Carrying The Flame
Turner Field, the former home of the Atlanta Braves and the 1996 Olympics, is now Georgia State’s. The acquisition of the hallowed ground promises to become the most transformative land deal in university history.
The news that would lead to the most dramatic expansion in the history of Georgia State University came with a vibrating cell phone.
It was November 2013, and Mark Becker, who had been president of the university for almost five years, was attending a conference in Washington, D.C. During a lunch break, his phone lit up and he saw a familiar name on the screen: a high-ranking official with the Atlanta city government.
“I’d better take this one,” Becker told his lunch partners.
“Mark, I just wanted you to know that I’m telling everyone that Georgia State ought to be at Turner Field,” the official began.
“What are you talking about?”
“You haven’t heard? The Braves are moving.”
Becker was astonished. The Atlanta Braves, who had played professional baseball since 1966 at two successive stadiums a few blocks south of the State Capitol, had announced they were vacating their home at Turner Field when the lease expired in 2016. They were leaving downtown to build a new stadium across the Chattahoochee River in suburban Cobb County.
“Unless you say you’re not interested,” the official added, “I’m going to tell everyone that Georgia State ought to be at Turner Field.”
Becker considered his response. The university had been looking for a way to bring its baseball program closer to the core campus. The team played eight miles away at the Panthersville Recreation Complex in DeKalb County, a round-trip commute that could take more than an hour, depending on traffic. If nothing else, Turner Field could end that inconvenience. But a 50,000-seat Major League Baseball stadium — did Georgia State really need such a large facility? The biggest crowd that had ever come to see the Panthers play any sport was the 30,000-plus who attended the football team’s inaugural game in 2010.
“We’re definitely interested,” Becker replied, searching for the right balance of enthusiasm and caution. “But obviously, we need to know a lot more.”
Turner Field is now Georgia State’s baby. After a competitive bidding process, the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, the government entity that controlled the stadium and the vast parking lots surrounding it, decided in December 2015 to sell the site to Georgia State and the private developers Carter, Oakwood Development and Healey Weatherholtz. The $30 million transaction, handled through the Georgia State University Foundation, closed Jan. 5.
Changes are coming quickly.
“This is what we’re looking at,” Becker says, opening a thick binder of plans on the conference table in his office atop Centennial Hall. The maps show the football team playing in a retrofitted Turner Field, which was itself retrofitted from the immense coliseum that hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the1996 Summer Olympics.
Across Georgia Avenue to the north, the university’s baseball team would play in a new 1,000-seat ballpark on the outline of the Braves’ old diamond, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 and where the franchise won its only World Series here in 1995.
“We’re playing football in a new Georgia State stadium this fall,” Becker says.
Beyond those marquee attractions, the plans show buildings dotted throughout the site: housing for students and non-students, restaurants, retail, offices and a parking garage, all threaded with green space. The overriding idea is to get rid of the asphalt wasteland that isolated Turner Field from the rest of the city and to replace it with a dense urban village anchored by education and athletics.
However it materializes, it’s clear Turner Field will be transformational for Georgia State. The 67-acre site is almost as large as the entire downtown campus, which amounts to about 71 acres. The development promises to be the culmination of three decades of expansion that have seen the university bust out of the small footprint that once confined it to five blocks along Decatur Street.
“We’ve never been a traditional campus,” Becker says. “We’re more like New York University, which is interwoven with Greenwich Village. We want Georgia State to be interwoven with Atlanta.”
With Turner Field, that process should take its biggest leap forward.
A number of developers contacted Georgia State after the Braves dropped their bombshell. The university knew it couldn’t buy and build out the property by itself, that it would need a partner if the Recreation Authority accepted its bid. After weeks of discussions, Georgia State chose Carter, an Atlanta-based real estate company with a long resume of work on campuses such as Georgia Tech, Boise State, the University of Michigan and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The company also undertakes complicated mixed-use projects in urban settings, including a new city center for Sandy Springs, north of Atlanta, and a huge development between two professional sports stadiums along the Ohio River in Cincinnati.
Scott Taylor, Carter’s president, expects to start work at the site as early as this summer.
“We want it to be a great place to walk down the street for 365 days a year,” he says, “not just on game days.”
That was always the problem with Turner Field. It was an exciting place to be on the 81 days a year when the Braves played. The rest of the time, it was locked gates surrounded by empty parking lots.
Well, not entirely empty. Georgia State has leased thousands of spaces from the Recreation Authority since 1969, allowing students to park there and board shuttle buses for campus.
You wouldn’t know it to look around now, but the Turner Field neighborhood was once a thriving residential area with its own stores, restaurants and movie theater. Summerhill was one of the first Jewish enclaves in Atlanta. The real-life model for the heroine of “Driving Miss Daisy,” playwright Alfred Uhry’s grandmother, grew up there. Atlanta’s only Jewish mayor, Sam Massell (B.C.S. ’51), was born there at Piedmont Hospital, which once occupied the site of the Braves’ first stadium.
By the 1950s, the neighborhood was changing, becoming lower-income and predominantly African-American. The city decided it was ripe for urban renewal and cleared several blocks for interstate highway construction, public housing that was never built and finally the stadium that brought professional baseball and football to the South.
