Bold but boring? Atlanta tries to reinvent itself

The Olympics didn't do it. Neither did the underground mall. So a 'New South' nexus sets sights on sea life and soda.

It's a rare day that Robert Lester finds himself downtown.

But on this day, his youngest son's appearance in the Fourth of July parade on Peachtree Street has brought him in from the boom-burg of Alpharetta to the city his forefathers watched Sherman burn.

The former private-school principal is typical of many Georgians who've turned their backs on Atlanta's shiny skyline. To Mr. Lester, this beachhead of the New South has grown cold and strange in its success. And trucking in water to build a faux waterfront in the guise of a 5-million-gallon aquarium - part of the city's vaunted renewal - seems, to him, a showy farce.

The enduring challenge for Atlanta, as for other Southern cities striving to revitalize their urban cores, is how to ease the crush of traffic and panhandlers, so that business districts attract suburbanites, tourists, and businesses themselves.

"You don't catch families downtown," says Lester. "Look at me: I was born here and I don't want to come here."

Certainly, Atlanta is no slouch in tourism: From the CNN Center to the Margaret Mitchell House, from Martin Luther King's neighborhood to Fat Matt's legendary rib shack and blues dive, it can seem an urban adventurer's paradise. And beyond the bustle of downtown, insist the city's advocates, are hidden jewels. "Atlanta has very interesting, well-defined neighborhoods that tourists don't see," says Mike Meyer, a Georgia Institute of Technology civil engineer working on the city's problems. "That's where the best restaurants are, where the more interesting clubs are."

But today, much of the buzz surrounds Midtown and Buckhead, two core enclaves north of downtown. The financial center, in contrast, seems forlorn. Despite 8 million visitors annually, there isn't much to do, as even city boosters acknowledge, and most tourists wander out of the area by dusk. Businesses, too, are leaving. A high-profile law firm recently packed up its ledgers and statute books, and carted them north to Midtown. Ditto the Federal Reserve Bank. And Centennial Park, which boosted Atlanta's international status with the 1996 Olympics, has largely failed to draw crowds. Even Underground Atlanta - a hub of shops and eateries on cobblestone streets, and a tourist fixture - is in one of its worst slumps.

A fish in every tank, and other goals

All this - and Atlanta's future - is on Bernie Marcus's mind.

The Home Depot cofounder and philanthropist is putting up the $200 million for the ark-shaped aquarium, which will hold 50,000 fish - one for every eight residents. The aquarium trend has been lucrative elsewhere. Here, though, the question is whether tourists will choose Atlanta's aquarium over Chattanooga's, 90 minutes north.

"People don't say, 'Let's spend the weekend in Atlanta,' " Mr. Marcus told a crowd at last month's groundbreaking.

But soda lovers, along with fish fiends, will have an extra incentive: Coca-Cola is moving its World of Coca-Cola museum near the aquarium. Moreover, there's a major renovation of the High Art Museum and a new concert hall a mile's walk away. Experts say it's part of the city's more pragmatic tack to familiarize people with its streets.

"Aquariums have the advantage of bringing families in and getting them comfortable in the downtown," says Morton Gulak, the chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

But others say the key to bringing people in isn't new attractions. Midtown loft developments, for instance, have given that region new life. Now, a loft district being built downtown is part of an effort to restore housing lost to new developments like Centennial Park - a reach for Atlanta's residential past even as the city clings to gleaming additions.

"If you look at Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle - cities that people look at that are fun to visit - they all have something in common: A lot of people live downtown," says Mr. Meyer at Georgia Tech.

A bout of urban introspection

But today, at least, many locals spend the nights on park benches instead of in lofts.

Walking through downtown, bowing neatly at the ladies, and holding his bearded chin high, Napoleon Tye is what you might call Atlanta's amateur ambassador. He stays away from cops and Atlanta's official pith-helmeted Ambassador Corps - another gambit to ease visitors' minds.

Mr. Tye is one of the legions of downtown homeless - whose haranguing, many say, drives families away.

"Oh, yeah, the downtown is hurting," says Tye, a self-proclaimed tour guide. "The more they've pushed us outside, the more homeless people they get. People have to come downtown for services and they often don't have enough money to go back."

Indeed, many here believe that the city should be doing more for its low-income residents, and worry about tourism second. "The last thing we need is another tourist trap," says Pat Pirkel, her stockinged feet propped up outside her home in Cabbage Town, a former mill neighborhood that's now a funky artists' community a few miles from Atlanta proper.

Still, some visitors frankly don't give a darn about urban soul-searching. With CNN Center "press passes" around their necks, Dutch tourists Silvia Aalbers and Ingmar Pul are passing time on a stopover from La Paz to Rotterdam. As kids run through a fountain at Centennial Park and the first July 4th parade floats appear, the couple is happy to have stumbled by. But after months in the backwaters of South America, they acknowledge they're easy to please.

"At least they have real facilities here," says Ms. Aalbers. Would that all visitors found solace in such simple joys.

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