund aides go door-to-door to let homeowners know there’s a program to help.
But in an area where investors have conned residents into selling homes for cheap, and shady brokers sold predatory mortgages a decade ago, it hasn’t been easy.
“Part of the challenge of the anti-displacement fund is getting people knowing about it,” Ahmann said. “If they know about it they think it’s a trick.”
But Ahmann said the outreach is working, and residents are signing up.
Still, the anti-displacement fund only addresses part of the issue. Many residents don’t have clean title to their homes, and those behind on taxes are vulnerable to having liens on their properties sold to investors who can squeeze residents to pay off the debt or lose their houses.
About 80 percent of residents in the stadium neighborhoods are renters — who are the easiest to displace. Most of the rental units are privately-owned, not permanently affordable units owned by a nonprofit or government agency.
Unemployment is greater than 25 percent, and half the households in the area make less than $20,000 a year, well below the poverty line. That would put an affordable rent for many at less than $500 per month.
Though the housing authority and other groups have plans for new affordable residential units in the neighborhoods, there’s fear among residents that those efforts could move too slowly.
Ahmann said a central tenet to the plan for a mixed-income community is creating enough new rental and for-purchase units to prevent displacement.
Another goal is to turn more existing residents into homeowners.
“There is no question that the neighborhoods on the Westside are going to be redeveloped in time,” Dugas said. “The geography is simply too compelling for them not to be redeveloped. The question is, is it going to be in a responsible manner and honors the integrity of the community and keeps the existing residents in place?
“That’s our goal.”
Staff writer Nathan Harris contributed to this report.
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