Turner Field neighbors hopeful, skeptical about area’s transformation

The Atlanta Braves on Monday celebrate their third home opener since bouncing to the suburbs. Neighbors around the intown stadium the team abandoned also are seeing the launch of a new season, finally.

It started a couple months ago in the smallest of ways: Sarah O’Brien opened The Little Tart Bakeshop in a long-shuttered storefront on Georgia Avenue. It sits two blocks from the stadium once known as Turner Field.

Her business was the first to launch in what is expected to be an $800-million-plus venture. Developer Carter has named the 35-acre project Summerhill, after the historic, long-neglected community that it hopes to win over.

Several other eating and drinking establishments are slated to open in the next few months, including a barbecue spotbrewerypizza jointMexican restaurant,coffeehouse and basement speakeasy. Nearly 700 units of privately run student housing for Georgia State University should be ready for the fall semester. Development for 300 apartments starts this summer. And crews just broke ground for the first of 100 townhouses expected to be priced from $300,000 to $700,000. Ten percent of all the homes — not including the student housing — are supposed to be made affordable for residents making 80 percent of the area's median income.

A man rides a dirt bike along brick-lined Atlanta Avenue in the Peoplestown community. 

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In the wake of the Braves’ shocking 2013 announcement that it would depart the city and take up residence in Cobb County, then Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made a promise: The Turner Field area, with its sea of parking, would be transformed into “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had.”

The neighborhoods are now on the cusp that development. But whether this, the latest in a string of intown rebuilding efforts, will be good or bad for longtime residents is a point of debate.

"Who was it built for? How many people do you know who make $10 an hour who go to yoga studios?" —Micah Rowland, a Mechanicsville resident

Many have felt beaten down by decades of revitalization promises — of what the Olympics would bring, of what Turner Field or the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium could offer — that never came to fruition after interstate and stadium projects cut into the once-thriving neighborhoods. There’s also a conviction among some residents who grew up there that the renaissance will either skip over them or price them out.

“They are going to move out all the regular people who stay here,” predicted 33-year-old Larry Covings, who is taking classes to get a barber license.

Not that some change isn’t needed.

Little Tart Bakeshop employee Amy Gregg, left, works with a customer at the bakery in the Summerhill community. 

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“There ain’t nothing over here. Ain’t one thing,” Covings said. “No restaurant. No barbershop. No laundry mat. No grocery store.”

There are a growing number of options in nearby neighborhoods, like Grant Park. But, for some residents, that’s a bus or Uber ride away.

When the Braves left

Robert Pitts, a 37-year-old construction worker, said he saw the impact of the Braves leaving for the suburbs.

“They took money away from here and put it in Cobb County,” he said.

The Braves left after two years of negotiations with the city of Atlanta. The team had pushed for full control to develop land around Turner Field, which had been owned by the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority.

In Cobb, where local public funds accounted for nearly $400 million toward SunTrust Park's up-front construction, the Braves got what it wanted. It secured control over the stadium and crafted The Battery, an adjacent development with restaurants, bars, apartments, offices, stores, a music venue and a hotel.

The Aspen Heights Georgia State University off-campus housing unit, right, is under construction across the street from the Georgia State Stadium, both along Georgia Avenue, in the Summerhill community. 

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Fifteen miles and a world away in Summerhill and surrounding communities, some residents lost the revenue stream they made selling neighborhood parking spaces to Braves fans. Others watched stadium concession jobs disappear. Local kids lost a connection to watching Braves games in their own neighborhood.

The post-game fireworks disappeared.

“It’s so dull now,” said 12-year-old C.J. McDowell. “Now, you don’t hear anything.”

His father, Bo McDowell, said businesses started pulling out around the same time. “When the Braves left, it took the life out of Summerhill.”

Some of the neighborhood is included in metro Atlanta's most economically distressed zip code, according to one analysis.

But there were also residents who found relief with the team’s departure. No more illegally parked cars on game days and fans blocking driveways. No more cordoned-off streets. Less noise and traffic. Some said crime seemed to decline without fans as targets.

A new season 

Turner Field could have turned into an albatross for the city.

But Georgia State University, which paired up with Carter, bought the facility. Now called Georgia State Stadium, it hosts the university’s home football games. Attendance averages about 15,000 per game, according to the school, significantly less than what the Braves averaged over 81 homes games a season there.

