Atlanta's New Football Stadium Promises Urban Renewal, But Locals Have Heard That Before

When Atlanta's Georgia Dome was built in 1991, it failed to revitalize disadvantaged nearby neighborhoods. Will the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz Stadium produce better results?

by Stephen Knox
May 19 2016, 5:55pm

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

For residents of Vine City, on the west side of Atlanta, trust is a fragile thing.

Their neighborhood will be home to the Atlanta Falcons' new $1.4 billion football stadium, which the city of Atlanta has committed more than $200 million from its hotel tax fund to help build. In exchange for their tax dollars, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed has publicly promised, residents will enjoy "the revitalization of some of the city's most historic neighborhoods" and the creation of "well-paying jobs."

The people of Vine City have heard this before, though—specifically, they heard it 24 years ago, when the Falcons' current home, the Georgia Dome, was built in their neighborhood. The failure of that project to bring about hoped-for urban renewal has left locals more skeptical this time around.

With construction well underway on the Georgia Dome's replacement, will the past be prologue? Or could redevelopment and gentrification be so successful that it pushes out the same underprivileged residents who so desperately need it?

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"There is a history of broken promises to folks on the west side," said Frank Fernandez, Vice President of Community Relations for Falcons owner Arthur M. Blank's Family Foundation. "They have a right to be skeptical."

Construction on Mercedes-Benz Stadium is well underway. Photo by Stephen Knox

Once populated by middle-class African-Americans—people who served as bedrock for the 1960s Civil Rights movement—Vine City and the adjacent English Avenue neighborhood had deteriorated in the decades following city disinvestment. In the 1920s, the area was home to businessman Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta's first black millionaire; in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. moved to the neighborhood.

By 1991, however, the area was steeped in the sorts of problems commonly associated with aging inner cities: crime was high, resources were poor, and everything looked abandoned. One area in the English Avenue neighborhood, "the Bluff," had become a large and notorious open-air drug market. When the Atlanta Falcons decided to build the Georgia Dome across the street from the Vine City subway station, it was supposed to usher in a new era. "When that dome goes up it's not going to be business as usual in Vine City," then mayor Maynard Jackson told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. "We want the sidewalks fixed and the streets properly paved to make Vine City as good as any other neighborhood."

The stadium was built. In addition, the federal government invested $250 million in Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods, including Vine City and English Ave, as part of its 1994 Empowerment Zone project, which was intended to help areas of the country that had been neglected throughout the 20th Century.

The result? For the most part, failure. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a publicly-funded Model Cities program that was supposed to build 6,000 housing units in a number of Atlanta neighborhoods over a six-year period only constructed 42 while rehabilitating another 69; this time around, a 1997 report from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation found that the stadium and the Empowerment Zone plan had combined to produce similarly feeble effects. Atlanta spent nearly all of its money designated for a 10-year period on staff in just two years, and a highlighted Atlanta EZ project created just 24 sustained jobs, all of them salaried positions held by program employees.

Charles Florence was vice chair on one of Atlanta's Neighborhood Planning Units during the mid-1990s, and remembers of failures of the EZ initiative. He says that most of the resources never made it to the people in greatest need.

"They were gonna revitalize and all this stuff for poor people. They were gonna create jobs for the poor," Florence said. "'We gonna take care of the people in the poor neighborhoods.' They took care, all right."

Florence laughed.

"I do remember that some people did get some stuff," he said. "But the people that got it was the people that already had it, or the people that was extremely good at writing out proposals. For the average Joe, it did nothing. Millions and millions of dollars, and I felt it went to the haves."

Football fans enjoying the Georgia Dome. Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Today, Vine City remains in need of revitalization. As of 2013, around 40 percent of its housing units were vacant. Less than 40 percent of its residents were employed, and 50 percent of families with children lived below the poverty line. The area is known for suffering flash flooding during nearly every hard rain, worse than in other parts of the city, and if a driver is not paying attention, a pothole on one of those hilly southern roads are capable of cracking an engine mount.

As such, public and private investment is welcome—and wanted. However, locals are worried that instead of benefitting from neighborhood renewal, they may find themselves priced out of their homes, and unable to share in a better future.

The city of Atlanta has one of highest gentrification rates in the United States. Public housing has been demolished, mixed-income units are less common than pricey rentals, and according to a Brookings Institute analysis of Census data, 88 percent of poor people—defined as those living in poverty—in the Metro Atlanta area live in the suburbs.

