Atlanta Hitches Its Make-Over to Olympics


Picture a shining new city of parks and plazas and a towering monument rising to the clouds. Imagine redesigned boulevards graced with public sculpture. Picture forsaken neighborhoods transformed into vibrant communities.

Picture it someplace else. You won't see it here.

When Atlanta was chosen 4 1/2 years ago as the site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, visions of a glorious civic future seemed as plenteous as the dogwoods that bloom in spring.

The Olympics--as Atlantans never tire of saying--would provide an unsurpassed opportunity for the city to rebuild and market itself, to announce its arrival as a world-class city, a rank to which self-conscious Atlanta has always aspired.

Left unsaid, however--because nobody knew--was what that rebuilding would entail. And what is a world-class city, anyway, as the dawn of the 21st Century nears? What should one look like? How does one feel? What, in short, should Atlanta strive to be?

The New South metropolis is grappling with those issues now as the city, chastened by a new sense of reality, tries to make itself over in time for the Olympics.

Atlanta wanted to do everything. In addition to building new sports venues and making repairs, the city somehow would create lovely promenades, erect Olympic monuments, invest in poor neighborhoods, repair dilapidated housing--even shift the heart of downtown away from the soulless cluster of hotels and office buildings that now predominate to a pulsing new locus, to be built on what is now a wasteland of parking lots and warehouses.

Viewed against the overreaching scope of those early dreams, the city's current plans seem modest. And even some of those projects are in danger of faltering.

Still, when an estimated 2 million visitors come to call next year, they will see a substantially different city than the one that now exists. Certainly compared to Los Angeles, which hosted a stripped-down Olympics in 1984, Atlanta is in the midst of a building boom of arenas and civic improvements.

Yet even now the city questions whether it is doing the right thing.

"Atlanta is constantly in this sort of crisis of trying to find itself," said David Hamilton, a local architect. "If Atlanta were a person, it would be in constant analysis." The centerpiece of the city's $2-billion make-over will be a $50-million, 21-acre downtown park that officials hope will be the catalyst for a strikingly reconfigured central city--a 24-hour downtown replete with residences, shopping and restaurants.

Groundbreaking for the park, which was scaled back from the 72 acres originally proposed, is scheduled for today.

Centennial Olympic Park would be what Gov. Zell Miller calls "the world's town center" during the Games, a festive gathering place for visitors. But it also is designed to serve as the heart of a newly pedestrianized city that civic leaders hope will evolve.

Such an ambitious transformation would stretch well into the next century, if it comes to pass at all. "It's unrealistic to think that one year after the Games, Atlanta will be a totally different city," said Dan Graveline, who has the task of developing the park. But come back in 10 or 15 years, he advised.

In the history of the Olympics, Los Angeles' bare-bones approach to hosting the Games was unusual. The city built few venues, choosing instead to scatter the Games across 200 miles. At the other extreme was Barcelona, Spain, which spent $8 billion in government funds rebuilding the city before the 1992 Summer Olympics. "Atlanta is in the middle," Graveline said.

But while the city is not erecting as many venues as Barcelona, Atlanta--mostly relying on private funds--is still counting on the Games to spur a grand make-over.

"Atlanta has always been a city that has remade itself, from the days of Gen. Sherman to current times," said Paul Kelman, an executive of a local civic group, explaining the city's attitude. Lapsing into booster-speak, the local idiom, he added: "We have always been a city that looks to the future. Our symbol is the phoenix."

Needless to say, there is disagreement here as to what Atlanta should aspire to become.

The decisions made here about the future of the city have potentially wide-ranging implications. In a coming book, Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, calls Atlanta a paradigm for the emerging "post-urban" city. "Atlanta has changed at an unbelievable speed, like in a nature film when a tree grows in five seconds," he wrote in a recent excerpt in the architecture magazine P/A. "There is no center, therefore no periphery."

The goal of the Olympic park and other initiatives to spur downtown housing is to manufacture a center, or remanufacture one, since Atlanta at one time had a densely textured downtown, before the flight to the suburbs led to what Koolhaas calls its atomization.

Atlanta, like Los Angeles, is a car-culture city. Although it has made some farsighted attempts to strengthen the center city, such as building a subway system, people here tend not to walk. Downtown architecture discourages going outside and seems designed to provide a sense of security to suburbanites who come to work.

This is personified by the massive Peachtree Center office complex, which is a fully enclosed, air-conditioned downtown in itself, with skywalks connecting one fortress-like building to another.

Even critics of the city's ambience, sprawl and disregard for history tout the restless energy and entrepreneurial zeal that has fueled Atlanta's make-overs. Some of the plans for redevelopment have drawn criticism, however, for seeking to impose traditional European notions of how a city should look and function.

In Hamilton's view, this is misguided. "Atlanta hasn't really learned how to appreciate its differentness the way that Los Angeles has," he said.

Echoing the views of other architects disappointed with what they view as an unambitious building program, he said Atlanta is squandering "an excellent opportunity to explore new ideas of what urbanity is--ideas that work socially and economically for what cities have become."

Until a little over a year ago, the dominant refrain here was that the city was squandering an opportunity to create any meaningful legacy of the Olympic Games.

