Turner Field holds future for Georgia State, neighborhoods

Turner Field and its vast parking lots could reshape Georgia State University. That same downtown real estate also will define the future of nearby neighborhoods that for decades have been let down by promises of rebirth.

Last Monday, Georgia State University and a development team were named the winning bidders for their plan to re-invent Turner Field, which will lose the Atlanta Braves after the 2016 season. The team is relocating to a new ballpark in Cobb County. Backers of the plans presented by Georgia State, Carter and Oakwood Development point to the influence of Georgia Tech on Midtown’s resurgence.

The project — along with the Beltline, the new Falcons stadium and a re-envisioned Fort McPherson — could serve as an economic catalyst for neighborhoods south and west of downtown long starved for renewal.

Winning the bid against a pair of little-known organizations was the easy part. The challenge will be in the months and years ahead, transforming 67-acres into a southern expansion of Georgia State’s campus as well as a privately-held and tax revenue-generating commercial and residential hub.

Though the university is the headliner, more than two-thirds of the property will be controlled by the private development team.

For years, Georgia State has been a stimulant to development downtown, but this project further separates the university from its past reputation as a commuter college. Georgia State will develop an on-campus football stadium for its nascent program, which now plays games in the oversized Georgia Dome and this year reached its first-ever bowl game. The development team pledges to craft a plan that incorporates adjacent neighborhoods’ wishes — among them: jobs, educational opportunities, better connectivity to downtown and surrounding neighborhoods and a focus on curbing crime and blight.

The Georgia State plan was welcomed by Mayor Kasim Reed, business and political leaders and by many residents. But a large and vocal contingent also viewed the proposal with caution.

Jason Dozier, who earned a Georgia State graduate degree in real estate and moved to a home on Garibaldi Street west of Turner Field, said he’s hopeful the plans can help bring new life to the area. Dozier said he’s followed the Georgia State plans for some time and said the new owners will need to build trust with their neighbors.

“There needs to be additional outreach to the community to show their input is desired and their wants and desires aren’t ignored,” he said.

Scott Taylor, president of Atlanta-based Carter, said the partners started their engagement with the neighborhoods in May 2014 and that will continue.

“We remain committed to working with the community on a plan that we can all be proud of,” he said.

Next steps

A final sales agreement is expected to be worked out between the Georgia State team and the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority in about a month. The acquisition could be finalized in the second half of 2016.

The Georgia State plan would convert The Ted into a football stadium. The project also would include instructional facilities, private student housing, apartments, single-family residences and retail. Also planned is a 1,500-seat Georgia State baseball field at the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that would honor Hank Aaron’s home run record.

The $300 million plan, in its broadest strokes, hasn’t changed since last year, but many specifics of the bid won’t be disclosed until a final sales agreement is reached in about a month.

The development team also has contemplated an alternative design in case converting the Ted to a football stadium isn’t financially viable. A second option shown in a June community meeting showed a new football stadium north of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium site, with the Turner Field property incorporated into the campus and mixed-use development.

About 70 percent of the property would be owned by private developers Carter and Oakwood, meaning it would return to the tax rolls. The land is currently government-owned and not taxed.

Developers plan to hire members of the community for construction and permanent jobs within the new development. A startup and small business incubator also has been discussed.

Taylor said the bid includes community benefits such as enhanced public safety, youth education and after-school programs, as well as continuing adult education through Georgia State.

“Our entire framework leads with education,” he said.

Carter, part of a separate partnership that this month won a bid to develop a luxury hotel at Atlanta’s airport, has deep roots in Atlanta real estate and has built university-oriented student housing at Ole Miss and Michigan. It’s also behind Sandy Springs’ new city hall and town center, known as City Springs, and The Banks, an 18-acre mixed-use development on the Ohio River between two pro sports stadiums in Cincinnati.

Turner Field could be “another pearl in the string” of major Southside projects, such as the Beltline and the EUE/Screen Gems film studio at Lakewood and the future Tyler Perry Studios at Fort McPherson, said Ken Ashley, an executive director with real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.

As Georgia Tech has reshaped Midtown, so could Georgia State south of downtown.

“We continue to see the importance of universities in our urban core,” he said.

‘Can we afford it?’

For Georgia State, the project comes as the university is on the verge of becoming the state’s largest college through a mega-sized merger with Georgia Perimeter College. They’re also on a fund-raising campaign for $300 million, though it isn’t clear if any of those funds will be used for the Turner Field project.

