New York has the Brooklyn Bridge. Seattle has the Space Needle. And Atlanta has … the SkyView Ferris wheel?
Starbucks is clearly smitten with the big wheel. On its gift card customized for Atlanta this season, the caffeine peddler has chosen to depict the Bank of America Tower and what look like the Candler Building and Georgia-Pacific Tower. But the card’s largest feature is the SkyView Ferris wheel, planted firmly in the lower left like an upstart determined to hold its position. You can almost hear it saying, “How you like me now?”
After 17 months gracing the downtown skyline and collecting stellar reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor, the 200-foot Ferris wheel is making its bid to become part of Atlanta’s iconography. But how do you create a city icon out of something that can be dismantled in 72 hours? It was only last week that SkyView got permission to stay in operation past Dec. 31. Museums, zoos and parks may fret over attendance figures from time to time, but unlike those attractions — and certain baseball teams — this one can pack up pretty quickly if it needs to, and head for places much farther away than Cobb County.
But maybe it’s the perfect symbol of Atlanta: a landmark that can disappear without a trace.
“Atlanta has a storied past of tearing down iconic structures and this is true of Downtown in particular,” said Darin Givens, a downtown resident and advocate for urbanism. “But that doesn’t take away the value they have as icons, because they represent the successes of a specific era in Atlanta’s history.”
Like many Atlantans, SkyView is a transplant. It previously lit up the night in the Place de la Concorde near the Louvre in Paris, and in Cape Town, South Africa, before being sold to some enterprising Americans and moving to Pensacola. It lasted in Pensacola for less than a year before rolling in to its current space next to the Tabernacle music venue.
The wheel has also staked a spot in the Hard Rock Cafe’s Rock Shop catalog, now appearing on its own commemorative “co-branded” pin, like the kind that Hard Rock has created for Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta and Oakland Cemetery.
SkyView Atlanta (its official name) opened in July 2013 and dramatically changed the downtown skyline, or at least the view that you get from Centennial Olympic Park. For all its technicolor glory, it’s invisible from the interstates that snake through downtown, and from the most common vantage points for skyline photos, such as the Jackson Street bridge.
Visibility has been a challenge in other ways as well.
Many Atlantans have maintained a prickly relationship with the city’s downtown, and new attractions can be met with suspicion and ridicule. SkyView took a few hits when it was first announced—some critics complained that it would cost too much for taxpayers (no taxpayer funds were used to transport or construct it), that it would be unsafe, or gaudy, or just not what the city needed.
So how you like me now?
‘You can see everything from up there’
On a recent balmy December evening, the Ferris wheel cast a rainbow glow down on the Atlanta Streetcar tracks that run by its base. Horse-drawn carriages carried out-of-towners contorting their necks to capture the wheel on their phones. Parents hurriedly jaywalked across Centennial Olympic Park Drive with young children skipping along, providing SkyView with a steady, if light, stream of visitors doing their best to fill its 42 gondolas.
They picked a perfect night to come. It was the kind of evening the Convention & Visitors Bureau would like you to think Atlanta has all year round. The views through the clear nighttime sky made an impression on those coming right off of the ride.
“I absolutely loved it. You can see everything from up there, and the weather was great,” said Carleen Morris of Overbrook, Kan., who was in town for a convention and stumbled across the SkyView with fellow conventioneer Melinda Mendoza of Victoria, Tex.
Is it what you would think of when you think of Atlanta? “Well, the Olympics is what I think of,” she said. “But I didn’t know that this was here. Now I do. This I’ll take with me.”
Mendoza added, “If it stays, I would come back just to show it to my family.”
SkyView’s owners, based in St. Louis, won’t release attendance figures, saying only that “the numbers have exceeded what we hoped for.” Managing partner Al Mers has said that he hopes to see 300,000 visitors in a year (822 a day). Considering that the wheel can accommodate up to 10,000 passengers a day, that means the owners are crossing their fingers that the wheel stays 8 percent filled at any given time.
SkyView spokesman Jesse Lirette says that the attraction is guaranteed to stick around for “at least three to five years.” Last week, the Atlanta City Council agreed to extend its contract through 2015, with opportunities to extend that contract each year.
The Atlanta Streetcar, once it gets over its own growing pains, will stop right across the street from SkyView. Lirette says the streetcar could cut down on downtown parking issues for SkyView riders but added that the streetcar route may not be optimal for pulling in visitors to the west side of downtown.
‘How far away is it?’
One of the things that makes SkyView unique is also what may cause it to leave Atlanta one day — it’s the only movable Ferris wheel of its size in the United States. Other wheels of the same design — the Bussink R60, if you want to know — regularly tour Europe and beyond — perhaps in Manchester for a year, then Antwerp for two, like an itinerant backpacker with a Eurail pass. Visit the Place de la Concorde in Paris today (or browse the #ParisEye hash tag) and you’ll see a very similar wheel in the same place where Atlanta’s wheel once figuratively crashed the couch.
So SkyView has seen Paris. It’s seen South Africa. It’s hung out on the beach in Pensacola. Might it get wanderlust again?
Or maybe it stays for the long term, taking its place among the other great nationally recognized Atlanta landmarks, such as … well, what do we have anyway?
How would you recognize this city on a T-shirt, or a coffee mug, or a Starbucks gift card? Atlanta tchotchkes in souvenir shops from Peachtree Center to the airport overwhelmingly favor the downtown skyline as the city’s iconic image.
So far, save for a single postcard and a new Christmas tree ornament, those skylines don’t include an image of SkyView among the buildings. Look across the 10 styles of Atlanta-skyline snow globes at Best of Atlanta in Underground, and you won’t see a single Ferris wheel. Same for the T-shirts, and the mugs, and the shot glasses, etc.
Worse, ask some souvenir store clerks about the wheel and you may get blank stares. One helpful fellow at a shop in CNN Center didn’t seem to know that SkyView was right down the street. When asked if he planned to ride it, he said, “I don’t think so. How far away is it?”
Ouch. No one said that moving to a new city would be easy.
‘I felt a mixture of nostalgia and excitement’
All of which makes the Starbucks gift card stand out.
Rachel Spence, an Atlanta native and a designer for Starbucks Global Creative, was the artist behind the card’s design. As she explains, “I felt a mixture of nostalgia and excitement for the city. It was really important to me to include references to projects going on in Atlanta that are helping to foster a sense of community.”
Spence’s earlier sketches for the card include representations of the Beltline and the streetcar as well. “The Beltline is also one of my favorite Atlanta projects, connecting neighborhoods and providing green space for the city, so of course the trees had to play a big part,” she said. (The treescape is intact in the final version of the card, even if the Beltline and the streetcar got cut.)
As for SkyView, Spence says, “the Ferris wheel is one of the newest attractions, with a playful, celebratory feel that captures the sense of excitement around the city’s growth.”
Our city boosters couldn’t have put it any better. Let other cities’ gift cards celebrate the past or the monumental. Ours has one eye on the future.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.