A Residential Architecture Firm’s Perspective on (New) Stadiums

Why would an architecture firm focused on single-family residential projects have an opinion on stadium projects for professional sports teams?

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Atlanta is blessed with three professional sports teams: the Atlanta Hawks basketball team plays in the relatively new Philips Arena, the Atlanta Falcons football team plays in the Georgia Dome (pictured) and the Atlanta Braves baseball team plays at Turner Field. Philips Arena and the Georgia Dome are part of the same complex in downtown Atlanta. Turner Field sits about a mile south of downtown Atlanta though many of us have walked from our downtown Capitol building to the baseball games.

The Georgia Dome is the oldest venue, opened in 1992. Atlanta is still paying off the bond debt for the facility. In 2010, the Georgia World Congress Center, the authority that owns and operates the Georgia Dome, announced its pursuit of a new stadium with a retractable roof. RTA has collected dozens of articles about the proposed stadium to watch the process that’s taken place.

The City of Atlanta, led by Mayor Kasim Reed, has committed to a new stadium without a public vote. The City Council voted to approve the project so citizens could have expressed their opinion to their elected representatives though one wonders if there’s some cost threshold beyond which projects should require a public vote.

The new stadium’s estimated process tag is about one billion dollars. The Mayor and City Council supported the deal under the threat of losing the Falcons to “the suburbs” or another city. The key selling point for the stadium? It was the tremendous economic stimulus of having a professional sports team in the city. The problem? That economic stimulus is largely a myth.

The current plan is to use $200 million from the hotel/motel tax to pay the public portion of the stadium. So far, the focus of the discussion has been almost exclusively about the financing. In this radio interview, Benjamin Flowers points out there are other concerns that should be part of the discussion for the public to understand the impact of a new stadium.

Though the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area (Atlanta MSA) has more than 5.5M people, the City of Atlanta (tax base) has less than half a million people. Like all other cities, Atlanta has to make the best use of its budget by setting priorities and funding its various departments and projects accordingly. In addition to creating huge urban planning challenges, stadiums can also introduce expensive unfunded mandates for things like policing and infrastructure. The total cost of these unfunded services and investments may equal or exceed budgets for entire city departments.

For those who would argue that a new stadium is the key to keeping a major sports franchise in town, that argument certainly has some merit. The team owners exert tremendous pressure on local government so it seems that a public referendum would arm the local government officials with some leverage – the people get to weigh in on the deal, even if it’s a non-binding vote. That may get the public more engaged and lead to a more candid discussion about the actual pros and cons of new facilities.

Citizens know the issues (and shortcomings) of a city better than anyone else so their elected representatives should offer a public process that’s more than a sales pitch from the team owners. After all, it’s the citizens who will have to live with and fund the long-term effects of any large sports facility… even if it’s privately owned by the Falcons and they don’t share revenue with the city.

Yesterday, the Atlanta Braves surprised Atlantans by announcing a move to a 60-acre parcel outside Atlanta. The same promises were made in the press conference – huge economic stimulus for the county and businesses around the new site. There’s not enough detail to fully understand the impact on transportation, unfunded expenses and the debt the county will be asked to assume in the public-private partnership for the new stadium. This firm hopes a referendum will be held to let the citizens of Cobb County express their opinion on whether that volume of debt is a good thing for the tax base.

Many of us are wondering what the City of Atlanta will do with Turner Field if the Braves’ announcement turns out to be more than a negotiating tactic. Turner Field is a fabulous facility in difficult surroundings. It would be a shame to tear down such a great facility because it’s been abandoned.

Photo by Ross Catrow used under creative commons license.

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