By: Todd Hill, DTJ DESIGN, and Jay Thomson, TVS Design
The 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park (COP), located in downtown Atlanta, was built for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. It was originally conceived as both a central gathering place for spectators and visitors and as a perpetual legacy for the City of Atlanta. During the Olympics, the park hosted entertainment and medal presentations. Today, the park has millions of visitors a year and many large events.
In 2013, concern amongst operators of Centennial Olympic Park was mounting about the safety of maintaining an open street that ran through the center of the urban green space in downtown Atlanta. When the park was built in 1994 on a very aggressive schedule and opened for the 1996 Olympic Games, several roads were closed to construct the 21-acre park. Andrew Young International Boulevard, a key east/west street, was kept open so that the west side would not be unduly cut off from the city.
COP management contacted Todd Hill, DTJ DESIGN (formerly EDAW/AECOM), who had worked on the original design for the park, as well as a series of improvements over the years. The challenge was to determine updated use patterns for the park and make improvement recommendations. It’s important to note that when the park opened in 1996 the western edge of Downtown was mostly warehouses, surface parking, and railroad tracks.
The original design of COP, led by EDAW, was inspired by extension of the city street grid combined with the Southern tradition of quilt making, which utilized geometric patterns and a tightly knit border. Since there was not much attractive development adjacent to the park, a dense buffer was established around the perimeter with layers of trees and shrubs. Over the years the trees grew, as did the surrounding area, becoming progressively urban.
The positive economic impact of the park on the west side of Downtown is upwards of $2.4 billion in new development in a three-block radius. A site overlooking Centennial Olympic Park had become the sought-after address for attractions such as the World of Coca-Cola, the Atlanta Aquarium, the NCAA Football Hall of Fame, SkyView Atlanta, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, and more, and now residential development is moving in. The influence the park has had on Downtown Atlanta is acknowledged by the recent designation of the surrounding active entertainment, attraction and cultural destination as the Centennial Park District.
In assessing potential improvements, it was clear we needed to open the park at the edges and corners where passersby could see in and enter the park. This was most relevant at the west side and northwest corner where two buildings obstructed the park view and access.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, located along Marietta Street, predates the park. Before the ’96 Olympic Games, a new addition was added to the east side with a covered rooftop terrace and rotunda wrapping the southeast corner. The state-owned the land and it was generally thought, that in a different scenario, the site would have been part of the park. An important element the building provided was the rooftop event terrace, used for receptions, events and VIP viewing during concerts and Fourth of July celebrations.
The second building at the northwest corner was the park operations building, a concrete block structure with a standing seam metal roof set within dense vegetation. It served as management offices, and equipment and maintenance materials storage. The area north and west of the park has changed dramatically with the addition the Atlanta Aquarium, Embassy Suites Hotel, and Lucky Marietta District retail, dining, and entertainment area. It was time to change the character of this “100 percent corner,” to capture more value.
In 2014, we studied how to either raze or renovate the buildings to open the entry points, provide more park area, and reconfigure the buildings to focus on creating event space while addressing maintenance and operational needs. We prepared artist renderings of the ideas for fundraising, which included fully renovating the operations building to become a two-story gateway and event building.
The Marietta Street building was redesigned to maintain event space, rooftop terrace, and management offices. It took on a triangular, or plectrum shape, with a glass façade to be more transparent. In the end, the Centennial Park Committee of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) Board of Governors, decided that the highest and best use of the Marietta site would be as green park space so, the park wins!
In December of 2016, DTJ DESIGN facilitated a multi-day design charrette with the GWCCA, stakeholders, and design team members, which included TVS Design and Dennis Carmichael from Parker Rodriguez, Inc. During the workshop, it was determined that the location of the operations building was not ideal for event viewing. The team studied more suitable sites and determined that a narrow slope covered by pines and mulch parallel to Park Avenue West offered many advantages; it didn’t displace usable park space, it afforded excellent views to a stage set up on the Great Lawn, allowed for direct access to an upper floor at the same level as Park Avenue West, while also providing access to new public restrooms at the park level. The building benches into the slope and creates a lower level space suitable for maintenance and operations. Seat wall height terracing along the east wall facilitates elevated viewing for concert goers and anchors the building to the park.
A further nod to park architecture design involved saving a mature laurel oak tree at the top of the slope. The building is long and linear, yet the footprint angles slightly to deflect around the tree. The oak is positioned approximately one-third the distance along the eastern elevation, making it a natural breakpoint to transition from the indoor ballroom to outdoor patio. The laurel oak was limbed up for clear views under the canopy and roots pruned ahead of construction.
The new event building program upholds and combines the vital uses from previous buildings – event space, operations, and maintenance – while adding engaging daily use terrace areas overlooking the park, meeting space and much needed public restrooms.
The event center is a pavilion-like structure designed to serve as a venue for gatherings associated with the Georgia World Congress Center, and the public for private receptions. It sits on the western edge of the park on a gentle slope bordering the main lawn, where it will provide a sweeping view of the central area of the park and the downtown Atlanta skyline beyond.
The upper floor is entered from Park Avenue West. This floor contains the main event room, a space designed to accommodate 200 people in a banquet setting, elongated in a north/south direction to allow for maximum views. The park frequently hosts large festival concerts on the lawn, therefore one of the uses planned for this building is that of a VIP viewing area for these concerts. The event room opens to the south onto a terrace that extends the event space to the exterior. This floor also includes a lobby/pre-function area and support spaces such as restrooms and a catering kitchen.
A series of terraces, stairs and ramps leads from the upper floor level to the lawn level and provides more opportunities for seating and viewing. The lower floor, at the lawn level, is reserved for back-of-house spaces, park maintenance facilities, and public restrooms for park users.
The intent of the design is to place the event center into the park setting in a respectful way by using a light touch, creating a very transparent structure consisting of natural materials, in the spirit of a treehouse
It is composed of a zinc-clad frame resting on a stone base. The planes of the zinc frame are lined beneath with cypress planks, and the volume is enclosed with aluminum framed glass. The zinc is a dark warm gray that mimics the trunks of the park trees and helps the building recede among the trees. The stone and cypress are to be provided by Georgia sources.
The trapezoidal plan geometry comes in part from the desire to preserve an oak tree that sits along the edge of the lawn. The eastern edge of the building swings into the south to avoid the tree’s root system. The event room sits to the north of the tree and the terrace sits to the south so that views are maintained.
Specific building features
- Outdoor dining terrace serves patrons of cafes and restaurants along Park Avenue West
- Shaded seating to passively observe the park
- Flexible open indoor ballroom accommodating upwards of 250 patrons at round top tables
- Expansion to another 50-seated guest on outdoor terrace via the Nana Wall on south façade
- Viewing platform for general admission concert goers
- Indoor VIP terrace with elevated views of concerts and celebrations
- Covered access along Park Avenue West to front door, extensive car queue length along curb
- Cantilevered pedestrian link over base of existing oak to minimize impact to capillary root system
The Centennial Olympic Park Vision Plan sets forth five big and bold projects, two of which rethink the use of two existing buildings. The functions of these buildings are combined in a new innovative expression of park architecture. The best outcome is a net increase of usable park space by eight-tenths of an acre (35,000 square feet). The park wins again!
Todd Hill, Partner and Vice President of DTJ DESIGN, is a landscape architect and land planner who provides a combination of high design, personal touch and sustainable principles in his global portfolio of landscape architecture, public park and urban regeneration projects. Todd has worked across the United States and extensively internationally, including the Caribbean Basin, Central America, Brazil, So. Korea, China, Europe, the Middle East, Canada.
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