Cobb County gave Braves monopoly on all game-day parking, says it’s a “safety” thing

Just when you think the Atlanta Braves stadium deal can’t get any worse — it goes and gets worse! The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dan Klepal dug up the latest gift that Cobb County has awarded the Braves owners: a ban on any private entities within a half-mile of the new taxpayer-funded stadium renting out their parking spaces to Braves fans.

Commissioners in February quietly passed an ordinance that outlaws property owners within a half-mile of the stadium from charging for parking during games and other special events at the stadium…

“This irks the (heck) out of me,” said [local office building owner Fred] Beloin, who has previously tangled with the county over zoning around the stadium, and was unaware of the ordinance until told about it an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. “They say they’re increasing my property value and then they do everything in their power to make sure I get no benefit out of it.”

The ordinance closes off potential revenue for dozens of businesses that own more than 10,000 private spaces — many of which could compete with the team for parking revenue.

The way that it works: The new ordinance says that you need an “accessory special event parking license” to rent out your parking spots during Braves games, and such a license “will not be issued if primary access to the accessory special event parking area is from public right-of‐way within the limited access zone.” (I.e., if you drive there on a public road, i.e., everywhere within half a mile of the stadium.) The Braves themselves are exempt from needing a license, as a “major tourist attraction.”

Klepal’s article says that “the restriction could mean fewer parking options on game days, making it less convenient or more expensive to go to a stadium with no direct MARTA access,” but it’s unlikely that this is the Braves owners’ intent. Rather, it puts private parking lot owners over a barrel as the Braves try to negotiate to rent their spaces for use during games — as I told Klepal for his story, “One good way to get leverage is to make the thing you’re negotiating for worthless to the other party. And that’s precisely what Cobb County’s ordinance tries to do.”

As for the county and team officials that put this Braves parking monopoly in place, they say they never meant to discriminate against private parking lot owners, who they said can file appeals to the county if they want to rent out their own spaces on game days. Rather, they said, it’s about … safety. Safety?

“We know that when fans come to a Braves game, no matter where they park, they associate their experience with the Braves,” Plant said. “Our concerns focused mainly on two areas — safety of the fans and the free flow of vehicles through the areas around the ballpark.

“With that in mind, we requested that the county create an ordinance covering an area around the ballpark to protect fans who are attending the game and ensure that they receive the same safety, security and convenience provided in the lots we control.”

Run that by me again? Denying private parking lot owners the right to let Braves fans park there helps provide fans with “safety, security and convenience” because, I guess, quality control? Except that there’s nothing in the ordinance talking about the quality of the parking — the only way this ensures fan safety is if you assume the Braves can provide a safer experience than local business owners, which would be dubious even if we weren’t talking about a team that regularly has people fall to their deaths at games.

FoS reader Andrew Ross points out that this may be the lamest excuse for a self-interested policy since the Philadelphia Eagles tried to ban outside food at their stadium on the grounds that someone might smuggle in an exploding hoagie. It may well end the same way that controversy did, with team officials sheepishly repealing their attempt at a revenue grab amid the public uproar, but expect a few months of lawsuits first, at the least.

Braves stadium deal may not be worst ever, but that’s grading on a pretty steep curve

In my latest for Vice Sports, I take a look at the ever-sadder Atlanta Braves stadium mess, and ask whether it’s the worst stadium deal ever. Fans of Betteridge’s Law, let alone regular readers of this site, will know how that turns out, but suffice to say it’s an honor for them even to be part of the conversation. Not an honor in the good sense, mind you, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Anyway, it also features amusing observations from Victor Matheson and J.C. Bradbury, so go read it now!

Tim Lee steamed at reports he siphoned off parks money for Braves stadium (but yeah, he sure did)

Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee has spoken out about yesterday’s report that the commission diverted money from a public parks project approved by voters to the Atlanta Braves stadium deal, saying it’s all a load of hooey:

“Contrary to several unsourced and wholly fictitious news articles, Cobb County didn’t choose the Braves stadium over buying green space and it won’t need to raise taxes to do so,” Lee said, in a statement. “We have cut taxes for three straight years in Cobb County because we’ve focused on policies that promote economic growth — and they’ve worked.”

I went back to the original Atlanta Journal Constitution article detailing the parks bond controversy, and checked in with its author Dan Klepal as well, and I’m comfortable saying that Lee’s statement is a case of he who smelt hooey dealt it. The story is a bit complicated, but it goes something like this:

  • In 2006, Cobb County voters approved a property tax hike to pay for $40 million in bonds for public parkland. The tax was raised, and the parks were bought.
  • Two years later, Cobb County voters approved another $40 million in park bonds, to be funded by the same property tax surcharge. Cobb County Commission’s then-chair Sam Olens, however, never issued the bonds, because he worried the tax hike would have to be extended to pay for it.
  • In 2013, Lee and his fellow commissioners, needing money to shovel at the Braves for their new stadium, realized that the 2006 park bonds would be paid off in 2017, and that property tax hike cash would just be sitting there for the taking. So he took it, extending the tax surcharge for another 30 years, just like Olens didn’t want to do, but taking the money away from the parks budget, just like Cobb voters didn’t want him to do.

