With the new billion-dollar stadium all but a done deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is hoping that the added attention and focus to the area will serve as a launching pad to spark growth and development along one of the city’s most important, yet ignored, avenues – Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The street named after one of Atlanta’s most famous sons hosts the state capitol, some of the oldest churches in the city, a consortium of educational institutions, including some of the nation’s most prominent black colleges, and sprinklings of new development. But miles of the street remain undeveloped, underdeveloped or dilapidated with boarded up stores and houses.

Underemployed people walk the streets, while drug dealers ply their trade. One of the colleges along the street is crumbling at the seams.

“If you want to find a corridor that is neglected, then you ask someone to direct you to Martin Luther King Drive in a major American city,” Reed said. “But we have the capacity to change that in Atlanta. The how certainly relates to the new stadium, because there is essential work that has to be done to a large part of the corridor that can give us the blueprint of what the rest of it should look like.”

Last Thursday — on the 45th anniversary of King’s death — Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, approved a plan that would allow the city to use $200 million worth of hotel-motel taxes to help fund the new stadium, which the Falcons expect to move into in 2017.

Of the two sites under consideration, the one located on the south side of the to-be-demolished Georgia Dome appears to be the more favorable, because of the easy access to the surrounding neighborhoods, MARTA and King Drive, parts of which would have to be re-routed.

Reed said that within the next 18 months he plans to go the capital markets for a quarter-billion dollars in investment that would help fund much-needed repairs on roads, bridges and sidewalks and address the city’s $922 million infrastructure backlog. He said part of that bond money would be invested into King Drive and used to build new streetscapes and sidewalks, install new light fixtures and repair roads – similar to work that has been done along Marietta Street and Five Points downtown, 14th Street in Midtown and Peachtree Road in Buckhead.

“It doesn’t mean that I am going to be able to change the economies of the communities along MLK corridor,” Reed said. “But it does mean that I am committed to this notion of our best self with regard to the corridor. I don’t want to create unrealistic expectations, but you will be able to drive down MLK with a sense of quiet dignity that this street is attractive, well-maintained and cared about by the city.”

Aside from an economic infusion a new stadium could bring to the area, it would take millions in private and public funds to restore King Drive. Businesses would have to follow Wal-Mart and invest. Young, vibrant home-owners would have to move in. Crime would have to drop and the dreadful financial condition of Morris Brown College, which is all but abandoned, would have to be addressed.

“If the neighborhoods that border MLK are revived, then they will revive MLK,” said Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young, who represents the neighborhood where the dome is, as well as segments of King Drive. “The tragedy in all this is that it took a stadium to have a conversation about economic development in these core neighborhoods.

What is now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Drive was established in 1976 when the city council voted to rename and connect the 10-mile stretch of Hunter Street, Mozley Drive and Gordon Road from the Oakland Cemetery in southeast Atlanta to the Fulton County Airport just shy of the Cobb County line.

It passes through Vine City, where King lived.

Further up the street is a condominium complex and the new Wal-Mart, part of the proposed $130 million Historic Westside Village, a mixed-use project that was expected to revitalize the corridor more than a decade ago, but has stalled at times. Keep going and you run into neighborhoods and commercial districts that at one time marked black westward expansion, but now represents poverty and crime.

“It used to be a hub for African-American businesses before segregation, because there weren’t that many places where we could freely come and go,” Young said. “Every service you could imagine was provided here on old Hunter Street. So when you talk about reclaiming MLK, you are taking about the old economic development model that previously existed.”

University of Tennessee geography professor Derek H. Alderman, the country’s leading authority on King street names, said Atlanta’s desire to redevelop the street follows a national trend, as similarly-named streets have suffered for decades.

“This notion of improving or making these streets more livable or prosperous is something other cities are trying to do as well,” Alderman said.

Alderman, who wrote “Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory,” said there are currently more than 900 places in 40 states with streets named after King. Most, 75 percent, are located in Southern states, with Georgia leading the way with 122.

But the common theme — like in Atlanta — for most of the streets is that they were put in black neighborhoods, some of which have lagged behind their white counterparts creating a sometimes false impression that all King streets equate to crime, poverty and violence, Alderman said.

“Often when African-American communities bring proposals, they often ask for a prominent road, but the problem is they often run into public opposition,” Alderman said. “So they have to settle for a different street. White politicians say we don’t have a problem with the name, as long as it is confined to the black
community. So King’s memory continues to be segregated.”

On the corner of King Drive and Paschal Street, in the heart of the commercial district, the street’s past looks directly into the future. At 11 a.m., Busy Bee, a local soul food restaurant that originally opened in 1947, is already packed.

Across the street, the parking lot of Wal-Mart, which opened in January as a needed source of quality merchandise and fresh food, is bustling.

“I think it is an excellent idea for the mayor to come in and redevelop it, instead of letting it continue to be another abandoned urban center,” said Busy Bee owner Tracy Gates.

The question now is does Busy Bee have time to wait for King Drive to change. With a 49-seat capacity in a building built in 1955, Busy Bee outgrew itself a long time ago. Long-time rival and next door neighbor, Paschal’s moved several years ago, leaving behind a boarded-up, dilapidated hotel.

“We have become a destination restaurant, so we don’t need to stay here to be successful,” Gates said.

Meanwhile, Quincy Springs, Wal-Mart’s 32-year-old general manager said up to 25,000 customers visit the 75,000-square foot supercenter weekly. Nearly 200 people – 60 percent from the community — work there, including students from all of the Atlanta University Center schools.

“The community has received us very well,” Springs said. “And the associates who work here built this store from scratch. This is history, because they never thought they would see a Wal-Mart on MLK. This is just the beginning.”

(Photo: Busy Bee owner Tracy Gates insider her restaurant on Wednesday April 3, 2013 by Kent D. Johnson/AJC)

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