Business group says ‘time for renewal’ is coming to downtown Atlanta

“The Stitch,” as seen in this 2015 illustration, is an initiative by Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District in partnership with the city to “cover” the Downtown Connector with parks, plazas and walking trails and reconnect Downtown and Midtown. (Central Atlanta Progress)

The World Cup is coming to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta in four years, and federal funding is finally being invested in “The Stitch,” a long-held vision to reconnect the city’s historic downtown with Midtown.

It’s an exciting and busy time to be downtown with opportunities like this, said AJ Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Development District. Robinson spoke at a July 27 town hall sponsored by private business organizations. The town hall was held at the Chick-fil-A College Hall of Fame.

“There’s a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do,” Robinson said. “But we are optimistic that the coming years will be a time of renewal and exciting, new things.”

The World Cup

Atlanta will be on the world stage in 2026 when the World Cup comes to town, just as it was in the summer of 1996 when it hosted the Centennial Olympics. The anticipation and planning that comes with hosting a major international sporting event is an exciting experience, Robinson said.

“But it can also be an incredibly productive time,” he said. “So we have to focus everybody on this idea that we can make our city look a lot better in the next three or four years because … this is a huge opportunity in terms of exposure for Atlanta, again, just like the Olympics.” “

AJ Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Development District. (Diana Bagby)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is within walking distance of three major downtown projects: Centennial Yards, a 50-acre, $5 billion redevelopment of The Gulch into a sports-entertainment district; Newport RE’s South Dwntwn, adjacent to Centennial Yards, which includes the redevelopment and adaptive reuse of 46 buildings spanning six blocks; and the redevelopment of four blocks around Underground Atlanta. The Five Points MARTA station next to Underground Atlanta will also undergo a $150 million makeover.

Voters recently approved $750 million in infrastructure bonds and the renewal of a transportation sales tax to fund street repairs, new sidewalks, bike lanes, public safety and park improvements. Those improvements are on track to begin soon, and officials are racing to meet the 2026 deadline, City Council President Doug Shipman said at City Hall. Showcasing Atlanta’s cultural and arts scene during the World Cup is also a priority, he said.

“It’s going to be a guiding North Star for us,” Shipman said of the World Cup.

“It will be a calendar item where we can say, ‘What can we do in four years, how can we get there?'” he said. “And how can we make the city not just what we want to present to the world, but actually create the city we want for the next generation.”

The city should also benefit greatly from the revenue expected to flow in as visitors from around the world come to Atlanta to watch championship football, he said.

“The World Cup coming up in four years is a huge deal,” Shipman said. “Each World Cup game is 1.5 Super Bowls in economic impact. We will have somewhere between four to six games in a month in four years.”

Shipman did not give a figure. The NFL says the Super Bowl brings in up to $500 million to the host city, although some economists disagree.

The stitch

Over the years, Downtown has seen many transformative projects like Centennial Park and now Centennial Yards, Robinson said. CAP’s long-term vision for The Stitch — a project that would cover part of the Downtown Connector with a park — is “the next big thing,” he said.

“The Stitch will really create a front yard for Downtown and Midtown and finally bring [the neighborhoods] back together like it was in the 1950s,” Robinson said. “We really believe this will serve the community well and really create a hardened area between downtown and downtown.”

Robinson was optimistic about the project. He noted that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg mentioned the project when The Stitch received a $900,000 Restoring America’s Infrastructure with Resilience and Capital (RAISE) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation last year.

“We achieved national attention,” he said. “It only took us 20 years.”

A full-time development manager was recently hired for the project, Robinson said. CAP is applying for more federal funding to come from President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. The package includes $1 billion to reconnect communities that were divided in the 1950s by federal highway projects, such as downtown’s Sweet Auburn Historic District.

U.S. Rep. Nickema Williams successfully advocated for more funding to be used to reconnect neighborhoods.

“This is the type of project that really qualifies for those big dollars that could come from the federal government,” Robinson said.

Plans for The Stitch are to connect all parts of the city through a series of elevated interconnected parks, plazas and pedestrian walkways that will spur transit-oriented development, including affordable housing.

The project will create 14 acres on a new ¾-mile platform spanning the I-75/I-85 Downtown Connector between the Civic Center MARTA Center at West Peachtree Street and Piedmont Avenue.

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