Ambitious ideas were a dime a dozen, but few garnered wide financial or popular support. Then, in late 1993, Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games--who had previously focused his efforts solely on putting on the Games--unveiled his idea for the Olympic park.

After Coca-Cola Co.'s influential chairman, Roberto C. Goizueta, in a rare move publicly chided business leaders for not becoming involved in issues affecting downtown, creation of the park became a foregone conclusion. Park developers quickly raised $50 million from private sources and hope to raise another $15 million for improvements after the Games.

And Central Atlanta Progress, an influential organization of business leaders, is working now to generate middle- and upper-income housing in the area.

Other Olympic-related ideas have not fared as well.

In 1992, an Atlanta lawyer announced plans for the Phoenix Project, a $60-million Olympic monument and museum that would include a 720-foot tower with an observation deck--Atlanta's own Eiffel Tower. When the project died the next year because of a lack of investors, he predicted that Atlanta's Olympic legacy may be one of failed promise.

Lack of investor support may also cause the delay of a much-ballyhooed hotel that was to be built next to the park and is jeopardizing '96 Expo, a highly touted, privately funded exhibition and entertainment park that was to take up 10 city blocks near the park.

Officials had counted on the expo and an attraction planned by Coca-Cola, along with Olympic activities in the new park, to transform half of downtown into a giant festival area for the Games. Coca-Cola, which has purchased eight acres of land so far, reportedly has considered plans ranging from a $20-million Olympic recreation area to a $100-million permanent theme park. Amid rumors that they are scaling the project down, company spokesmen are mum about plans.

But even if these projects are reduced, downtown Atlanta will have a different feel by the start of the Olympics in July, 1996. Centennial Olympic Park will see to that. The city is also moving ahead with plans to redesign a section of Peachtree Street--the main artery--adding greenery, red granite sidewalks, lamps and street entertainers to make it more pedestrian-friendly. In all, 11 such "pedestrian corridors" are planned to enliven barren streets.

A smaller park downtown is also being redesigned. It will feature an 18-foot statue of a woman holding a phoenix above her head, titled "Atlanta From the Ashes."

The millions of dollars being spent on downtown will do little to help the poor, however, said Anita Beaty, executive director of the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. "In my experience, the trickle-down theory of economics hasn't worked."

She complained that Olympic preparations are gobbling up homeless shelters. A 125-bed facility on the site of the Olympic park has closed and another is trying to get funds to relocate, she said.

Also, while renovation of two dilapidated housing projects adjacent to the park site will improve the area, Beaty said it will take housing away from the poor. Forty percent of the residents in the newly renovated community will be middle-class families paying market rates.

And the business community's support for neighborhood improvements hasn't matched its support for downtown development.

The new Olympic stadium, where opening and closing ceremonies and track-and-field events will be held, is being built in a poor neighborhood south of downtown that never recovered from being ravaged 29 years ago, when the Atlanta Braves baseball stadium was built and highways were constructed through the neighborhood.

The area is now an eyesore, with dilapidated storefronts and vacant lots. City leaders support an ambitious redevelopment plan to beautify the neighborhood's streets and build housing, retail projects and a supermarket. Mayor Bill Campbell called the plan "a tremendous legacy for the Games" and said it will partially make up for previous disruption in the community.

But the organization redeveloping the neighborhood has had a hard time getting investors.

"The Centennial Park started after most of these neighborhoods had their plans," said Douglas Dean, president of the Summerhill Neighborhood Development Corp., "and now the Centennial Park is ready to be developed, and the neighborhoods still don't have the kind of financing that it takes to make it a reality by 1996."

Beaty complains that whenever the needs of poor people are pitted against attractions such as parks or sporting venues or events, the poor people lose.

"I don't think there needs to be a choice," she said. "To me it is simple: Peoples' lives and welfare are much more important than events and venue sites and stuff like that. But I don't think there is a shortage of resources to do both."

For now, though, the attention of the financial community is focused on downtown. Comparing the Olympic park to New York's Central Park and London's Hyde Park, city officials and park planners say they fully expect it to be a magnet for upscale development.

"The park is nice," said Paul Kelman, vice president of Central Atlanta Progress. "It will be a great legacy from the Games. But a park in and of itself is not something we want. We want to have a park and a thriving neighborhood around it.

"If it's just the park, that park is going to be in trouble because the area around it is not an aesthetic area and not an area where anybody would want to spend very much time."

In the early 1970s, the organization developed an area just east of downtown that had been one of the city's worst slums before urban renewal. In 20 years, 1,200 apartments and condominiums were built, along with a mixed-use retail development. Kelman said that with influential institutions such as Coca-Cola's world headquarters, CNN and the Georgia Institute of Technology nearby--along with the driving force of the Olympics--the same thing could happen downtown in half the time.

He likened Atlanta's long-shot bid for the Olympics to a dog chasing a car and finally catching it. "Now what does he do with it? No one had given a thought to how to rebuild the city prior to the announcement that we had won the Games."

After spending three years trying to decide what to do, the city is now finally carrying some of its ideas to fruition. "This will be a much better city because of it," he said.

Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.

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