In 1965, voters from the five counties that still make up metro Atlanta—Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Clayton and DeKalb—went to the ballot box to decide the future of the region’s public transportation system. The counties that voted “yes” would begin planning a regional rail system that would eventually be called MARTA (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transportation Authority); counties that voted “no” would be excluded from the system. Fulton, Gwinnett, Clayton, and Dekalb passed the resolution while Cobb County voted it down. To this day, the closest MARTA comes to operating in Cobb County is a single bus route that runs from Midtown Atlanta to the Cumberland Transfer Center, just across the county line.
If you’re unfamiliar with the finer points of Atlanta political geography, Cobb County has always been seen as more than a little retrograde in their views on poor people and minorities. It’s a community built on the back of Atlanta’s hypertrophied white flight that saw more than half of the city’s caucasian population abscond for the suburbs between 1960 and 1980. They’ve also consistently rejected any efforts to integrate their infrastructure with Atlanta proper, turning down opportunities to join the MARTA system several times in the last 50 years for reasons that were always accented with dog whistles. (There are a couple famous examples but the two most embarrassing have to be the “Share Atlanta Crime – Support MARTA” bumper stickers from 1987 and, a decade later, a county tax official claiming a transit connection between Cobb and metro Atlanta “would lead to an increase in crime and the construction of low-income housing in Cobb County.” The latter claim has been thoroughly debunked.) Cobb, which has become a job center though still basically Atlanta’s moon, finally developed an independent public transit system named CobbLinc. CobbLinc is a bus.
Whatever the quality of Cobb’s transit system is a moot point for most residents since commuters only take public transit to work 1.5 percent of the time. (The modal split for transit in Atlanta proper is 10 percent, which puts it between Los Angeles and Portland.) That beggarly ratio is thanks to metro Atlanta sprawling like concrete kudzu over the last half century, eventually turning the highways slicing through the surrounding suburbs into some of the world’s most congested. The trip from Cobb to downtown Atlanta crawls down Interstate 75, the asphalt vine that runs from Marietta to Atlantic Station on the north side of the city. The halfway point between the ‘burbs and the city is the I-285 interchange, a constant traffic snarl that acts as Atlanta’s de facto city limit and, nestled into the northwest corner of that tangle of concrete is SunTrust Park, the home of the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves chose to relocate to Cobb County from downtown Atlanta’s Turner Field after only 19 years because of a $400 million public subsidy from Cobb taxpayers. The costs are almost certain to balloon thanks to some significant fiscal buffoonery on the part of Cobb officials, including a lack of a comprehensive transportation plan and forgetting to ask the Braves to pay for traffic cops. The sum is almost paltry compared to a lot of other public financing schemes—Las Vegas still takes the cake—but it was enough to run former County Commissioner Tim Lee out of office two years after the funding mechanism was approved following a series of closed door meetings that probably violated state transparency laws. (Lee did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) A Cobb County local I spoke with on the condition of anonymity as her family is involved in local politics said “there’s very little good that could be said about the stadium for the Cobb County taxpayers” and that “many of us in Cobb County are still bothered by the way the Braves deal came about.”
Unlike governments that dangle plum financing deals in order to entice teams to relocate across state lines, Cobb County’s decision to offer up nearly half a billion dollars in public money to the Braves in order to move them across county lines is a rare case of intra-regional competition. “A stadium leaving one district and going to another, it’s similar to industrial plants or major retail establishments relocating,” says Jason Henderson, a professor of geography at San Francisco State University and author of the paper “Secessionist Automobility: Racism, Anti-Urbanism, and the Politics of Automobility in Atlanta, Georgia.” “Places become competitive with each other,” he told me, “and Cobb is trying to get the stadium for the sales tax since that’s a huge source of revenue for the county. It’s a very American phenomenon to have localities competing for things like this.” Cobb’s decades-long campaign to remain apart from Atlanta proper only serves to amplify that competition; I’ve had several Atlanta locals tell me they’ll never attend another Braves game because of the way the regions were pitted against each other.
Attached to SunTrust Park like a Cinnabon-scented goiter is the Battery Atlanta, a $550M mixed-used development that looks an awful lot like a New Urbanist project, the widely criticized school of planning that is equal parts social engineering and neoliberalism. New Urbanism is city planning as Truman Show, attempting to humanize and rescale the misguided master planning concepts favored by designers like Le Corbusier. Cities like Seaside, Fla.,—where the Truman Show was partially filmed—and Disney-designed Celebration are attempts to urbanize the suburbs by integrating venerable concepts like transit-oriented design into communities cut from whole cloth. What many of these inorganic communities lack, however, is true diversity. Studies show that homes in New Urbanism communities are often expensive and the communities are more racially homogeneous than urban neighborhoods. “New Urbanism takes seriously many challenges of America’s current suburban landscape with an attention to the human scale, historical references, and architectural character,” says Ashley Bigham, a Walter B. Sanders Fellow at the University of Michigan’s architecture school and co-founder of Outpost Office. “However, many critics of New Urbanism have noted that relying on a historical understanding of urban spaces limits, if not excludes, more contemporary aspects of the city including individual expression and economic diversity.” Planting a project like the Battery in the middle of Cobb County (62 percent white at the last census, compared to 38 percent for Atlanta) only serves to amplify those issues.
