When it opens (knock on wood) this August, Mercedes-Benz Stadium — home of the Atlanta Falcons and host stadium of Super Bowl LIII in 2019 — will be as green as all get-out.
From the 680,000-gallon rainwater cistern to the 4,000 solar panels to the three MARTA rail stations within a .7-mile walk from the stadium, the flashy new facility has nudged an already-high bar in the realm of environmental sustainability even higher by becoming the first NFL (and Major League Soccer) stadium to pursue LEED Platinum certification.
But as it turns out, the real green will be found just across the street where the soon-to-be-demolished (some might argue prematurely) predecessor of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Georgia Dome, now stands.
Once the Georgia Dome is razed later this year (an event that’s been pushed back due to reported issues with new stadium’s main element of architectural razzle-dazzle, a snazzy retractable oculus roof), the parcel will be cleared and transformed into a new urban park tout de suite. Due to open in 2018, the 13-acre park dubbed The Home Depot Backyard will serve dual purposes.
First, the park will act as a tailgate zone — a turf-covered tract in which to get moderately tanked while showing off your hitch-mounted grill and portable beer pong table. (And perhaps occasionally checking in on the game.) In a town with a strong — if not a bit underrated — tailgate culture, Falcon fans were largely restricted to two large, humdrum concrete-paved parking lots and a smattering of “gypsy” lots during the Georgia Dome era. No doubt that the grassy expanses of the Home Depot Backyard will be a welcomed change of scenery.
Second, the park will serve as year-round community green space-cum-communal lawn — an al fresco hub for “arts and culture events, entertainment and community activations” per a press statement issued by the office of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. As part of ongoing revitalization efforts, the Home Depot Backyard aims to serve as an honest-to-goodness backyard for those living in the surrounding Westside Atlanta neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue.
To quote the New York Times, Georgia Dome ticket-holders have historically "gone out of their way to avoid" these two adjacent neighborhoods with rough reputations. The 25-year-old Georgia Dome, which was the world’s largest covered stadium when it opened and served as a major venue in the 1996 Summer Olympics, was built with its back to them. Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the park to be situated where the Georgia Dome once stood attempts to connect with them.
It’s safe to assume that the Georgia Dome site’s rebirth as a sanctioned place to park ‘n’ party will be subject to a decent share of buzz leading up to the park’s opening. And perhaps that will be the park's most talked about feature after it opens. But it’s that second usage of The Home Depot Backyard that’s the most remarkable — a community-bettering means of breathing new life into a piece of real estate that could have easily been transformed into a multi-level parking structure, an upscale retail center, a hotel-casino or a plus-sized tourist trap considering the site’s proximity to Atlanta’s downtown core.
A catalyst for change (but not everyone's on board)
Thanks to redevelopment vs. preservation battles that often come complete with 53.3 yards of bureaucratic red tape, it’s a truly mixed bag when it comes to the afterlife of decommissioned stadia.
While Mercedes-Benz Stadium was erected atop an old parking lot just across the way from the Georgia Dome, new pro sports facilities are frequently built directly on the exact same footprint where their predecessor once stood. Other demolished stadium sites, like San Francisco’s historic Candlestick Park and Tiger Stadium in Detroit, for example, aren’t reborn as brand new stadiums but are redeveloped as large mixed-use developments with housing, retail and more often than not, recreational facilities. In lieu of demolition, some shuttered stadiums that were once home to pro sports franchises are left standing but repurposed (or attempted to be repurposed) into something else entirely: loft apartments, mega-churches, sporting goods stores, urban surfing parks, you name it.
Demolishing a stadium and turning the land into a public park isn’t totally unprecedented. Built in 1923 and demolished two years after it closed in 2010, the old New York Yankees Stadium, for example, is now a sprawling 11-acre park complex that serves residents of the South Bronx. The Home Depot Backyard is unique in that it functions as both standalone public parkland and a green extension of the new stadium next store. While very much part of Mercedes-Benz Stadium — especially on game days — due to the super-close proximity, the park is also its own creature thanks to the efforts of Arthur M. Blank, co-founder of The Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons.
Through his own foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, along with the help of a cadre of public and private enterprises including, naturally, The Home Depot (thus the park’s sure-to-be abbreviated corporate moniker), Blank has set out to rebuild and revitalize the historic communities around Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Once solidly middle-class African-American communities that played significant roles during the civil rights era (Martin Luther King Jr. was an area resident), Vine City and English Avenue are now among the most impoverished neighborhoods in the entire Southeast. Following a dramatic decline that kicked off in the 1970s, for decades these green space-starved neighborhoods, particularly an area of English Avenue known as the Bluff, have been synonymous with violent crime, abandoned homes and the heroin trade. Devastation following a 2008 tornado, the 2010 foreclosure crisis and a propensity for flooding haven't helped the area's fortunes.
