Built in a hurry, Centennial Park aging well

Children splash in the Fountain of Rings beneath downtown’s high-rises and an azure sky. Down a gentle hill from the fountain, tourists line up to enter the Georgia Aquarium. Cyclists dart across Andrew Young International Boulevard.

Burns Garner, of Loganville, looks down at Section 57 and finds the bricks bearing his name and those of two relatives.

“It was a Christmas present from my parents, 1995,” Garner said of his brick, one of nearly a half million sold to help pay for the downtown park.

Centennial Olympic Park was born almost of desperation, Billy Payne, the visionary behind Atlanta’s Games, said. As the Games loomed, leaders realized downtown lacked a suitable central gathering place. Over about 20 months they acquired and bulldozed several dingy, low-rise blocks just east of CNN Center and created a sprawling mix of greenspace, courtyards and water features. The park was finished just in the nick of time, with a century-old pecan tree temporarily transplanted in the middle of it to give an illusion of history.

Today, the pecan tree is long gone but others are deeply rooted in Centennial Park, arguably the ‘96 Games’ most tangible and lasting byproduct. It has shifted downtown’s center of gravity north, drawing both people and an estimated $2.7 billion in private and public development — not including the new Falcons stadium.

“There’s no question that it’s the most important physical legacy of our Games because of what it has encouraged to take place around it and the life it’s breathed back into an important part of our urban core,” Payne said in a recent interview, admitting even he’s surprised by the park’s enduring impact.

“I’m the ultimate optimist, but to be truthful, the last thing I thought about was the economic activity it would spur for the next 20 years,” Payne said.

The park’s roster of attractions has steadily grown to make it one of the more heavily traveled entertainment districts in the Southeast. The aquarium, World of Coke, Center for Civil and Human Rights, College Football Hall of Fame, Philips Arena, hotels, restaurants and a Ferris wheel keep visitors coming.

Ripples continue to spread. At least two large-scale residential projects are in the works within a short walk of the park. The owners of the Atlanta Hawks, in discussions with the city about an overhaul of Philips Arena, want to add mixed-use development to make the area a 24/7 hive of activity. Turner Broadcasting is looking at a renovation of the mall within CNN Center.

And the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, a state agency that owns the park, plans a substantial remodel that will expand the park, improve access and add amenities.

They will also be selling bricks again.

The $25 million park overhaul will turn the Metro Atlanta Chamber building into new greenspace, opening the exterior to the park to make it more accessible to the public and improving water features and other amenities. Andrew Young International Boulevard will be transformed into a permanent pedestrian mall.

‘Different time and place’

“We’re in a different time and place,” Georgia World Congress Center chief Frank Poe said of the redesign to make the park more open to its surroundings. “Development has occurred and the park has to embrace its surroundings.”

In a recent interview, Payne recounted looking out from his offices at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and seeing the rundown industrial area between downtown and the Congress Center and dreaming of a new gathering place.

As Payne knew firsthand, previous Olympic cities featured captivating gathering spots: Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya, for instance, captivated an Atlanta delegation in 1992.

He hatched the park idea in secret and enlisted the help of movers and shakers including ACOG co-chairman Bob Holder and Shirley Franklin (before she was mayor), and quickly won the two most important endorsements of all: Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta and Gov. Zell Miller.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found out about the plans in November 1993, prompting leaders to announce the plan before they intended.

Genuine Parts donated land. Coke, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and other major corporations donated cash and other services, and nearly a half million engraved bricks were sold, thanks in large part to Home Depot.

Critics worried so much effort was going into a park designed for guests, not for Atlantans, and that other infrastructure needs would suffer. But the plan generally won acclaim.

Payne turned to the leader of the Georgia World Congress Center at the time, Dan Graveline, to develop the park. The Congress Center, Graveline and its governing authority had the management acumen, and also the ability to use the park after the games to aid the convention business.

Finishing touch-up work continued almost to the day of the Opening Ceremonies.

‘Would they come?’

Payne said his biggest fear about the park was: “Would they come?”

They did. In droves.

The park knitted together downtown and the Olympic venues and crackled with life at night. NBC broadcast from the deck of the chamber building, giving Atlanta its nightly calling card.

Then, the Games were marred by the deadly bombing during a concert in the park on the night of July 27. Payne called the attack, plotted by domestic terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph, “the saddest, most tragic moment of the Games.”

Payne worried anew about whether people would come when the park reopened in the days after the bombing. They did.

“It once again became the glorious gathering place for the world,” he said.

After the Games, hoped-for redevelopment around the park was slow to build. But David Marvin, then a California developer, saw it as “waterfront property.”

Marvin, whose company was in real estate development and sports marketing, had bought five acres near the park before the Games, long before the World of Coke or other attractions were in anyone’s mind.

Marvin’s firm, now known as Legacy Ventures, developed projects including the Embassy Suites, condos on Centennial Olympic Park West, the Hilton Garden Inn, the Glenn Hotel and restaurants along Marietta Street.

He’s still doing business there, with plans to break ground this year on a dual-branded hotel.

“We were not so jaundiced about the potential for the area,” Marvin said. “I think many Atlantans had a very poor view of downtown and they were under the impression that it would never return to glory.”

New wave of development

A new wave of residential development also is starting. Post Properties plans a more than 400-unit apartment development, while developer Kaplan has another residential project in the pipeline.

A.J. Robinson, president of CEO of Central Atlanta Progress, said he hopes densification will help knit downtown together with Vine City and other Westside neighborhoods where the Atlanta Falcons and city have committed to redevelopment as part of the new Mercedes-Benz stadium plan.

“The Olympics was an emblem of Atlanta’s we-can-do-it spirit,” Robinson said, ranking the park along with the Beltline and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as public works projects for the ages.

Poe, the congress center chief executive, said the park’s redesign will help ensure that legacy continues. Though corporate donations will largely pay for the work, the Adopt-a-Brick program is being brought back to renew public engagement.

“We’ve gotten inquiries throughout the years from people about buying bricks,” Poe said, particularly from families that have added children or grandchildren since the Games.

Payne’s is one of them. He said his family has added 11 grandchildren who aren’t represented with bricks in the park.

“I’m going to be a heavy investor,” he said.