A “Broader Look at Atlanta” in the NYT

Last week I wrote about the Atlanta Braves’ surprise decision to leave Turner Field–their home since the city converted the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Stadium for their use–for a new facility in suburban Cobb County they hope to open in 2017. I suggested that a large part of the motive for the switch was the Braves’ effort to accommodate the preferences of their affluent and largely white fan base to avoid downtown Atlanta and the African American neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field.

Now, although I think the racial politics of the move are quite evident, if subsumed in discussions of transportation access, the geographical distribution of Braves’ ticket buyers, and economic development, that doesn’t mean that the decision is one that’s necessarily bad for the city of Atlanta, or the region as a whole. It’s worth thinking about what it means for the city to let the Braves walk away from a lease, and for the Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville neighborhoods to transition out of the era of stadium-based land use and development models that have dominated the area since the late 1960s.

This is what Kim Severson set out to do in the Sunday New York TimesWhile Severson makes some good points, I think that it’s also worth pointing out where this analysis falls short.

In the big picture, Severson speculates that the Braves’ decision might herald a renewed discussion of regionalism in metro Atlanta.

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 longer apply?

Part of Severson’s problem is that her principal evidence for this claim doesn’t come from a rigorous political-economic analysis of the impact of the move but from asking politicians about it (in fairness, she’s working her side of the street and I’m working mine). To be sure, the move might end up being a net positive to the city of Atlanta, which could benefit from the displacement to the suburbs of entertainment economy activities. If other people and communities take some of the brunt of negative externalities like traffic, air pollution, litter, and the Tomahawk Chop, that’s actually a nice example of regionalism in action.

However, Severson gives far too much credit to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s brush-off of the Braves’ move.

“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.”

This regionalist equanimity might carry considerably more weight if Reed had not, as Severson acknowledges, just put his reelection at risk by brokering a deal for the construction of a $1.2 billion stadium for the NFL Falcons near downtown Atlanta. The deal involved committing the city to revenue bonds and reallocating a state pool of hotel taxes collected in Atlanta that could bring the public share of the cost to a billion dollars over 30 years.

Why was all of this spending necessary? In part because Falcons spokespersons persuaded Reed and allies like Chief Financial Officer Duriya Farooqui that the team would move to Clayton County or some other suburb if the city didn’t support a new stadium. It’s worth noting that these suburbs allegedly lining up to steal the Falcons from Atlanta weren’t even offering to build principal owner Arthur Blank a new stadium. Reed’s rhetorical nod to regionalism after letting the Braves walk shouldn’t be considered outside of his aggressive and probably foolish localism on behalf of the Falcons.

It is interesting that suburban Cobb County taxpayers will foot so much of the bill, both in direct allocations and in the extension of existing property tax surcharges that will be redirected from parks and other uses toward the stadium instead of expiring. As Neil deMause notes at Field of Schemes, the math doesn’t add up to profits for Cobb County, which will reallocate $8.7 billion in property taxes toward bond payments while plausibly reaping about $8 million annually in sales taxes from the stadium and nowhere near the $12 million annually in property tax revenues created by higher valuations to make up the rest of the county’s obligation. In sum,

Cobb County would certainly steal some revenues from Atlanta by virtue of hosting the Braves, which would offset its costs somewhat — but Cobb taxpayers would still likely be looking at a loss in the $100-200 million range. And that’s not accounting for the opportunity cost of taking 15 acres of land and handing it to the Braves tax-free for their stadium, removing the possibility of future development there that might actually pay taxes. Or the opportunity cost of what else the county might do with its $300 million that could increase economic activity (and tax receipts) some other way. It’s not the worst stadium deal ever — that’s going to be a tough record to break — but it still looks like an awfully high price for Cobb taxpayers to pay for a slightly shorter drive to the ballgame.

Regionalists have long argued that cities subsidized the construction of the suburbs (taxpayers in built-up areas financed extending infrastructure outward) and continue to subsidize their operation by hosting governmental facilities, public hospitals, jails and other regional infrastructure, and artistic, cultural, and sports venues. This is all  real estate dedicated to regional uses but supported by local municipal services and frequently exempt from the local tax rolls. The Cobb County play for the Braves is a historical turnaround, in that fans from Cherokee, Forsyth, Gwinnett and north Fulton Counties (and I suppose even some from Atlanta) will use the facilities while Cobb foots the bill, hoping to capture economic development impacts–hopes that, in general, end in disappointment. We could call this by a lot of names, and Cobb County getting fleeced seems like a good place to start, but I don’t think regionalism fits just because the suburbs have begun making some of the moves that cities have historically made in the game of competitive localism.

