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The Stadium Scam: Urban Planning Disaster Edition

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Great piece by an urban planner about how the ridiculous new Cobb County stadium for the “Atlanta” Braves is a completely disaster.

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.

So I guess I don’t see why this would work, but then what do I know? But who would go to this stadium unless you are a Cobb County resident? Why deal with the traffic? Is this sort of consumer experience really that appealing to people? And I suppose the answer is that I simply am not the target audience for any of this. I can say that many of the games I attend are as a tourist checking out a game in a new stadium or city. I would guess that 1-2% of attendees at a normal game are tourists. None of those people are going to venture from Atlanta to Cobb County except for the people determined to visit any stadium. But if you want baseball to be even whiter than it already is, I guess this is the future.

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