ATLANTA » A collective gasp rose here last week when the Atlanta Braves announced that they were moving to the suburbs. The franchise, after all, has been not only a sports team, but also a mirror of Atlanta’s aspirations.
The Braves became the first big-league team in the Deep South when they moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966. The team quickly became a national presence thanks to Ted Turner’s cable network and was an early symbol of the region’s evolution beyond the confines of its segregated past.
As demographics changed and development migrated to the largely white suburbs, the team remained a proud anchor of an increasingly black city.
But now, as the team makes plans to head a dozen miles northwest to a new $672 million baseball stadium in Cobb County, a regional civic conversation has begun: Is the move a blow to a city beginning to enjoy a post-recession urban renaissance, or is it a signal of a new era in which traditional assumptions about the divide between city and suburb no long apply?
Mayor Kasim Reed, who recently brokered a deal to build a $1.2 billion downtown stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, spent the week taking hits for letting the Braves go.
His critics, he said, are shortsighted.
"We’ve got to make a decision – either we’re going to be a region or we’re not," he said at a packed news briefing the day after the Braves’ announcement. "It bothers me that we have not come far enough as a community that people feel that a team moving 12 miles is a loss to the city of Atlanta."
The traditional lines between the city’s 423,000 residents and those of the nearly 3.8 million people living in its suburbs have long been fading, especially demographically.
Places like Gwinnett and Cobb counties north of Atlanta have become much more racially diverse in the past decade. The number of black residents in Cobb County grew 47 percent from 2000 to 2010.
On the other hand, Atlanta, long a majority black city, is becoming whiter. During the past decade, the white population has grown 17 percent, although black residents still make up just over half the population.
Andrew Young, the civil rights leader who became Atlanta’s mayor in 1982, said the geographic boundaries that once divided the 10-county region were as much a part of history as its once-deep racial divisions.
"One of the things I learned when I was mayor is that nobody pays any attention to jurisdictions but elected officials," he said, adding that one of the region’s problems is that it has always segregated the city from the outer communities.
"The truth of it is," he said, "it’s one big economic unit."
Young, like many civic leaders here, says that moving the baseball stadium offers a chance to redevelop a section of Atlanta that has languished from the start in the shadow of the stadium.
Like many cities, Atlanta is enjoying a wave of new urbanism driven by a crop of educated workers who have moved in from the suburbs and other, smaller cities, filling coffee shops and restaurants in neighborhoods that used to be cultural wastelands. The population is on the rise, growing about 6 percent in the past couple of years.
The Beltline, an urban walkway and bike path featuring 22 miles of reclaimed railroad bed, has opened up the core of city. A streetcar project opening next year will connect downtown with nearby neighborhoods.
The College Football Hall of Fame is moving in downtown, and a rising high-tech district stretches from Georgia Tech north of the city’s famous aquarium into the high-rise condos of the Midtown neighborhood.
Nearly two dozen major apartment projects are underway. Developments like the Ponce City Market on the edge of Old Fourth Ward, which combines apartments, shops, restaurants and offices in a historic former Sears, Roebuck & Co. factory building, promise to remake how residents use the city.
Many here argue that, amid that backdrop, the loss of the team is a blow – especially when baseball stadiums are being used to revitalize the urban cores of cities like Denver and Minneapolis.
"I find it ironic that in the last few years that we have been becoming a ‘real city’ but we are losing our baseball team," said Steve Fennessy, editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine. "That’s a significant wound to our self-esteem."
Turner Field, nicknamed The Ted after Ted Turner, the team’s former owner, has never really served as an engine of revitalization, although civic leaders have tried.
After the 1996 Games, the team moved into what had been the city’s Olympic Stadium. It sits on a sea of parking lots separated by a freeway from the city’s downtown core, which is less than a mile away.
The surrounding neighborhoods have some newer lofts and houses but also some of the poorest households in the city. The stadium is without a stop on Atlanta’s chronically underfunded MARTA train system. There is not even a bank or a grocery store nearby.
The stadium is less an urban amenity than what urban planners call a drivable suburban location – that is, a place people drive to for only one purpose and then leave.
The Cobb County site is actually more in line with a new ethos of urbanism that rewards smaller, walkable communities, said Chris Leinberger, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business.
This year, he released a study of new urban development patterns in the Atlanta metro area as part of his work for the Brookings Institution.
In it, many parts of suburban Atlanta had a more urban feel than the city itself.
"The whole concept of city versus suburb is a really obsolete concept, and moving the baseball stadium reflects that," he said.
The new, smaller stadium is being planned for an unincorporated part of Cobb County’s Cumberland area. That slice of the county is home to headquarters for companies like Home Depot and the Weather Channel and is flush with shops, restaurants and hotels.
It is also home to the Atlanta Opera and the Atlanta Ballet, which stage most performances in the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
The area around the stadium could be a distinct walkable urban place, Leinberger said, describing a kind of guided development designed to deliver the feel of urban living in a smaller community.
"The real distinction in Atlanta now is between those places that are walkable urban areas and those that are drivable suburban areas," he said. "Where they are doesn’t matter as much."
Of course, without any train transportation or meaningful bus service, people will still have to travel on Atlanta’s famously congested freeways to get there. And they will need plenty of parking, something Braves management said was lacking at the in-town stadium.
Moving the stadium will put the team closer to a majority of its fans and allow the team’s out-of-state owners, Liberty Media Corp., to control and profit from development around it.
But the team is still the Atlanta Braves, said Mike Plant, an executive vice president with the organization.
"We’re not rejecting the city of Atlanta," he said. "We’re the Atlanta Braves for another 30 plus years. And Metro Atlanta is a big place."
Kim Severson, New York Times