The story gets weirder still when Severson starts quoting politicians about the racial and demographic divisions of the region. Of course, like everywhere else in the United States, suburban Atlanta is growing more diverse. And the city’s population is becoming whiter and more affluent with gentrification and redevelopment, to the point where the city’s black majority is shrinking and white mayoral candidates have made serious noise in recent campaigns. The city limits are not the racial boundaries the were in the 1970s, and the region’s racial dynamics today aren’t captured by the trope of white flight.

But that doesn’t mean that the divisions among metropolitan places don’t matter, as some of Severson’s subjects argue.

Andrew Young, the civil rights leader who became Atlanta’s mayor in 1982, said the geographic boundaries that once divided the 10-county region are 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.”

The circumstances of the stadium deal alone belie Young’s argument; Cobb County is offering to foot a huge part of the bill for a new stadium in the belief that the resulting economic benefits of baseball will redound to Cobb County alone. If the region is one big economic unit, somebody forgot to tell the Cobb County Commission (and Kasim Reed for that matter).

Indeed, in metro Atlanta today there’s a profound concern for jurisdictions because of the ways that those kinds of boundaries structure the social and fiscal conflicts of metropolitan life, facilitate resource hoarding, and divide communities of opportunity. We’ve seen incorporation movements in north Fulton County spread to DeKalb, and though leading state House Republican Jan Jones has grudgingly acknowledged that the movement she leads to split Fulton County is at a political stalemate, it’s not going away and there’s no reason to suppose that if Fulton County splits legislators from DeKalb or any other internally diverse metro county won’t push to follow suit. The politics of race are deeply woven in these jurisdictional conflicts.

Maybe the Braves’ relocation will prompt a deeper conversation about regionalism that actually leads to practicing regionalism. This might particularly happen if Cobb County learns a lesson the hard way–being on the hook for bonds that new revenues and property value increases don’t cover, or watching the Braves pull up stakes in thirty years. But learning the hard way doesn’t factor in the Times piece when it comes to the significance of metropolitan jurisdictions or the politics of land use around the new stadium. Severson is particularly sanguine about the prospect of a New Urbanist residential and retail development around the new stadium.

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.

I’ve taken some issue with Leinberger’s analysis here before; I don’t disagree with his general conclusions that markets are shifting to favor the kind of amenities that the affluent want, which include walkability and some semblance of integrated residential and commercial life. But public policies matter too; there just isn’t enough market demand for New Urbanism to make it anything other than a lifestyle amenity at this point, and one mixed use walkable development around a baseball stadium is not going to impact the way that Atlantans navigate the already built-up spaces of the region. So, while Leinberger isn’t wholly wrong here when he states

“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,”

Cobb County politicians aren’t showing signs that they view the stadium as part of a shift away from an automobile-centered single family home mode of development. While Leinberger elsewhere insists that metro Atlanta’s underdeveloped transit infrastructure is holding back the progress of walkable metropolitan places,

“Metropolitan Atlanta has been under-investing in the rail transit transportation infrastructure that greatly assists the walkable urban development the market and economy is now demanding,” the report stated. “Investing in rail transit in the early 21st century is as important as building of freeways in the 1960s and 1970s was for the economic growth of the Atlanta region 50 years ago”

Cobb County isn’t buying. As the chair of the Cobb County GOP put it:

“It is absolutely necessary the (transportation) solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

So I suppose there’s a boundary that still matters after all.

I should acknowledge that Severson identifies and identifies the opportunity to cultivate a conversation around regionalism in metro Atlanta. But that conversation is not yet here.  Cobb County might be entirely delusional about the chances of the Braves’ stadium becoming a paying proposition, but they expect to come out winners and they expect to keep the spoils of victory to themselves. Kasim Reed’s regime in Atlanta let the Braves walk because they had just put Atlanta taxpayers all in for the Falcons. The rhetorical nods to regionalism that Severson’s found here amount are just table talk: Atlanta politicians trying to spin the fact that they folded weak hands in the game of localism. 

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