Aerials of Turner Field May 7, 2014. Georgia State University and a prominent Atlanta development team want to acquire Turner Field and the sea of parking lots between it and downtown to create a new southern campus for the college and a $300 million mixed-use development that would transform an area threatened by the Braves’ pending departure to Cobb County. The university wants to convert The Ted into a new 30,000-seat football, soccer and track-and-field stadium and build a new baseball park, academic buildings and green space.
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

Turner Field sale becomes transformative moment for neighborhood, GSU

On a chilly day in November 2013, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed stood in his office in the same stunned silence that gripped everyone else when news broke that the Atlanta Braves were leaving the city and the then 17-year-old Turner Field.

Reed, never one to shy away from a street fight and fresh off of a deal to keep the Falcons downtown in a new football stadium, steeled himself to meet the press.

“Everybody’s view on that day was that the sky was falling, nobody was going to take this on and that this was going to turn into something bad for the city,” Reed said Thursday. “I looked everyone in the eye and said I would not let that happen.”

It was sunnier on Thursday when Reed stood next to the iconic statue of Hank Aaron on the Turner Field plaza to announce a $30 million deal to sell Turner Field and surrounding parking lots to Georgia State University and partners Carter and Oakwood Development.

The city and developers expect that the deal will set in motion unprecidented growth at Georgia State and fulfill long-broken promises of urban renewal in the area.

The partners will convert the baseball stadium into a new Panthers football stadium and transform the surrounding area into a mixed-use community and southern extension of Georgia State’s campus.

It will bring student housing and classrooms. And promises what Turner Field and its predecessor, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, never could: to bring retail, restaurants and a grocery store.

And baseball will not leave the area. On the footprint of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where Aaron hit his 715th home run, will sit a new Panthers baseball field.

Suzanne Guy Mitchell sat in the audience during the announcement and smiled behind her sunglasses at the announcement. She has lived in the Summerhill section of Atlanta for 15 years and serves as the president of Organized Neighbors of Summerhill, the homeowner’s association.

Summerhill is one of five nearby neighborhoods that would be directly impacted, including Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown and Grant Park.

“It is really a make-good of a promise from 1960. This is the urban renewal that we have been looking for,” Mitchell said. “Summerhill is the oldest neighborhood in the city, originally a settlement for African-Americans and Jews. It deserves better than how it has looked over the last 50 years.”

First came the interstates and their devastating impact on downtown’s predominantly black communities. That was compounded by the building of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the 1960s, which ripped a hole in the fabric of the neighborhood, displaced families and delivered only low-paying jobs and investment.  Centennial Olympic Stadium came in 1996, with promise to revitalize the area. But little came of it.

“The stadiums have been on us, not with us or for us,” Mitchell said. “So there was angst and fear. We didn’t want what has happened for 60 years to happen again. But I have no doubt in my mind that we have completely turned the corner.”

Scott Taylor, president of Carter, said his firm wants to start to “activate” portions of the site immediately after taking ownership by the end of the year while it continues its master plan for the $300 million development.

Key to that is bringing life to the corner of Hank Aaron Drive and Capitol Avenue. Taylor said his group is considering food trucks and pop-up shops and possibly other smaller scale retail and residences as soon as possible.

The development partners are studying the market and layering in ideas from a community survey.

“We want to be thoughtful about which pieces of that puzzle fall into place first,” he said.

At the dais Thursday with Reed and Taylor were Georgia State President Mark Becker and Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority (AFCRA) chief Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Bottoms, who is also on the city council and a trusted political ally of Reed, was hand picked by him in 2015 for the executive director’s job. She ran point on the negotiations.

She faced community distrust of the process and looming deadline of the Braves departure, which would leave an empty ballpark with no tenant and millions of dollars in annual upkeep costs.

“Our community was always worried that it would lay idle,” said Kenyatta Mitchell, who has lived in Summerhill for 15 years.

Bottoms on Thursday reflected on the challenges of the past year.

“There was a lot of concern, rightfully so, and distrust in the community that the community would be heard,” she said. The city, she said, needed to pursue a parallel path of holding a community study and sales talks at the same time so that a hulking stadium wouldn’t be left empty.

“Had we waited, we wouldn’t be here today just a few months shy of the Braves leaving for Cobb County,” she said.

Like Reed, Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith was hit hard by the Braves’ move to Cobb.

“It felt like I had been kicked in the stomach,” said Smith, who’s lived in the area for 25 years. “Georgia State is going to bring the people, and we’ve now learned that the people is what’s going to bring vibrancy into a neighborhood.”

Bottoms and Reed said the 67-acre project and Georgia State’s presence will be an bridge connecting neighborhoods south of I-20, and inspire the predominately black communities.

“Today is about letting go of all the parking lots that dominate the area now,” Reed said. “It is about re-inventing the dense neighborhoods and walkable street grids that this neighborhood had before the upheaval of stadiums and interstates more than 50 years ago. Goodbye, asphalt eyesores. Hello, 21st Century.”

Georgia State is nationally renowned for its work with low-income, minority and first-generation college students. More than 60 percent of students at its downtown campus are minorities, almost 60 percent are low-income Pell grant recipients, and 30 percent are first-generation college students.

The Obama administration recognized Georgia State for its programs designed to keep these students on track and graduating in the shortest amount of time and with the least debt.

“To have that visual for kids in this community is going to be incredible and I think quite frankly, life changing,” Bottoms said.

As Reed enters his final year in office next year, and the “legacy making” phase of his tenure, his office noted that the Turner Field sale is part of a “record setting pace” city growth, with more than $2.9 billion in commercial construction permits issued last year.

Reed also plans to soon finish sales of the city’s civic center and Underground Atlanta for large-scale mixed-use development projects.

But he said the Turner Field sale is different and personal.

The Atlanta University Center had a profound influence on the mayor growing up in Southwest Atlanta, he said.

Hopefully, Georgia State’s expansion will have the same kind of impact on a new generation of black kids — his new daughter included, he said.

“This expansion is something I will look at with my daughter for years to come everytime I drive down 75/85 and know that we preserved the Olympic legacy, preserved Hank Aaron’s legacy and we did something in the community that never happened even after the Olympics,” Reed said. “I know what seeing a university does for kids. I know the difference that seeing a university, as opposed to a bunch of vacant parking lots, is going to do for kids. That is what is in my heart is.”

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