For Turner Field neighbors, a time of cautious hope

Months after the Atlanta Braves’ sudden announcement to leave downtown Atlanta for Cobb County, the sting is subsiding in neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field as new possibilities emerge.

In recent weeks, Georgia State University has proposed partnering with private developers Carter and Columbia Residential to purchase Turner Field, converting it into a massive GSU athletic hub flanked by housing and retail. Separately, a handful of groups with casino ties have also made overtures to Mayor Kasim Reed to buy the 77-acre property.

For nearly 50 years, residents in this downtrodden corner of downtown Atlanta were promised stadium-related economic revivals that never materialized.

And yet, for all the fatigue and frustration, many who live in the shadow of “The Ted,” in neighborhoods bearing evocative names such as Summerhill, Mechanicsville and Peoplestown, are upbeat when weighing the new options.

Some even wonder aloud whether the ballpark itself has been a drag.

“If the stadium, all these years that it’s been there, did not impact Summerhill and Peoplestown, then it’s not needed,” said the Rev. Timothy Flemming Sr., pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Martin Street. “There needs to be other development that will attract people.”

Turner Field is a hive of energy when the Braves play their 81 home games. But it’s a cycle of fans who drive in, cheer and then leave.

The rest of the time, it’s quiet. Empty. All but abandoned.

On a recent afternoon, waves of heat rose from the sea of vacant stadium parking lots. A lone car was parked at Fuwah Chinese Restaurant, one of a handful of places to eat nearby. A man mowed his lawn next to a vacant yard. A police car idled on Georgia Avenue.

“Once the Olympics left, they were supposed to redevelop this area, but they didn’t,” said Paul Kwan, whose family has owned Joe’s Laundry & Cleaners since 1945.

His family’s business relocated for the original Atlanta Stadium in the 1960s and now sits along Georgia Avenue a few hundred yards northeast of Turner Field in a brick storefront with heavy steel bars.

While talk of Turner Field’s future may be premature — after all, the baseball team’s lease doesn’t expire for a few years — Kwan welcomes Georgia State’s ideas.

Yes, athletics are the core of the university’s plan. But Georgia State, and the students and residents the development might bring, would be better for his business than the Braves, he believes. After all, baseball fans don’t bring their dry cleaning with them to the park.

“It’ll make it more lively. It’ll be more like Athens,” Kwan said, referring to the University of Georgia’s home.

Flemming, too, said the Georgia State plan could be positive for neighborhoods badly in need of retail. But the pastor recoiled at the thought of businesses with ties to the gaming industry coming to town.

“We’ve had enough crime in Summerhill and in that area, and we don’t need casinos … to make it worse than what it is today,” he said.

Mechanicsville resident Frank Evans echoed the minister’s sentiments: Rumors of gaming worry him.

An Abu Dhabi-based company with ties to the gambling industry has offered to buy Turner Field outright for upwards of $65 million. California-based Majestic Realty, known locally for industrial and business parks, but which also controls two casino resorts out West, has also approached the city.

“I’ve seen what happens when an entire industry leaves,” said Evans, 46, who moved to Atlanta in 2009 from Flint, Mich., the town ravaged by General Motors’ exit in the 1980s. “But Atlanta is already thriving, so I don’t think a casino is something it needs.”

Evans’ vision? An Atlantic Station-style development that brings a grocery store to this food desert.

The area wasn’t always a wasteland.

Doug Dean, former state legislator and a founder of the Summerhill Neighborhood Development Corporation, recalls a thriving commercial district during the 1950s, when he was a child.

“We had seven grocery stories, a theater, ice cream factory, city library. Piedmont Hospital was also in that area,” he said. “The community was strong.”

Then came the interstates, their devastating impact on downtown’s predominantly black communities compounded by the building of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the 1960s. It ripped a hole in the fabric of the neighborhood, displacing families while delivering only menial jobs and investment.

In 1996 another stadium, this time for the Summer Olympics, was built just south of the first one. And in 1997, when Centennial Olympic Stadium became Turner Field, and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium became a pile of dust destined for a parking lot, the neighborhoods were promised a vibrant hub of activity.

It didn’t happen.

Dean said the Braves’ planned move to Cobb might be “God’s gift” to a part of downtown in need of dramatic change.

Mayor Reed recently said he will prove the Braves’ home games were an “encumbrance” to development. For one thing, private property owners living near the stadium made money off parking for the games and thus had little incentive to develop the land, a city spokeswoman explained. Furthermore, developers weren’t eager to build a mixed-use residential project because their potential tenants would be forced to deal with game-day crowds.

Lauren Rocereta, president of the nearby Grant Park Neighborhood Association, knows well how game-day parking contributed to the area’s economic lag.

She said a local resident, John Elder, owned swaths of property around the stadium that he rented out for parking. Elder, who died last year, long declined to sell or clean up the land.

“I think he felt he was doing the community a service by allowing them to have gypsy parking lots,” she said. “The neighborhoods nearby could go on and on about what happened to that community.”

Rocereta said while the Grant Park association doesn’t plan to have a significant role in Turner Field discussions, she has a tip for any potential developer: talk to the communities, and listen.

She also cautions against early attention on Georgia State’s plan creating assumptions about public opinion.

“It might seem to be something preferred by others, but not so much the neighborhoods,” she said. “I hope they work with those neighborhoods to see what they want.”

Carter developer Scott Taylor and Georgia State President Mark Becker have said they are sensitive to the neighborhoods’ concerns. Taylor also said he knows the plan will change myriad times should they buy the property.

“We’re not presumptuous that everybody loves this thing,” Taylor said. “This is bigger than all of us.”

Georgia State’s plan isn’t without challenges. For one, city officials aren’t eager to sell until the Braves give official notice the team won’t renew its Turner Field lease when it expires in 2016. Braves executive Mike Plant said Monday no one from the mayor’s office has called the team to inquire about the lease.

The school and its development partners also will have to overcome decades of deep skepticism.

“They don’t want to help the people (who are longtime residents), they want to move them all out,” said an elderly man named Raymond who lives on Connally Street and declined to give his last name.

Jerry Smith, 58, who has lived in Summerhill off and on since 1967, said he liked the sound of the Georgia State plan. But he called it a “question mark,” largely because he’s wondering about jobs.

The neighborhoods need something better than part-time work at a ballpark, he said.

Smith mows lawns and does other odd jobs since being laid off from the Atlanta Recreation Department. He hopes development will bring employment opportunities and improved policing.

His wish, in a nutshell: “I keep hoping things get better around here.”

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Staff writer Janel Davis contributed to this article.