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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2004 Issue

Olympic Hopeful
In Sprawl City’s faltering downtown, some believed a new park might catalyze redevelopment. Eight years later, what has materialized? 

By Jonathan Lerner

Olympic Hopeful
© EDAW 1997, Photography by Dixi Carillo

Centennial Olympic Park was built on the shoddy western side of downtown Atlanta as a mass gathering place for the 1996 Olympic Games. Its long-term promise—explicitly made—was to catalyze redevelopment. In a park-poor city with a struggling downtown and a populace eager to welcome the world, this was an easy sell. And by many measures, the park has fulfilled these goals.

During the games, thousands—not just Olympics visitors but also Atlantans, who before then may have rarely ventured downtown—came to savor the thrill of the multinational throng and to enjoy the corporate entertainment pavilions set up in and around the park. One evening, the festivities were torn apart by a bomb for which a right-wing fanatic awaits trial: two dead and more than 100 injured. A terrorist tragedy compels identification with a site, even for those who have never been there; the bombing probably placed the park even more widely into regional consciousness.

Since 1996, the park has provided valuable, agreeable open space near the heart of the city. It attracts pedestrian bustle where once there was none and has hosted hundreds of special events and concerts. There have also been considerable renovation and new construction in the immediate vicinity. Actually, a much larger area around downtown, dubbed “intown,” is enjoying revitalization. Suburban growth has hardly stopped, but there is a discernible trend toward Atlanta’s center. This is propelled by obvious things—dysfunctional sprawl, population growth, urban chic. It is also unquantifiably a legacy of the proud sense of connection sparked by the Olympics. In the not-too-distant future, intown’s remaining kudzu-choked lots, disused buildings, and acres of surface parking should finally be rehabilitated.

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