OPINION: Downtown refresh for World Cup? Anything would be an improvement

A shot of MARTA's forlorn Five Points plaza. The area there is set for a re-do but won't be complete for the World Cup in 2026. Lots of areas downtown need some TLC.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

A shot of MARTA's forlorn Five Points plaza. The area there is set for a re-do but won't be complete for the World Cup in 2026. Lots of areas downtown need some TLC.

A stroll around downtown Atlanta these days can be a very lonely affair. It’s almost like tumbleweeds blow across the urban streets.

I’ve heard talk that a few World Cup games coming to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2026 will cause the city to spruce up the environment and even push the completion of some projects downtown.

On that end, it’s good news because it would be great to start completing something. Anything. Downtown has long been the city’s laggard.

The recent announcement that Atlanta would host eight World Cup games brought chortles of glee to certain quarters.

This will be like hosting eight Super Bowls,” Atlanta Sports Council President Dan Corso said, in a classic case of Atlantafication.

I don’t blame the fellow for employing overstatement. It’s in the city’s DNA. Billy Payne, who was largely responsible for wrangling the 1996 Olympics to the city, liked to call the Atlanta’s games “the greatest peacetime event in the history of the world.”

So, sometimes puffery has its benefits.

Now, I understand lots of people really like fútbol and that visitors are expected to flock to the games. But let’s not kid ourselves. This is in no way the Olympics, or even Olympics Lite. For starters, the federation overseeing the World Cup is spreading around the event like cream cheese on a bagel — 16 cities in three North American countries are getting a shard of the Cup.

Views of The Gulch in Atlanta shown on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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But, one hopes, a future date inked in red, a deadline of sorts, will afford the city and developers a smidgeon of energy to pump a little life into downtown.

“Atlanta has always liked to have big events; we’ve always been like that,” said former Mayor Shirley Franklin, who before she was even in office, worked on getting the city ready for the Olympics.

“I think we’ll get dressed up for the World Cup,” she added. “For a holiday, you don’t just cook a big meal. You fix up the front yard and tidy up the bathroom.”

A walk around downtown Thursday at lunchtime showed the area sure needs some TLC.

At first I wandered the Fairlie Poplar area, over to the SkyView Atlanta Ferris wheel and then to the CNN Center, where the media company has largely departed. Perhaps two dozen people congregated in the atrium of the once bustling space. Some 1.1 million square feet of space is available. Last year, the new owners suggested creating residential units. Now that renting office space, especially downtown, is troublesome, renting or selling residential units is seen as a better bet.

I walked over to MARTA’s Five Points plaza, an area largely devoid of shops, including the McDonald’s on Marietta Street that somehow couldn’t make it.

To the south are the empty streets of South Downtown, a collection of older buildings (about 50 of them) that were purchased a few years ago by a German group called Newport. They had great dreams and spent more than $100 million buying the buildings and even some money fixing them up. Then they went bust.

A group of young entrepreneurs who had some success with Atlanta Tech Village in Buckhead recently purchased the ensemble. A real estate veteran told me that several developers considered moving in on the South Downtown distress sale, “but no one with real estate experience bought it.”

The atrium of the CNN Center is now as quiet as a library after the media company has largely pulled out of the complex.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

It sounds like what happened a few blocks east at Underground Atlanta, which was purchased by a real estate newbie who’s been trying to turn it around.

One could argue that those who know better knew to stay away from Underground and South Downtown.

Or you could say that it takes someone with different experience, a fresh perspective, to get things accomplished. The new South Downtown group is hoping to populate some of the buildings with startups and create a there there near Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But one can’t build a future on a few soccer games in 2026 and a handful of Falcons games each year.

The new owners might have one advantage up their sleeve. I’m told they bought Newport’s holdings for 50 cents on the dollar, so they won’t be as crushed by finances going forward.

There needs to be a mix of residential, some retail, some office space, restaurants and maybe a grocery store. Everyone knows this. They’ve been saying it forever. But no one has pulled it off.

Brian McGowan, who heads up Centennial Yards, the group trying to build a mini-city on the Gulch, the maze of railroad tracks near the football stadium, notes that his outfit is the only one actually building much of anything downtown.

A hotel is going up, as is a residential tower with attached shops and restaurants.

“We’re using the World Cup as a deadline,” he said. “Economists call them ‘focusing events.’”

His bosses have deep pockets — and deep tax incentives — to get those cranes swinging.

I asked the mayor’s office if they have appointed a World Cup czar or something. They haven’t, but tax money and infrastructure bonds are earmarked for things like a re-do of the Five Points MARTA plaza, improvements to Forsyth St., the MLK St. bridge and Centennial Olympic Park, as well as rehabbing an old bank tower by the MARTA station into apartments.

And, in the meantime, they can sweep up the tumbleweeds.