“We want it to be a great place to walk down the street for 365 days a year … not just on game days.”
In many ways, Summerhill never recovered. The coming of the Olympics during the 1990s brought some hope as parts of the neighborhood were spiffed up to impress visitors and filled in here and there with some nicer homes. But the momentum withered, and the streets closest to Turner Field were marred by vacant lots and boarded-up businesses.
David Greenberg (M.H.P. ’16), a planner with Cherokee County, lives in one of those houses near the stadium. Given the history, he understands the mixture of wariness and optimism that many of his neighbors feel toward any proposal for Turner Field.
“Some residents worry about getting displaced, about rowdy students, about the university taking over and everything becoming more congested and dense,” he says. “I’m excited about what Georgia State could do with the property, but it’s going to be complicated moving into a residential area like this. Communication and transparency are going to be very important.”
Carter has heard the residents’ concerns and promises to alleviate problems such as the stormwater that runs off the parking lots into the neighborhood. The company knows people badly want a grocery store in the retail mix, something Summerhill hasn’t had in decades.
“I think we all want the same thing here,”Taylor says. “We want a safe environment. We want better services. We want the development to be walkable and open.”
Part of the challenge will be connecting the project not just to the neighborhoods surrounding it but to downtown and the Georgia State campus a mile north. As thousands of Braves fans know, Capitol Avenue can be bleak and windswept as it crosses Interstate 20.
“We want to soften that stretch and make it more pedestrian and bicycle friendly,” Taylor says. “We need to make this place part of Atlanta again.”
He’d like to see the bridge over I-20 fashioned into something more architecturally interesting. Ultimately, he’d love to see transit such as the Atlanta Streetcar, run down the avenue.
That hope became an official civic goal in December when the Atlanta City Council approved a new Streetcar System Plan that would send railcars up and down Capitol Avenue and Hank Aaron Boulevard, and east and west along Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and Georgia Avenue. The plan would effectively create a streetcar intersection between Georgia State’s football and baseball stadiums.
Home of the Panthers
It was never a given that Georgia State would play football at Turner Field. In fact, Becker was initially dubious that the baseball edifice would work for the Panthers.
“In the early days of this,” he says, “I thought the stadium would have to be demolished and we’d need to build something new. And then along comes Charlie Cobb, who convinces me otherwise.”
Cobb, Georgia State’s athletic director, wasn’t even at the university when the Braves made their announcement; he was the athletic director at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. But he had longstanding ties to Atlanta and the stadium site. He was a football player in college, an offensive lineman at North Carolina State, and participated in the Peach Bowl at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, getting to use the locker of one of his baseball heroes, Braves star Dale Murphy. Cobb spent much of his early career in Atlanta working for the Georgia Dome and was involved in big events such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl, so he knew the venues and the city.
When he saw the news about Turner Field pop up on his computer screen, his first thought was: “Holy smoke, Georgia State needs to be there.”
Nine months later, Cobb was there himself, hired in large part because of his experience developing athletic facilities at Appalachian State.
“I went to college with every intention of becoming an architect,” he says. “I still like to draw and paint. I’ve done a lot of drawings about Turner Field.”
For a couple of years after he was hired in 2014, Cobb would jog down Capitol Avenue to Turner Field from his office in the Georgia State Sports Arena.
“I don’t run very fast,” he says, “so I had a lot of time to look around and think about things. I’d go down there and imagine the students walking, the athletes playing and the bands practicing.”
During the first week of 2017, all that imagination moved closer to reality when Georgia State closed the deal and took possession of the property. Less than a month later, Cobb and the university’s new football coach, Shawn Elliott, recently arrived from the University of South Carolina, welcomed several hundred Panther supporters to Turner Field for National Signing Day, when colleges announce their new recruiting classes.
“We didn’t have to beg a single player to come here,” Elliott told the gathering. “We showed them our campus, we showed them Atlanta, we showed them our new stadium.”
The evening served as a coming-out party for a landmark in transition. As boosters arrived, they saw a huge artist’s rendering of the reconfigured stadium on the back of the centerfield scoreboard. Georgia State cheerleaders shaking pompons welcomed guests into the complex, where they were directed to the 755 Club overlooking the former baseball field. A video display running around the bottom of the upper deck blazed with Georgia State blue and the message: “Welcome to Georgia State Stadium, Home of the Panthers.”
Plans call for a football stadium of 25,000 to 30,000 seats, with the gridiron running along the third-base line, putting one end zone where the home dugout used to be and the other in left field. The upper decks will likely be covered in tarp until they’re needed. The neon tomahawk above the scoreboard will be gone, but the foul poles might be kept as a reminder of the stadium’s baseball past. The multistory building where the Braves had their offices will probably house elements of the athletic department and other academic programs.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ll be ready for football,” Cobb says, taking it all in as he stands at a bank of windows in the 755 Club.
On the field below, he could see a blue Panther logo painted in the outfield grass behind what had been second base.
Little by little, Turner Field is becoming Georgia State Stadium.
Jim Auchmutey spent almost 30 years as a writer and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in stories about the South and its history and culture. He is author of “The Class of ’65: A Student, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness.”
Photos by Steven Thackston
Aerial photo by William Davis (B.A. ’11)