"Would people consider the city of Atlanta becoming a more affluent city and becoming more expensive a success?" said Dan Reuter, manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission's community development department and a fellow with the American Institute of Certified Planners. "What's happening now is the city becoming much more successful, [but] in doing so it's not a cheap place to live, and it probably won't be ever again."

This phenomenon is most obvious on Atlanta's east side. Like Vine City, the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood had fallen into disrepair since the 1960s. Today, it's one of the hippest places to live in the entire Southeast, with housing prices to match.

John Onwuchekwa co-founded a church, Blueprint, in the Old Fourth Ward. A few years ago, he tried to purchase a home near the church and was stunned. "There's folks that bought cribs in 2014, and the appraisals have shown that the prices of their spots have gone up like $80,000 in less than two years," he said. "I make a decent wage at the church I work at now, but there's no way I can [afford to] live in the Old Fourth Ward."

Last fall, Onwuchekwa became the lead pastor at Cornerstone Church in Atlanta's West End neighborhood. Watching the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium go up in nearby Vine City, he has felt a sense of déjà vu.

"The nicer the place, the more that it costs to live there," Onwuchekwa said. "What inherently takes place is people that don't have the resources to be upwardly mobile can't afford to live there. Then the community is 'developed.'"

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank's foundation is investing in the Vine City and English Ave neighborhoods. Photo by Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Since purchasing the Falcons in 2002, Arthur Blank has attempted to improve on the failures of the Georgia Dome project. He already has invested $15 million of a $45 million project to build up the Vine City and English Ave neighborhoods.

Part of that includes the Westside Works program, which trains neighborhood residents in construction and hires them to work on the stadium and other local projects; it also provides training in automotive repair, certified nursing assistance, office skills, culinary arts, and (soon) information technology. All around the new stadium's construction site are banners that say "Westside On The Rise" and "Westside Works."

Fernandez, the Arthur Blank Foundation executive, has studied Georgia Dome's inability to spur urban renewal. He says past plans weren't strategic, neglecting to build sufficient affordable housing around the stadium and failing to address the needs of local residents.

"A lot of folks focus on the stadium," he said. "It's really about connecting [local residents] with firms where they're going to have better wages, access to benefits over time, and a path where [they're] not just starting at $13 an hour. But how do you get to $15, $18, $20 an hour and a path to a career?

"You've got to focus on the people and connect them to jobs. Focus on education and focus on health and focus on crime and safety because it is such a significant issue for the residents and families that live there. And that wasn't done in a comprehensive way last go around."

Fernandez has experience with civic revitalization: his previous job was in Austin, Texas. There, as executive director of Green Doors, an organization fighting homelessness and poverty in central Texas, he worked with the Austin Police Department to buy and refurbish properties into affordable housing units that serve about 400 people.

As part of that program, Green Doors and Austin police bought and refurbished rental units in the city's rough Pecan Springs neighborhood. Crime in the complex has since dropped by 80 percent and rent is anywhere between $0-$700 per month.

Atlanta officials are discussing renovating a local park to help with Vine City's flooding problems and may invest in mixed-income housing and transportation improvements for the area. In addition, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that the Westside Future Fund, an organization created by the mayor and a group of local business executives in 2014, plans to unveil a "land-use action plan" that will cover 24 square miles of the city and attempt to connect disadvantaged areas to downtown and midtown job centers.

"They're probably doing a better job than they did with the last stadium," Reuter said, the Atlanta community development manager. "They seem to have hired someone that is competent and they got the neighborhoods involved. So maybe it'll be a better outcome."

In the meantime, not much has changed. Two churches neighboring the Georgia Dome have been demolished (and compensated to change locations). Martin Luther King Jr. Drive—which used to run from deep in the west side through downtown—now cuts off at the stadium site. In April, residents were relocated from the Samuel W. Williams apartments a few blocks south of the stadium.

Beyond that? "I don't see a serious commitment by much of anybody," Florence said. "Why would this area be the same for 30, 40 years?"

The vacated Samuel W. Williams apartments. Photo by Stephen Knox

Much has happened since the opening of the Georgia Dome. Toddlers have become adults. Graduates have become grandparents. Atlanta hosted a Summer Olympics, and the Falcons reached a Super Bowl. Yet outside of some public housing demolition, Vine City and English Ave seem stuck in time. Like many who have lived in the neighborhood, and care deeply about it, Onwuchekwa would like to believe that change is finally coming. But given local history, he's skeptical that Mercedes-Benz Stadium will make a real difference—and can't help but wonder if trusting any building to have a lasting impact is somehow missing the point.

"The answer is not for that thing [development] not to come around," he said. "But how do we put just as much intentional thought and effort into developing the people?"

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