IT'S being touted as a world-class gathering place, a lasting legacy of the 1996 Olympic Games, and a project that will give a decaying section of Atlanta a much needed face lift.
This week, construction crews, which have become almost as common as tourists in this southern metropolis, began clearing a 21-acre stretch of abandoned buildings, old warehouses, and weedy parking lots. Over the next 17 months workers will transform this tract of urban blight on Atlanta's western edge into Centennial Olympic Park.
The park will serve as the main gathering spot for the hordes of visitors expected to descend on the city during the summer Olympics.
And city leaders envision it as a catalyst for revitalizing the downtown area, which, like many cities, has seen businesses and retail shops move to the suburbs over the past three decades. This downtown rejuvenation effort is unusual because of its emphasis on green space and its funding from private sources.
''Centennial Olympic Park is a major asset,'' says Leon Eplan, Atlanta's commissioner of planning and development. ''It's very important because it opens up a whole new opportunity for investment.''
The park is one of the largest projects of its kind developed in the urban core of a city in this decade, says Barbara Faga, vice president of the Atlanta office of EDAW Inc., the San Francisco-based firm designing the park.
''I'm not sure cities would even consider doing something like this without a big, massive project such as the Olympics,'' Ms. Faga says. ''There's not enough public money around to build large open spaces.''
Atlanta's $50 million park is being funded with private money. Philanthropic foundations are contributing about $25 million, the Chamber of Commerce is raising about $10 million, and the remaining $15 million will come from the sale of engraved Olympic bricks, placed in the park's walkways and plazas.
Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, hatched the idea for the green space a little more than a year ago. He decided something needed to be done to improve the area that abuts many of the Olympic venues.
Mr. Payne went to work to get the backing of the city's powerbrokers, such as Roberto Goizueta, Coca-Cola Co.'s chairman and chief executive officer. Gov. Zell Miller (D), as well as local politicians and business leaders, also endorsed the plan.
So far, about 90 percent of the property has been acquired. Many of the businesses now operating on the site will relocate to other areas of downtown. But not all property owners are happy with the plan. Several are upset at being forced to move. Homeless people in the area have also expressed concern at being displaced, although there are efforts to find them new beds.
Jeffrey Rosensweig, an economics professor at Emory University here, says the creation of the park is critical to making Atlanta's Games successful. Compared with Barcelona, the city that hosted the 1992 summer Games, Atlanta doesn't have enough public spaces to accommodate Olympic revelers, Mr. Rosensweig says. ''Barcelona had all those wonderful spaces where people could get together in a plaza and just feel part of the celebration.''
The park, which will back up to the CNN Center and is almost in Coca-Cola's backyard, will be an oasis of trees, fountains, and walkways in a city whose downtown has a dearth of urban green space. After the Olympics, city leaders hope to develop the streets around the park with housing and retail shops.
There is already much interest among residential and commercial developers, says Dan Graveline, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, the state agency overseeing the park's development.
Says Barry Tindall, public policy director for the National Recreation and Park Association: ''Public recreation space is often the vehicle through which renewed economic development can occur. The history of that [succeeding] is actually pretty good.''