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Volume 21 No. 2
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Hawks imagine oasis in The Gulch

The Atlanta Hawks aren’t standing still as the city’s other pro teams try to lure more fans with new stadiums and entertainment venues.

Bruce Levenson, managing partner of the Hawks, said team officials are in the preliminary stages of “reimagining” their home, Philips Arena, and the area around it, a 120-acre collection of downtown parking lots and railways called The Gulch.

The idea comes as the Atlanta Falcons prepare to start construction on a more than $1 billion downtown stadium and the Braves get ready to name the development team for a mixed-use project around their proposed Cobb County ballpark. Like the Falcons and Braves, the Hawks want to create a richer experience to pull fans off their couches and get them to the game.

The Gulch, near the Georgia Dome (left) and Philips Arena (center), presents both potential and problems for its sports neighbors. 

“We have this enormous, infamously called Gulch area right next to our arena,” Levenson said. “We’ve got to figure out how to make that a destination spot for our fans.”

The Hawks have not hired an architect or master planner, nor have they had formal discussions with developers. For now, they’re essentially brainstorming.

“What we envision is everything from a world-class practice court, to a modern sports medicine complex, to a sports entertainment center,” said Rutherford Seydel, co-owner of the Hawks.

The next step could involve exchanging ideas with political and business leaders and stakeholders. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he would welcome those discussions.

“We would certainly be open to talking to the Hawks and Philips Arena,” Blank said. “As much connectivity as we can have, the better off we all will be.”

The Hawks’ timing seems sound. Two big attractions are set to open in downtown Atlanta this year, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame.

“With all the activity downtown, it’s a good time for the Hawks and Philips Arena to be looking into this,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “We are entering a new environment among our sports teams where they are coming outside their arenas to increase the fan experience.”

The area is one of Atlanta’s best-known and most complex development sites — a former freight yard bordered by Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Mitchell, Spring and Marietta streets — but most people simply drive over the Gulch without even noticing it.

“It’s a symbolic hole in the heart of the region that is difficult to traverse,” said Douglas Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“It’s a phenomenal amount of land in a major city and it’s ripe for something to happen,” said Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Atlanta-based Cousins Properties Inc.

But redeveloping The Gulch remains challenging. It has a slew of stakeholders, including city transportation authority MARTA, federal agencies, state and city leaders, Norfolk Southern and local businesses.

In recent years the Georgia Department of Transportation and other groups have worked on plans that could turn The Gulch into a regional transportation hub for rail and buses, but the momentum for that project has stalled because there’s little political will for it at the local or state level.

Cousins, Forest City Enterprises and Atlanta developer The Integral Group completed a master plan for The Gulch last year. The project awaits a federal environmental impact assessment that could take another year to complete.

Any developer that acquires the site “can do whatever they wish,” but until the environmental work is done and approved, the project can’t receive federal funding, the Georgia DOT said in a statement.

Douglas Sams and Maria Saporta write for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, an affiliated publication. Business Chronicle staff writer Amy Wenk contributed to this report.