University officials along with state’s Board of Regents, which regulates Georgia’s public colleges, were quiet in the days after the announcement, declining multiple requests for interviews.

The board would need to approve both the plan and how the project will be funded. Regional accreditors approved the Georgia State-Georgia Perimeter merger earlier this month, and the Turner Field project should not impact the merger, they said. Regents are expected to discuss final approval of the merger during a January board meeting, when the Turner Field project likely would be addressed.

Georgia State President Mark Becker, the key player in the college’s downtown expansion, was traveling and unavailable for comment.

Throughout his six-year tenure, Becker has been a master craftsman, strategically compiling properties to further his goal of making Georgia State a marquee public university in the heart of the city. Almost half of the 1 million square feet of development over the past 16 years has come during Becker’s presidency.

When Carter came calling with the idea for The Ted redevelopment, the potential to further the university’s footprint was intriguing.

“The light bulbs just started popping off,” Becker has said.

Beyond Georgia State, Becker has experience in large-scale development as part of the team at the University of South Carolina that adopted the Innovista plan in Columbia, S.C., in 2005 in conjunction with the city.

The plan leveraged USC to drive economic development around a $140 million research complex, converting a downtrodden portion of downtown Columbia into a thriving area with housing, retail and academic components.

How Georgia State would fund its portion of the Turner Field project, specifically renovating the stadium and classroom space, hasn’t been disclosed. Athletic facilities and student housing are not funded by state dollars, said state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, chairman of the House higher education subcommittee overseeing spending at public universities.

That type of development funding is typically left to colleges’ private foundations and private partners, experts said. Georgia State’s foundation has been crucial to its downtown growth over the past decades.

And a private developer like Carter, with its access to investor capital and major bank financing, also could be instrumental.

Though ventures between colleges and developers aren’t unique, there should be some questions asked, said Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University.

“There is nothing wrong with doing this type of project, it’s just that, in Georgia State’s case, they are not a school with a lot of wealth,” Vedder said.

Georgia State is getting involved in an overall project that is substantially larger than the university’s own endowment, which may be where the private partner comes in, he said.

Georgia State’s endowment last year was about $133 million. Its new academic partner, Georgia Perimeter, had an endowment of about $1.4 million, according to information compiled by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

“If I were on the Georgia State board, I would be asking, ‘Can we afford it?’ ” he said.

A do-over

City leaders have promised for 50 years that stadiums and freeways would bring development to neighborhoods such as Summerhill and Peoplestown. But for a host of reasons, the dreams always crumbled.

Earlier this year, residents called on city leaders to slow down their march to sell the property and allow neighborhood groups to complete a community development study through the Atlanta Regional Commission.

But the recreation authority argued for a quick sale, noting the Braves will leave the ballpark by the end of next year and taxpayers will be on the hook for stadium upkeep.

The bid process requires the potential buyer to “demonstrate a commitment to incorporating” recommendations from the pending community development study.

Kim Foster, a Summerhill resident and member of the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition, said her group is cautiously optimistic the community’s views will be incorporated into the project design and that the organization will be able to create a formal benefits agreement with Georgia State and its partners.

Keisha Lance Bottoms, executive director of the recreation authority, the agency that owns Turner Field and vetted the bids to sell it, said the transformation of The Ted is an opportunity for a do-over.

“I don’t want to look up 10 years from now and have my name and the authority’s name attached to broken promises,” she said. “I want to be able to look back and say that we kept our word.”

Dozier, the Mechanicsville resident, said he understands the need to move quickly to revitalize Turner Field. But he also worries about speculators nearby.

“My fear is that folks will just buy up a bunch of property and that will prevent new homeowners from coming in,” he said.

Some students share the same concerns about pushing out the area’s poorer residents. They also worry about more mundane things, such as losing free parking at Turner Field.

Sebastian Parra, a Georgia State senior and student government president, tried to message Becker about how the project will be funded, and an aide to the president responded that few details could be released, but it would not be paid for with student fees.

Parra said he’s heard from students who are excited about the planned housing and retail. For now, there is more optimism than opposition to the plan.

“This will make us a complete university, a place for a stadium and to do our commencement ceremonies,” Parra said. “The Georgia Dome is great, but this will be ours.”

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