Site of the 1996 Olympics is having a building boom


April 21, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Stroll around downtown Atlanta and you'll see an incredible number of things that were built about 1864. A century from now, visitors will see an incredible number of things that were built about 1996.

The first building boom was necessitated by Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous March to the Sea, during which he burned this Georgia city to the ground.

The current boom is tied to the 1996 Summer Olympics -- an event that appears to be viewed here as having nearly the same import.

Although the Games are 5 1/2 years away, Atlanta stores already are packed with T-shirts and sweat shirts reading "Atlanta 1996."

Even more simple is the message on bumper stickers all over town: "It's Atlanta!" Those words are from a banner headline printed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when the Olympic Organizing Committee selected this city over such sites as Toronto, Ontario; Melbourne, Australia; and Athens, Greece. The phrase has become a local rallying cry.

Unfortunately, if you wait until 1996 to hop on the Atlanta bandwagon, you'll probably need to bring your own personal investment banker. Travel agents estimate that prices during the Olympics will be more than double their current levels -- over and above any inflation.

According to one Atlanta resident, you may want to think about coming during a different season, too.

"There is no more beautiful city in the whole world than Atlanta in the spring, with the dogwoods, azaleas and tulips," says Geri Allen, a member of the board of directors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

She may have a point. Atlanta looked pretty darn nice on a sunny day this winter. It is a thoroughly modern city, with fast, clean public transportation, a glittering skyline and plenty to do.

At times, Atlanta seems downright futuristic. The synthesized voice on an automated train that shuttles you from concourse to concourse at Hartfield Airport, for instance, is straight out of "The Jetsons." At the terminal, you are greeted by laser-generated advertising signs.

Getting around town is simple. Flat fees are charged for certain types of taxi rides, such as $4 from anywhere downtown to anywhere else downtown, and $15 between the downtown and the airport.

Or you can hop on what is universally referred to as "the MARTA," as in Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. The MARTA will take you all over town for a dollar. If you don't have too much baggage, you even can use it between the airport and downtown. The ride takes only 15 minutes.

Once downtown, you'll see more cranes than on a Florida beach. These cranes, though, are the type used to build buildings.

Already, a 70,500-seat domed stadium is taking shape near the Omni Coliseum (the city's primary indoor sports arena). Target date for completion is 1992. It will be home to the Falcons football team and the 1994 Super Bowl.

Still another huge stadium (85,000 seats) will be constructed for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. Also needed are a natatorium, a velodrome and an Olympic village for about 17,000 athletes (housing that will be used afterward by Georgia Tech students). Estimated construction costs for Olympic venues: up to $500 million.

Not everyone is happy with the building frenzy. In particular, activists for the poor are complaining that the new Olympic stadium will displace current residents of the area, who won't be able to afford better housing and will add to the city's roster of homeless. The debate has been heating up in local newspapers.

But not all of Atlanta's new buildings remain on the drawing board. A number of highly visible projects have just been completed.

The centerpiece of downtown night life and shopping is Underground Atlanta, a 12-acre complex that reopened in 1989 after being out of commission for seven years. Its problems were caused in part by the construction of the MARTA and in part by a perception that the area had become crime-ridden.

Today, with beefed-up security and major financial support from the city, the joint is jumping. The Underground now includes 22 restaurants and nightclubs and 100 retailers.

Most of the Underground indeed is under ground. With brick streets, fake oil-burning street lamps and classic storefronts, it looks like an old Southern town inside a huge basement.

Adjacent to the Underground is the World of Coca-Cola, a three-story, $15 million museum that opened last fall.

You can't miss the place -- it's the one with the 30-foot-wide revolving neon sign inside a rotating globe.

The museum doubles as a shrine to the Coca-Cola Company, which was born in an Atlanta drugstore in 1886 and maintains its world headquarters in the city.

"During the first five weeks we had 100,000 people through here," said Chuck Taylor, one of a horde of helpful guides wearing Coke-red sweaters. "We had 300,000 in the first five months."

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