With the Battery, the Braves are attempting to create a consumer ecosystem in a vacuum while allowing Cobb County to suck up enough sales tax receipts to legitimize the $400M public subsidy. They’re not the only franchise to attempt to anchor a mixed-use development with a new stadium, but what sets this apart from developments like the Ice District in Edmonton or the Arena District in Columbus is that the Battery is distinctly suburban, a Jacobsian island in the middle of a Moses-dream asphalt ocean. ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle had this to say on his first trip the stadium complex:
It’s an experiment, one where a sports franchise attempts to create a bubble. And once a fan enters it, there is no reason for him or her to spend money outside of it. And if it works, the ramifications will be noticed by baseball owners from coast to coast. If it works, it could change a lot of things. But we won’t know if it works for a long time.
Doolittle’s observation lend some weight to the argument that Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ira Boudway and Kate Smith laid out last April, where they focus on owner John Malone’s desire to make the Braves into a real estate developer. The Braves are “a fairly major real estate business as opposed to just a baseball club,” Malone said. SunTrust and the Battery are its two trophies so far.
Sales tax considerations aside, the Braves decision to go from an accessible, urban location to the quintessential suburb is something of a nightmare from a planner’s perspective, and a total inversion of modern trends in stadium planning. (The 49ers’ decision to move to Santa Clara, which is basically Cobb County West, is another puzzling decision.) The 285/75 interchange is already a parking lot during rush hour, and, since driving is the only convenient way to get to the new stadium, game nights have the potential to add an entirely new tier to the traffic hell commuters currently experience. Uber and Lyft will act as de facto transit options for those who don’t want to drive their own cars but, as Henderson notes, drivers “will swarm the venue at the beginning and then they will swarm it at the end creating massive congestion issues on top of the people that just drove in.” Those ridesharing services also don’t have the same obligations as public transit and both Uber and Lyft have had their fair share of racial redlining accusations.
(It should be noted that, generally, ridesharing services have refused to share trip data with planning agencies who desperately need to include this new “mode” in their traffic projections. The most geographically ironic example of this is when the Warriors provided a traffic assessment of their new stadium in downtown San Francisco that didn’t differentiate between taxis, which would only be able to pick up passengers from demarcated zones outside of the proposed stadium, and ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft who can pick up wherever they want, traffic patterns be damned. As Jason Henderson noted with some disbelief, the Warriors “don’t think there’s going to be traffic because everyone will take rideshares.”)
Then there’s the question of equity. SunTrust isn’t solely accessible by car—the Braves run a stadium shuttle bus that serves a couple of outer MARTA stations—but, compared to the team’s former home, the non-motorized options are paltry. Turner Field was one MARTA station away from Five Points where all four of the transit agency’s lines converged. Remember, Turner Field was constructed in preparation for Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics and needed to be accessible by thousands of people who wouldn’t have access to a car. Darin Givens, a downtown Atlanta resident and Cobb-native who maintains the venerable blog ATL Urbanist, says that the lack of affordable and public access to the stadium will put a barrier up between the Braves and their low-income fans. “Car-sharing services like Uber have proven popular as means to get to SunTrust Park,” Givens told me via email, “but the prices those services charge can be considerably higher than what you pay for bus fare. It’s a service that’s more likely to be used by wealthier people who want to get to a game without driving themselves and dealing with parking, versus poor people who can’t afford a car.”
Givens also laments the potential lack of diversity at games now that transit options are meager. “When the Braves were at Turner Field, it would have been one of the few opportunities for people from largely-white Cobb to mix face-to-face with people of color and people in lower economic classes,” he said. “You didn’t need to own a car. You could take a MARTA bus there, or even walk if you lived in Summerhill, Peoplestown, or Mechanicsville—all neighborhoods where most residents are historically black and lower-income.” Unfortunately, autocentric design has dominated Atlanta development for the last 50 years and sprouted a cottage industry of academic critiques including Henderson’s “Secessionist Mobility,” Larry Keating’s Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion, and Kevin Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Kruse notes that Atlanta’s sprawl had the ugly side effect of crystallizing racial attitudes formed during the first half of the 20th century:
...on the surface, the world of white suburbia looked little like the world of white supremacy. But these worlds did have much in common—from the remarkably similar levels of racial, social, and political homogeneity to their shared ideologies that stressed individual rights over communal responsibilities, privatization over public welfare, and “free enterprise” above everything else. By withdrawing to the suburbs and recreating its world there, the politics of massive resistance [to integration] continued to thrive for decades after its supposed death.
SunTrust Park is an evolution of that “otherness” that the Atlanta suburbs originally represented, a stadium that wants as much to do with its team’s namesake city as the county that’s paying its bills. It still remains to be seen how tight that embrace will be when the team eventually becomes relevant again. As Jason Henderson noted in our conversation, “If the Braves win a World Series, where are they having the parade?”
This story isn’t all bad, though. Georgia State University is redeveloping the land around Turner Field, turning 55 acres of parking lots into a massive mixed-use project that will include an expanded university footprint, retail, and residences. The GSU football team will play their home games at the Braves’ old home. The massive project will take more than a decade to complete, but also represents something of an inversion of what’s happening in SunTrust Park and the Battery. Whereas the Cobb County development is exclusionary by design, the Turner Field redevelopment will be fused into Atlanta’s downtown. “Those 55 acres of parking will become a kind of connective urban fabric that this area hasn’t seen in many decades,” Darin Givens told me, “and that’s a good thing for the neighborhoods and for the overall urbanism of Atlanta.”
T.M. Brown is an urban planner and freelance journalist living in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @TM_Brown.