As a 2017 New York Times profile of Blank explains, whereas some franchise owners might attempt to erase or wall-out troubled, stadium-abutting communities, the billionaire Atlanta philanthropist has viewed the building of Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a way to bring about positive change to the surrounding neighborhoods by using "philanthropy on a large scale as a development tool." As of January, Blanks’ foundation had donated $20 million to help fund various neighborhood revitalization efforts.
“Sometimes, these stadiums and facilities are built and not much happens around them; stuff takes place on the inside but not much on the outside,” Blank explains to the Times. “It’s not about how many buildings you build, but how you change the quality of life of the people living there.”
Queens-born Blank, who retired from The Home Depot in 2001, purchased the Atlanta Falcons in 2002 for $545 million. He also owns newly formed Major League Soccer club Atlanta United FC, which will share Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the Falcons.
As detailed by the Times, the revitalization efforts headed by Blank have been met with a good amount of skepticism, including from state Senator Vincent Fort, who has referred to the new stadium as being nothing more than an “engine for gentrification.” And while some longtime residents are appreciative of recent improvements, they’re also wary of the potential impact that their fancy new neighbor, a $1.2 billion football stadium, might have on area real estate. Others have bemoaned the fact that the community itself has not been involved to the degree it should be in bigger-picture discussions about the future of the area.
“Instead, it’s like, we’re going to develop it the way we want to develop it and develop it for who we want to develop it for,” Time Franzen of the Housing Justice League tells the Times.
Still, others — including Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed — enthusiastically support the economy-boosting, opportunity-creating initiatives that have accompanied the creation of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, including a job training center called Westside Works and American Explorers, a youth leadership program. A smattering of new parks have also been completed in the area.
Says Reed in a press release: “My administration has made it a priority to revitalize Atlanta’s Westside and has worked to bring new public and private resources to support economic and civic development in the area. The Home Depot Backyard is yet another example of the City of Atlanta and its vital partners’ commitment to West Atlanta, and will serve as a gateway to Downtown, our cultural district and to the world’s greatest sports venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium."
Looking beyond game day
With the recent announcement that the old Georgia Dome site will officially be turned into a public park (well, most of the time), it’s worth wondering if some critics have warmed up a bit to the changes afoot — and the money pouring into the neighborhood to help resuscitate it. Perhaps they have; or perhaps they’re more more skeptical than ever. Whatever the case, it’s hard to hate on nice new community green space no matter its proximity to a new football stadium.
It’s also not entirely clear what park-like features The Home Depot Backyard will include other than a massive, tailgate-friendly lawn, which, judging by initial design renderings, looks it will be populated mostly by cars on game days. (While the need for premium parking/tailgating space is inevitable, it's a shame that the new park isn't completely car-free ... they could have done a lot with those 13 acres.) A press release mentions “year-round opportunities for the community to enjoy the space through arts, culture, and entertainments events, military appreciation activities and everyday access to a beautiful green space with play areas.”
“The last 20 to 30 years, sports stadiums have gotten a bad rep,” Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development for The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, told reporters at a press conference announcing the new park. “They leave the city. They are open only 10 to 20 times a year and are ghost towns, especially football stadiums. And they don’t do much to lift up the community around them. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is now beginning to change that narrative.”
It’s worth mentioning that The Home Depot Backyard won’t be the only green space associated with Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Amongst the stadium proper’s 1,001 sustainable features will be on-site edible gardens. Like waterless urinals and EV charging stations, fruit and veggie patches have become a must-have for LEED-aspiring sports facilities in recent years. In January, Atlanta Magazine reported that Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s edible landscapes — supported by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and Ted Turner’s Captain Planet Foundation — will include a bounty of blueberries as well as two varieties of apples and two varieties of figs.
While specific locations for the gardens have been identified, other particulars — like what exactly will happen to the veggies once they’ve been harvested — have yet to be fully sussed out. But as Scott Jenkins, general manager of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, tells Atlanta Magazine, it's a given that the stadium-grown produce will stay within the community.
And while NFL stadiums and birds don't always mix, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is also touting its bird friendliness well ahead of opening: last week workers began installing a 73,000 pound metal statue outside of the stadium that the Atlanta Business Chronicle describes as being "the world's largest bird sculpture."
I'll let you take a guess as to what kind of bird it is.