Atlanta's 'Olympic legacy' Holds Lessons for NYC

Email a Friend
Boosters of New York's 2012 Olympic bid say the games will help fast-track numerous stalled projects the city needs anyway - from transforming the far West Side to adding housing for Queens. More than a decade ago, Atlanta began overhauling its downtown area for the 1996 summer games. WNYC's Fred Mogul traveled there and looks at the long-term impact of what planners there -- and here -- call the Olympic legacy.

FM: During the 1996 games, tourists flocked to Centennial Olympic Park to meet, eat and take in concerts -- although it was also the site of the Olympic bombing. Today, the five-ringed fountain isn't quite up to snuff. It usually attracts crowds of kids eager to cool off, but today a park worker is tuning' it, making sure all five circular plumes shoot up uniformly. But even on a sultry weekday afternoon, the park's paths, plazas and sloping green lawn are filled with tourists, workers and local residents. Soncierra Bridges lives a few blocks away.

SB: We love living downtown. They're building the area. They're building condos, lofts. It's a growing city.

FM: Like many American cities, Atlanta lost residents and their tax dollars for much of the last half-century and then experienced a slight rebound in the 1990s. By the 2000 census, the small downtown population had nearly doubled from a decade earlier. Former Planning Commissioner Leon Eplan says the city was redeveloping anyway, but the games added momentum to several building and transportation projects.

LE: It was no question but that the Olympics accelerated what we were talking about. In three years that we had to make the improvements, we probably produced 25 years worth of backlog of projects.

FM: Formerly an industrial district, Centennial Park was built from scratch for the Olympics. Today it's surrounded by a new children's museum, an expanded CNN headquarters, upscale housing and hotels. More apartment buildings are on the way. So is the Georgia Aquarium -- touted to be the world's second largest. These projects have burgeoned in recent years. Immediately following the Olympics, in the late 1990s, there wasn't much construction, says A.J. Robinson, former developer and the head of Central Atlanta Progress.

AR: There was just an incredible energy level, and you just could never have kept that forever -- people were just out of gas. But I think in the last couple years, you see a lot of that coming back.

FM: Housing for Olympic athletes now provides much needed dormitory space for students at Georgia State and Georgia Tech. The games also helped spur the demolition of nearby Techwood Homes, the nation's first public housing projects. Although now officially called Centennial Place, most people call the new mixed-income neighborhood New Techwood. Resident Tarita Keith says the crisply landscaped town-homes are more comfortable than Old Techwood.

TK: Security's real nice around here and stuff like that. A helluva lot better. -What's different? What's better? The community, the people what's in the community.
FM: Cities typically build new stadiums for the Olympics, and they frequently fall into neglect after the games. Atlanta's stadium became Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, and though it doesn't always sell-out, it is widely considered successful. Other venues, however, have not delivered the lively after-life promised, including the centers for tennis, beach volleyball and equestrian events. Fulton County invested 2-million dollars to make the shooting center an international destination, and has all but closed it after losing around 300-thousand dollars a year. This was taxpayer money, not the private dollars which built the center and most of the venues. County Commissioner Tom Lowe says long-term expectations turned out to be a little high - and expensive.

TL: I might be a little disappointed that we didn't make more use of some of the venues than we did. No, it meant a lot to the town, no doubt, to the reputation, but it could've meant more perhaps.

FM: Still, it's difficult to find nay-sayers in Atlanta, charging that the games mis-directed resources or failed to pump life into the local economy, then or now. There's a reason for that, and it may contain lessons for New York City's Olympic bid, according to reporter Melissa Turner, who covered the Olympics for almost a decade for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

MT: What Atlantans learned was that if you don't go into it with really high expectations that the games are gonna remake your town, that are gonna leave behind piles of money and lots of fancy venues that are gonna be used by lots of people - then you're not gonna be disappointed when they're over.

» Central Atlanta Progress
» City of Atlanta
» Centennial Park
» Special CNN Section on Centennial Park Bombing