A 2.5-hour forum about the new Braves stadium’s traffic impacts on Sandy Springs, held Sept. 21 at Riverwood International Charter School, drew about 250 residents, the mayor, state legislators, a Cobb County commissioner and a state Department of Transportation board member.
What the forum didn’t have was the Braves. Reed Haggard, president of the Riverside Homeowners Association, which organized the forum, said the baseball team’s officials were invited, but did not respond. Some residents said that’s symbolic of the secret deal that brought the stadium to nearby Cobb and left Sandy Springs to figure out traffic solutions at its own expense.
With officials largely recapping previously announced traffic management ideas, residents voiced frustrations, with a few shouting about the traffic “nightmare.” Others asked for the Braves or Cobb to reimburse Sandy Springs’ traffic-related expenses or asked for ways to stop such high-impact, yet secret, development deals.
“I wish we had somebody from the Braves and somebody from Major League Baseball joining us,” said one woman. “Our taxpayers are being asked to pay for infrastructure for the Braves stadium” without ever getting a vote on the deal.
The Braves’ president of development, Mike Plant, was “not aware” of the invitation, according to spokesperson Beth Marshall, but did provide Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott with some information for the meeting.
“Is there a way, at the state level, to stop these back-room mega-deals from happening?” asked another woman. “We can all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ in the Perimeter Mall,” she said, but they are still coping with the results of a plan where Sandy Springs had no input.
Traffic fix updates
Mayor Rusty Paul gave an overview and update on traffic mitigation ideas. Some were the Braves’ own ideas, including moving weeknight game start times at the new SunTrust Park back to 7:30 p.m. Some were city ideas, including a new Powers Ferry Road/I-285 interchange in Cobb and a new, gated ramp allowing stadium-goers to go directly from 285 to Interstate North Parkway without looping through neighborhood streets.
One big message was that the city and the county are working together on solutions. Another big message: Major fixes like the Powers Ferry interchange can’t be done before Opening Day on April 14, and no one really knows how traffic will behave—except that there definitely will be more of it on local streets.
“It’s kind of like planning for war,” the mayor said, predicting that some solutions “will go out the window on the day of the first game,” but that the planning effort itself is valuable for coping with the unexpected.
Paul did offer some traffic mitigation updates and new ideas:
- Waze, a driver-direction app drawing national attention for directing commuter traffic through neighborhood streets, has been an added concern with the stadium. Paul said the city, Cobb and GDOT are working with the Braves and Major League Baseball to ask Waze to remove such cut-through options for game-day stadium traffic, though no deal has been reached. One resident noted that drivers may simply use other wayfinding apps.
- The city has hit a literal roadblock with its proposal to run express shuttle buses between the stadium and the Dunwoody MARTA Station along 285’s shoulder. The shoulder is too narrow at three places where bridges cross the highway, Paul said, adding that the city is still pushing for a modified shoulder-lane plan.
- The city is open to the possibility of permanently or temporarily closing one end of several streets near the Northside Drive/285 interchange to prevent cut-through traffic, if a majority of residents request it, the mayor said.
- The mayor recently met with both outgoing Cobb Chairman Tim Lee and Chairman-elect Mike Boyce, ensuring that planning continues in the months before Boyce takes office. Paul said Lee expressed a desire to “wrap up” some of the traffic issues before he leaves office.
Cobb Commissioner Ott gave some stadium traffic-related numbers: about 40 weeknight games a year, out of 81 total games, each drawing an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 cars. The stadium will have few other large events, he said. Before Opening Day in April, an exhibition game with fewer tickets is slated for March 31.
Some residents voiced concerns about specific traffic impacts, such as access to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area or Riverwood’s after-school activities. The answers were largely to expect congestion and count on a large contingent of traffic police.
Getting some sort of financial reimbursement for traffic impacts was a repeated request from the crowd. Gerard Gunthert, a Sandy Springs resident and developer, called SunTrust Park an “urban planning disaster…to just plop a stadium down in the middle of suburbia” and asked state legislators to help “force Cobb County to do the right thing.” Another man suggested Cobb and Sandy Springs team up on the Braves as a “common enemy” to extract benefits from.
State Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta) said such benefits are unlikely, but said he could “pledge to work toward” some type of benefit concept. Ott noted that Cobb contributed money to the city’s Abernathy Greenway, “So there is historically cooperation between the county and the city on projects that are not in Cobb.”
State Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna) said “there probably is” a way for the legislature to ensure more transparency on such stadium projects. Ott said he learned of the Braves deal only a week before the public did and later voted in favor only because he got some concessions on what was already a “done deal.” That deal was crafted by Lee, who likely was voted out this year, Ott said, “because it was too secret. It shouldn’t have been done that way.”
Some residents and officials noted that the stadium controversy is essentially a larger version of existing Cobb-Sandy Springs tensions on commuter traffic. The new government cooperation may bring everyone closer on other solutions, they suggested.
“I feel like I’m in an East Cobb meeting, frankly,” said Sen. Judson Hill, describing residents there as having similar stadium-traffic “angst.”