Atlanta looks past the Games

April 29, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

ATLANTA -- In 80-some days, the Centennial Olympic Games open in this brash capital of the New South. Exhilarated Atlanta is one great mud- and rubble-strewn mess. Construction cranes soar, traffic crawls past barriers, jackhammers pound. Everything rushes pell-mell toward July 19, Olympic opening day -- in Mayor Bill Campbell's words, ''our completely unnegotiable deadline.''

With millions of people crowding into Atlanta's small downtown, immediate success or failure may focus on whether the host city avoids total gridlock. Atlanta's rapid-rail system -- MARTA -- may turn out to be a godsend, along with an ''Intelligent Traffic Management System,'' a state-of-the-art freeway-traffic control system paid for with $140 million of the federal government's money.

But what kind of a city will Atlanta be after the Olympics? Will it be the same hard-edged, soulless place it turned into after World War II -- a center city with few parks or pedestrian places, a setting of brutal skyscrapers set down cheek by jowl with seedy parking lots, wino bars and worse?

Or will Atlanta, having sought to create a hospitable setting in the 3.5-mile-wide ''Olympic Ring'' circling downtown, have moved toward a more welcoming, graceful urbanity?

Leon Eplan, the city's planning commissioner, believes fervidly that Atlanta will have made the transformation. Except for sports facilities, the Olympics didn't attract big gobs of cash. Even with a $199 million bond issue and generous aid from foundations and businesses, only a fraction of the $1 billion Atlanta would have liked for new infrastructure was raised. (Barcelona, by contrast, had close to $4 billion to spend on the 1992 games.) Among the big compromises: having to postpone a $130 million intermodal transportation terminal, planned for the downtown. But Atlantans have achieved a lot anyway:

Twelve pedestrian corridors, with widened walkways, trees, seating, turn-of-the-century streetlights and new signs have been built to run from transit stations to the stadiums and other venues for Olympic events. The contrast with latter-day Atlanta's typical sidewalks -- narrow, cracked, mean -- could hardly be more striking.

Graceful redesign

The city's Corporation for Olympic Development sponsored a competition -- and turned up 700 entries -- with ideas on graceful redesign of ugly parking lots and freeway bridges. Fifty-eight pieces of public art have been commissioned. A 112-mile regional Greenway Trail system for biking and jogging is being pushed forward. Thousands of trees have been planted.

Woodruff Park has been entirely rebuilt with sculpture and a waterfall, linked by walkway to Underground Atlanta. A new Olympic Centennial Park will open just before the games -- 21 acres, beside the Omni and Georgia World Congress Center in the heart of downtown -- a catalyst (it's hoped) for post-games housing development.

Conversions of older downtown office buildings into residences have recently begun. Loft conversions are starting to take off. The city planners' decades-long, frustrated dreams of a middle-income residential base bringing street life to downtown Atlanta may actually begin to come true.

The handsome new Olympic Village will provide housing for 2,000 college students after the games. Across the street, Techwood, America's oldest and one of its most afflicted public-housing projects, has been torn down. It's to be reconstructed -- like five other Atlanta housing projects -- as mixed-income housing.

Auburn Avenue, site of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial got $11 million in federal funds for a new visitors' center. The area -- a draw for 3.2 million people yearly -- was turning into a slum. House-by-house rehabilitation is under way. The city wants to turn Auburn into a friendly pedestrian street with walkways and historic markers. A new urban market, with vendor stalls for local artisans and entrepreneurs, will be built.

The permanent legacy Atlanta leaders hope to generate from this summer's festivities won't be finished until well after the games. But there has been a massive turnaround for a city long cavalier about its past, puffed up about its economic prowess but uncaring about its people's day-to-day life.

Oddly, a foreign example may have been critical. Barcelona charmed the world in 1992 with its resplendently refurbished city, its arts, its urban vistas and warmth. The Atlanta Olympic planning team, from a city that always thought it knew it all, was chastened by the sight, drawn to the idea of a permanent Olympic legacy. Imperfectly but surely, it's begun to build one.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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