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Is the pedestrian bridge to Mercedes-Benz Stadium really serving Vine City?

UPDATE: the accepted price tag on the bridge has grown to $27 million, as of January 2019, versus the $23 million number that was known at the time this post was written. 

Does this expensive, elaborate pedestrian bridge being built across Northside Drive to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium really serve the needs of Vine City residents as has been claimed? We don’t think so, and fortunately some Atlanta City Council members, including Vine City’s own representative Councilman Ivory Young, are now asking the same question.

“Some would say the cost to undo what’s been done as far as the design would be astronomical,” said Young at this week’s Transportation Committee meeting. “Well, consider the tens of millions that we’re spending that could otherwise, I would hope, be spent on something of greater urgency, like affordable housing.”

Ivory Lee Young
Atlanta councilman Ivory Lee Young, Jr. speaking this week at the transportation committee meeting. A video of the meeting is available on the City Council website.

On Wednesday, committee members heard a presentation from Department of Public Works about the under-construction pedestrian bridge that crosses Northside Drive to the Mercedes-Benz stadium, including an argument for the “need” to spend more than $23M to complete construction. The result will be a 700-foot spiraling footbridge that features a “snakeskin” covering and $3 to $4M in fancy lighting. Although no information on the project was provided to committee members ahead of time, Public Works hoped for a vote of approval so it could sail easily through the Atlanta City Council meeting on Monday, March 5.

The City of Atlanta will decide on Monday whether we should spend more than $23M on a pedestrian bridge that crosses four lanes of Northside Drive from the Vine City MARTA station to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Fortunately, some Council Members are asking questions about how this project benefits residents.

An effort to improve connectivity has spiraled out of control

pedestrian bridge

If you’re trying to figure out why we need an elaborate pedestrian bridge to cross Northside Drive, go back to the conversations about how the location of the new Falcons stadium would impact Vine City and English Avenue. The main street that connected Vine City to downtown Atlanta and the rest of the east side of the city was Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Unfortunately for residents, that became the site of the new stadium, and the street was majorly realigned to suit construction. The end result was yet another example of lower-income residents being cut off from the rest of the city by a development project that was not for them. Councilman Young said it best on Wednesday when other Committee members deferred to his knowledge on the district:

“The bridge was birthed out of a desire to right some wrongs over generations where the west side had been severed from downtown — severed with the World Congress Center, severed with the existing Dome, no real connection to the amenities which historically this community [was] accustomed to profiting from. There were streetcars that ran down Magnolia Street through Vine City all the way to the heart of downtown to Peachtree Street…One thing that we had consistently advocated for was improved and increased connectivity. Truth is, a pedestrian bridge of [this] nature should cost a fraction of what it’s been budgeted.”

Magnolia Street
Some people have suggested that Magnolia Street might be able to provide a good pedestrian connection between Vine City and Downtown, but renderings for future use show that it’s slated to just be a short vehicular entrance for stadium parking.

The fact that Atlanta leaders found it necessary to approve $12.8 million in July 2016 on a bridge to remove people from a public road is frustrating. That the City is considering doubling down on that position to $23 million on Monday is absurd.

At Wednesday’s meeting, DPW Commissioner Johnson admitted that the almost $4M “snakeskin” required a lead time of one year and that they had already ordered it. The Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Katrina Taylor Parks said that the contract for $23 million had already been approved and that this was simply “an appropriation of funds” based on bond earnings. But last time we checked, bond earnings aren’t free money, and if you ask City Council members about that July vote on the bridge, they’ll say they were told the city would NOT be on the hook for $23 million.

Were the Mayor and former Commissioner Mendoza being transparent about the bridge when it was initially presented?

Some city leaders will tell you that this bridge has been discussed in 52 different public meetings. The problem is that those weren’t 52 community outreach meetings where residents demanded a fancy bridge. And if you look at the Community Benefits Plan that came out of the real community meetings, you’ll notice nowhere a mention of a glitzy pedestrian bridge. Instead you’ll find things like “high-density mixed use on Northside Drive,” Transit-Oriented-Developments at Ashby and Vine City MARTA Stations,” and “improved transportation connectivity.”

Yet the city claims full engagement on a project where residents would say otherwise. When the AJC asked Rev. Anthony A.W. Motley, one of the leaders helping create the Community Benefits Plan for the area, whether this project was for the neighborhoods, he responded strongly that it was not. The AJC quoted him as saying:

“To try and justify the bridge on the basis of a connection to poor people in the community is an insult to everything that we have proposed, particularly as it relates to the Community Benefits Plan. The bridge has nothing to do with the community, and to say that it does shows contempt for the community and a flagrant disregard for the truth.”