A newly developed house sits next to an older residence in the Summerhill community. 

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Georgia State moved offices and staff to the stadium, hosted games of the upstart Atlanta Legends football team and set plans for a pro lacrosse league to play there in late June.

The school also has proposed building a baseball facility nearby and a convocation center that would include space for meetings and to host Georgia State men’s and women’s basketball games.

Other changes are planned. MARTA landed a promise for federal funds to help launch a bus rapid transit line connecting Summerhill to Midtown Atlanta and MARTA rail.

And Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development arm, agreed to give a total of $4.6 million in tax incentives for the student housing project and other parts of the Carter development.

Signs of change

Mary Gay, who recently became president of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill, recalled visiting a friend in nearby Peoplestown last year when she saw two white women walking a dog at night.

It surprised her, she said, that people — white people, even — felt comfortable strolling past dark in the once predominantly African-American neighborhood where crime has been an issue. “I was like, ‘Wow, our neighborhood has changed,’” said Gay, who is black. Her friend told her such scenes had been happening a lot lately.

Mary Gay, president of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill, moved to the area in 1998 and recently became the president of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill. She hopes to work with developers in the area so that the longtime residents of the neighborhood are benefited and not abandoned. 

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On a recent weekday morning, Mark and Ashley Messenger pushed their infant daughter’s stroller to The Little Tart Bakeshop, where ginger apricot scones go for $3.50 and lattes $4.25.

When they first moved nearby two years ago, Summerhill seemed to be a place with little to do. They would zip past Georgia Avenue’s small knot of decaying buildings on the way to the interstate.

“We never dreamed we would be walking through here to go to a coffeehouse,” Mark Messenger said. “This is positive energy for a historical neighborhood.”

Newcomers, often with higher incomes, had been settling in the community for years. Many, at first, were African Americans.

But the pace has picked up in the past few years, residents said. And increasingly the people moving in are white. Older African-Americans are leaving, some priced out by rising rents and soaring property tax bills.

The interior of Little Tart Bakeshop in the Summerhill community. 

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Heather Jones, who is white and married to an African-American man, recalled that, when she moved into Peoplestown nine years ago, five of the closest 25 households were made up of newcomers. Now, she said, three-fourths are.

The same dynamic is happening in other parts of the city. And it’s been a sensitive point for some, both those leaving and those coming.

‘Who was it built for?’

Micah Rowland, a Mechanicsville resident and former chairman of the city’s local neighborhood planning unit, said communities across I-75/I-85 from Turner Field seem worse off than before the Braves left, with increased homelessness and decaying homes. He questioned whether the area’s longtime residents, most of them low income, will patronize the new businesses in the area.

Scott Taylor, President and CEO of Carter, talks about the new development in the Summerhill community. Carter acquired 35 acres of property in Atlanta’s Summerhill community and hopes to improve the area with local restaurants, a grocery store and other commercial and residential properties. 

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“Who was it built for?” he asked. “How many people do you know who make $10 an hour who go to yoga studios? How many people do you know who make $10 an hour who go to brewpubs?”

Carter CEO Scott Taylor said he and his team want a mix of locally owned shops offering price options that will work for all the surrounding neighborhoods. The company holds regular meetings to solicit input from community members and share information. A grocery store, Taylor pointed out, was one of the biggest requests of longtime residents.

Talks are progressing with a national grocer along the lines of Publix, according to Carter.

O'Brien, who owns The Little Tart Bakeshop, is preparing to open an adjacent shop, Big Softie, offering soft serve ice cream relying on a Georgia dairy and organic cane sugar. She's planning a preview block party with ice cream just for Summerhill residents.

And she said she's trying to make her food as affordable as she can while still operating a profitable business. "I feel like everyone deserves good food," said O'Brien, a repeat semifinalist for the James Beard Award.

An abandoned building sits gated in the Peoplestown community. 

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She’s also discussed with her staff how to make the shop welcoming for everyone. “How are we not just gentrification cafe? We talk about that a lot.”

Gay, the president of the local Summerhill group, has lived in the community more than 20 years, but said she still works to win confidence of long-timers.

She wiped tears as she talked about her hopes that neighbors will take advantages of what comes with the growth. That includes new jobs and training as a means to stay in their homes. Change is coming no matter what, she said. “I just don’t want us to miss the opportunity.”