Lee now says he can come up with about half the money to pay for the voter-approved parks purchase without raising taxes, which I guess he sees as justifying the statement that “Cobb County didn’t choose the Braves stadium over buying green space.” (We can do both! If you don’t mind the green space being a bit less, uh, spacious.) But as far as taking a tax hike that was approved in order to fund public parks and instead funneling it into a private baseball stadium, yeah, he totally did that. You’d think he’d at least have the courage to wear it with pride, but politicians on the verge of getting voted out of office will do some desperate things.

Cobb County spent all its money on Braves stadium, doesn’t have enough left for public parks

In 2008, voters in Cobb County, Georgia, approved a $40 million bond issue to acquire and build new public parks. The money still hasn’t been spent yet, though, because at first it was delayed by the Great Recession (are we still calling it that?) and now by certain other spending priorities:

County officials say only $20 million will be available to buy park land.

Many of those public speakers at the commissioners’ meetings have wondered why the full amount could not be made available through the debt service fund, requiring no tax increase, since the commissioners were able to fund nearly $400 million for the Atlanta Braves to move to Cobb…

Commission Chairman Tim Lee has said a tax increase would now be needed to pay for the $40 million Park Bond 2008.

This guy is really trying hard to lose the election, isn’t he?

It’s worthwhile to note that this isn’t just a case of the county spending general revenue on the stadium and having none left over for parks, which would be bad enough; rather, the county actually redirected tax revenue that had been earmarked for public parks to pay for the stadium bonds, even though the park project was approved by voters, and the stadium never was. I’d say something snarky here about Cobb County’s attitude toward democracy, but Lee has already managed that quite nicely himself.

Cobb County Commission chair could be ousted over Braves stadium subsidies

So far the list of politicians booted out of office for throwing money at stadium subsidies has been a relatively short one, consisting of Wisconsin state senator George Petak, who was recalled by voters in 1996 for casting the deciding vote for public money for a new Milwaukee Brewers stadium, plus arguably Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was recalled by voters in 2011 after he fought for public money for a new Miami Marlins stadium, though he was recalled for other reasons as well. (The list of mayors booted for not throwing money at stadiums is even shorter, namely zero.) They may need to make room soon, however, for Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee, who is now facing a July runoff against an opponent who has been using Lee’s support of public funding for a new Atlanta Braves stadium as a key campaign push:

Chairman Tim Lee barely made it into a runoff against Mike Boyce, a retired Marine colonel who outpolled Lee by clobbering the county’s stadium deal with the Atlanta Braves…

“I simply asked the question: If I can vote on a $40 million park bond, why can’t I vote on a $350 million stadium bond?” said Boyce in an interview Tuesday night as the runoff scenario was emerging.

Lee, you will remember, didn’t only approve $355 million or more in county spending on that Braves stadium without a public vote, he also got brought up on ethics charges for hiring a lawyer for the project with county money without even telling his fellow commissioners about it. (He got out of that one by saying he was sorry and would never do it again. No, really.) So if anyone deserves to have his political future be a referendum on stadium subsidies, it’s Lee. Vote early and vote often, Cobb County!

Atlanta Braves now officially a “real estate business,” because they’re sure not a baseball team

Bloomberg Businessweek has a long article up this week on the Atlanta Braves‘ success at getting half a billion dollars in public subsidies for stadiums for their entire major- and minor-league chain of teams, which includes these memorable lines:

Says Joel Maxcy, a sports economist at Drexel University: “If there’s one thing the Braves know how to do, it’s how to get money out of taxpayers.”…

“The whole deal was very much behind closed doors,” says Michael Hotchkiss, a Pearl native, then an editor at the Clarion-Ledger [of the team’s deal for $28 million in public funds for a Double-A ballpark in Pearl, Mississippi]. “By the time it was public, the whole thing was done.”…

“There was no transparency,” says Lisa Cupid, one of [Cobb] county’s five commissioners [of the Atlanta Braves stadium deal]. By the time the commission got the chance to see the documents, the details had already been negotiated. Her fellow commissioners, she says, “were all just excited to be asked to the dance.”

Sense a theme here? The Braves owners may be spectacularly bad at putting together a winning baseball team (though you can make an argument that they’re following the model set by the bust-to-boom Houston Astros, though the Astros are currently in last place now as well), but they’re expert in getting stadium money approved before anyone can notice what’s going on. That’s a real skill, especially in a subsidy world where public attention only gets lawmakers thinking about what they’re doing before voting on it, and you don’t want that.

All of which leads up to the article’s impeccable last paragraph:

During a question-and-answer with shareholders in April, [team owner John] Malone shrugged off the Braves’ slow start. “Keep in mind,” he said, “the Braves now are a fairly major real estate business as opposed to just a baseball club.”

And it’s way easier and more predictable to run a baseball club as a real estate business. Plots of land never blow out their elbows.

Taxpayer cost of Braves stadium passes $350m, heads for $400m

Atlanta Braves fans worried about having to get to the new stadium by running across a six-lane highway, rejoice! The Cobb County Commission yesterday approved $10 million for a new pedestrian bridge from the planned parking lots to the stadium, which will surely — wait, what’s that, Atlanta Journal Constitution report from two months ago?