Let’s be honest: this bridge is about the Super Bowl, not connectivity

So what exactly is the pressing need to move this bridge so quickly? Katrina Taylor Parks made it clear on Wednesday that the fast timeline has nothing to do with Vine City residents and their needs. “There are several events that are coming and we don’t want to have an incomplete bridge that people will be utilizing during that time that represents Atlanta.”

Fortunately, we have some new City Council members asking Public Works hard questions about the need for a $23M bridge to the stadium.

Councilmember Farokhi pushed back, saying, “that doesn’t really ring true to me,” and noting that we recently had a national championship football game here without any need for a bridge at all: “I want to make sure this is for the residents. By comparison, this is a 23+ million dollar bridge. The bridge that went over [285] for SunTrust Park cost $11M. It also includes a BRT lane and a lot of elements that this bridge won’t have.”

That’s right, Atlanta. The city is talking about spending more than twice the cost of the SunTrust stadium’s bridge in Cobb County — which crosses over 8 lanes of controlled-access interstate highway. And we’re doing so on a stadium bridge that crosses only 4 lanes of a city street so that we’ll have something fancy for Super Bowl 2019.

That’s how the City wants to impress out-of-town visitors. Not with our civil rights legacy, our cultural icons, our southern soul food, our urban tree canopy, or our welcoming diverse  people. Instead, we believe tourists will think Atlanta is awesome because we have a snakeskin light-up bridge to cross a 4-lane road.

If we want to impress visitors, we should invest in useful sidewalks, a functioning transportation system, our many derelict iconic civil rights locations, and plans to help those experiencing homelessness find a place to live. Tourists don’t love cities because of glitzy projects — like residents, they love cities for their life and culture at the street level.

Right this wrong: contact Atlanta City Council

Reach out to your Council Members before Monday’s 1 pm City Council meeting where this $23M bridge will be discussed. Urge them to vote NO on the bridge and support our residents instead of only tourists. Instead, tell them to go back to the residents and the Community Benefits Plan to make sure their needs are truly met. Tearing the bridge down would indeed be expensive, but spending that money on the community instead of Re-open the possibility of the pedestrian walkway on Magnolia Street.

Vine City and English Avenue residents, like anybody else, aren’t going to walk up and down a swirling light-up bridge that takes them twice as long just to cross the street. If we truly want to help residents with connectivity, all we have to do is look at the Central Atlanta Progress plan to make street-level improvements up and down Northside Drive — a plan that will help turn a dangerous car sewer into a city street that can serve residents rather than just commuters and tourists passing through alone in cars.

We should also be talking about extending Magnolia Street to downtown as recommended by the Westside Future Fund  instead of making it driveway for a stadium parking lot.  Combine these ideas with the Georgia Department of Transportation’s work to make Northside Drive a Complete Street for all users and we have a real chance to fix this for daily use, not just for game days. That is where City Council’s focus — and funding — should be, here and everywhere else.

As  Young said in Wednesday’s meeting, “We build this bridge and nobody walks on this bridge, shame on us. We’re way out of bounds now. I told Mayor Reed this. I’ve said it to the new mayor.”

Further reading about this bridge

For additional background reading, below are links to several articles about the bridge, as local press and activists have questioned the need for the project.

Article from December 2016 acknowledging that City Council never approved an expenditure of $23M for the bridge:
Glitzy Bridge for New Falcons Stadium Could Cost Double What City Said

The City Council ordinance approving the bridge at half the proposed price tag:
Read the City of Atlanta resolution

Two weeks later, then-Mayor Reed offered this justification: the bridge will “save lives”:
Reed Defends Cost of Pedestrian Bridge to Falcons’ Stadium

Let’s not forget this one from former Commissioner of Planning and Community Development, Mike Dobbins, who called for implementation of Central Atlanta Progress’s much more practical plan — produced in conjunction with PATH Foundation and actual neighborhood input — to create a safer Northside Drive:
Baby Steps Across Northside Drive

Or this one from Maria Saporta, also recommending spending that same $23M on street-level improvements.
Money to build pricey pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive should be spent at street-level

And finally, Dobbins again questioning the practicality of asking pedestrians to walk 700 feet through a swirling bridge when instead they can simply cross a 4-lane, 70-foot wide road at a traffic signal:
A tale of two roofs, a bridge and a widening wealth divide