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Atlanta Hitches Its Make-Over to Olympics


ATLANTA — Picture a shining new city of parks and plazas and a towering monument rising to the clouds. Imagine redesigned boulevards graced with public sculpture. Picture forsaken neighborhoods transformed into vibrant communities.

Picture it someplace else. You won't see it here.

When Atlanta was chosen 4 1/2 years ago as the site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, visions of a glorious civic future seemed as plenteous as the dogwoods that bloom in spring.

The Olympics--as Atlantans never tire of saying--would provide an unsurpassed opportunity for the city to rebuild and market itself, to announce its arrival as a world-class city, a rank to which self-conscious Atlanta has always aspired.

Left unsaid, however--because nobody knew--was what that rebuilding would entail. And what is a world-class city, anyway, as the dawn of the 21st Century nears? What should one look like? How does one feel? What, in short, should Atlanta strive to be?

The New South metropolis is grappling with those issues now as the city, chastened by a new sense of reality, tries to make itself over in time for the Olympics.

Atlanta wanted to do everything. In addition to building new sports venues and making repairs, the city somehow would create lovely promenades, erect Olympic monuments, invest in poor neighborhoods, repair dilapidated housing--even shift the heart of downtown away from the soulless cluster of hotels and office buildings that now predominate to a pulsing new locus, to be built on what is now a wasteland of parking lots and warehouses.

Viewed against the overreaching scope of those early dreams, the city's current plans seem modest. And even some of those projects are in danger of faltering.

Still, when an estimated 2 million visitors come to call next year, they will see a substantially different city than the one that now exists. Certainly compared to Los Angeles, which hosted a stripped-down Olympics in 1984, Atlanta is in the midst of a building boom of arenas and civic improvements.

Yet even now the city questions whether it is doing the right thing.

"Atlanta is constantly in this sort of crisis of trying to find itself," said David Hamilton, a local architect. "If Atlanta were a person, it would be in constant analysis." The centerpiece of the city's $2-billion make-over will be a $50-million, 21-acre downtown park that officials hope will be the catalyst for a strikingly reconfigured central city--a 24-hour downtown replete with residences, shopping and restaurants.

Groundbreaking for the park, which was scaled back from the 72 acres originally proposed, is scheduled for today.

Centennial Olympic Park would be what Gov. Zell Miller calls "the world's town center" during the Games, a festive gathering place for visitors. But it also is designed to serve as the heart of a newly pedestrianized city that civic leaders hope will evolve.

Such an ambitious transformation would stretch well into the next century, if it comes to pass at all. "It's unrealistic to think that one year after the Games, Atlanta will be a totally different city," said Dan Graveline, who has the task of developing the park. But come back in 10 or 15 years, he advised.

In the history of the Olympics, Los Angeles' bare-bones approach to hosting the Games was unusual. The city built few venues, choosing instead to scatter the Games across 200 miles. At the other extreme was Barcelona, Spain, which spent $8 billion in government funds rebuilding the city before the 1992 Summer Olympics. "Atlanta is in the middle," Graveline said.

But while the city is not erecting as many venues as Barcelona, Atlanta--mostly relying on private funds--is still counting on the Games to spur a grand make-over.

"Atlanta has always been a city that has remade itself, from the days of Gen. Sherman to current times," said Paul Kelman, an executive of a local civic group, explaining the city's attitude. Lapsing into booster-speak, the local idiom, he added: "We have always been a city that looks to the future. Our symbol is the phoenix."

Needless to say, there is disagreement here as to what Atlanta should aspire to become.

The decisions made here about the future of the city have potentially wide-ranging implications. In a coming book, Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, calls Atlanta a paradigm for the emerging "post-urban" city. "Atlanta has changed at an unbelievable speed, like in a nature film when a tree grows in five seconds," he wrote in a recent excerpt in the architecture magazine P/A. "There is no center, therefore no periphery."

The goal of the Olympic park and other initiatives to spur downtown housing is to manufacture a center, or remanufacture one, since Atlanta at one time had a densely textured downtown, before the flight to the suburbs led to what Koolhaas calls its atomization.

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