Oh, right, the land — the county still needs to acquire that from its private owners, which may require eminent domain. (A county spokesperson told reporters of land costs, “The right of way is still in negotiations so we can’t release any figures.”) Also money needs to be found for an upgraded parking deck to connect to the bridge. Also also, nobody is really convinced that the bridge can be built for $10 million, so this could easily be one of those Robert Moses-esque schemes to build half of a bridge and then find the rest of the money later — as Moses liked to say, “‘Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.”

The commission also approved another $13 million to widen a highway and create a new pedestrian plaza (not the one eliminated last month, I don’t think, but on the other side of the interstate). So add that to the known costs that the public is already on the hook for, and we’re at a minimum of $355 million in taxpayer subsidies, plus whatever the land and parking deck upgrades will go for. If it hits $400 million, don’t be surprised — this is what happens when you sign a deal to build a stadium project before you figure out how much it’s going to cost.

Cobb County cuts plaza from Braves bridge budget, still has no clue how much durn thing will cost

Cobb County’s Atlanta Braves stadium hellbridge continues to go very, very badly. The latest development: The county has scrapped a planned pedestrian plaza in order to keep the bridge from busting its $10 million budget.

After making the long trek across the bridge to SunTrust Park, pedestrians were going to be treated to a park-like plaza with manicured landscaping, a fountain of water cascading down steps, benches and an elevator to get back up to the bridge…

Jim Wilgus, Cobb’s interim transportation director, told the AJC last month that the plaza was “value engineered” out of the project. What will take its place?

“There is a set of stairs,” Wilgus replied through email.

Which, you know, fine: Manicured landscaping is all well and good, but the point of a pedestrian/bus bridge is to get people to and from their cars before and after games, so how pretty the view is on the way is kind of an unnecessary frill. Except that more cuts could still be coming, because nobody actually knows how much the bridge itself will cost:

Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the stadium area, said he doesn’t think anyone at the county knows what the final price will be. … “All I know is that as a commissioner, I have not seen a budget for the project,” Ott said. “I would hope that next week the commissioners will be shown it.”

On the bright (?) side, the county is considering using eminent domain condemnation to seize property it needs for the bridge approaches, which the private owners have been refusing to sell. It would still need to pay what a court decides is fair value for the land, though. And there’s still no stated solution at all to how it’s going to get all their fans across a bridge with only one lane for shuttle buses and one narrow pedestrian path for those on foot — not to mention how it will prevent pedestrians from spilling over into the bus lane and blocking traffic once their side of the bridge becomes impassably clogged.

This still has all the makings of a complete disaster, in other words. Good thing the Braves are projected to be unwatchably bad for the near future, so at least the bridgepocalypse can maybe get delayed for a couple of seasons.

Braves bridge design still lacks price tag, land approval, room for many buses

I am so, so sorry that I failed to keep you all abreast of recent developments with the Atlanta Braves‘ pedestrian bridge that no one knows how much it will cost or if they can get the rights to the land for it or if it’ll ever be built. And here when the bridge finally got its long-awaited approval:

[Cobb County] commissioners voted Tuesday night on the current proposal for the bridge crossing Interstate 285 to the Atlanta Braves’ new ballpark, which has been a lightning rod for more than a year…

A proposal put the cost for construction of the structure at less than $10 million, largely paid though a federal grant and the Cumberland Community Improvement District.

Okay, $10 million isn’t all that bad, considering what some earlier estimates had been. And at least this means Cobb County must have finally figured out that problem with getting rights to the land where the bridge would be built and

So… they actually haven’t figured any of this out. Last week’s county commission vote, it turns out, just approved the design of the bridge, not the cost or how to acquire the land — all that will get worked out later, and if it costs more than $9.8 million once they put it out to bid from contractors, they’ll (sorry) cross that bridge when they come to it. So this means nothing, basically.

As for that design, there is now an actual video rendering of how the bridge would appear if viewed from a helicopter flying dangerously low over passing traffic:

The first thing I notice here, aside from the fact that Braves fans appear to all be half-materialized cybermen, is that there’s only one lane for shuttle buses, meaning either each bus is going to have to wait while the previous bus heads back to pick up more passengers (which isn’t going to work too well) or there will need to be a huge stack of buses in the parking lot that will bring fans across before the game, then wait on the stadium side to bring them back to the lot afterwards (which also probably isn’t going to work too well). Building two lanes would be way more expensive, though, so this is what Braves fans are going to get — if they get anything at all, that is.

Turner Field to be converted into college football stadium, add housing and retail

The has announced that it’s selling Turner Field, soon-to-be-former home of the Braves, to a consortium made up of

Which, sure, fine enough, though there’s no actual development agreement yet, so it’s tough to say what this all would actually look like. And given that local residents are in the middle of a community planning process and complaining that they want things to hold off until that’s complete anyway, that’s arguably a good thing. But anyway, if you were concerned that your cherished memories of, um, something good that happened at Turner Field (involving Chipper Jones, maybe?) were going to be bulldozed, it looks like that’ll only partly be the case.