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The changing face of Downtown Atlanta

It's the neighborhood's biggest year since the 1996 Olympics, but what has tourist development done for residents lately?

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On a Tuesday afternoon in Downtown, people shuffle into a dozen or so restaurants on North Broad Street to grab some lunch. Students pack into Ali Baba for a gyro wrap, residents stop by Reuben's Deli for a pastrami sandwich, and delivery drivers scurry from Dua II Go to drop off piping-hot beef pho to office workers.

Inside Rosa's Pizza, a lengthy line of patrons awaits crispy New York-style slices and calzones. The restaurant's employees slide thin-crust pies in and out of the large steel oven and bring them to their customers. The pizzeria's tables are mostly occupied. John Rosa, the eatery's 61-year-old owner, can barely get away from the register during lunch hours.

Rosa's Pizza today struggles to keep up with orders. But the pizzeria hasn't always experienced that kind of demand. When Rosa began serving slices in 1991, he was the lone tenant on the Downtown block. He closed up shop on nights and weekends. Broad Street's vibrant street life wasn't just lacking, it was nonexistent.

"It was very seedy, let's put it that way," he recalls, leaning onto one of the restaurant's red-and-white checkered tables. "[There were] more homeless, more pimps. The building across the street was all run down and vacant."

The eatery has been a rare constant in a historic neighborhood where Atlanta was founded, Union troops marched, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once arrested for civil disobedience — and that's undergone a drastic transformation over the past two decades. More restaurants near Woodruff Park are extending their hours. During last year's Final Four, Rosa opened his place on a Saturday. It's lively again. There are people and the neighborhood's changing.

In 2014, Downtown will experience more change than any other year since the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Dozens of construction cranes are expected to move steel beams in the area between Northside Drive to the west, North Avenue to the north, the Downtown Connector to the east, and I-20 to the south. Two prominent museums will open; a streetcar will begin operation; construction crews are expected to break ground on a new stadium; and Georgia State University will continue amassing real estate. And the future of more than 90 acres of public land remains up in the air.

These projects will transform Downtown's identity and potentially improve the city center. But it faces long-standing obstacles and lingering concerns: Many residents would prefer basic retail over big-ticket projects; neglectful property owners hinder progress on underused blocks; some visitors consider the area unsafe; homelessness is a problem. And successfully remaking Underground Atlanta might just be more difficult than maintaining the status quo.

The streetcar and all the museums aren't necessarily enough to make a neighborhood — filled with families, shopkeepers, and everyday people — a better place to live. We know when the grand openings will be held for the megaprojects. But when will Downtown land a grocery store?

In the coming fall, legions of gridiron devotees will descend upon the College Football Hall of Fame. For around $20 per ticket, fans can explore exhibits filled with historic memorabilia, learn about their alma mater's football legacy, and throw the pigskin on an indoor football field. John Stephenson, the president and CEO of Atlanta Hall Management, the nonprofit tasked with the building's operations, insists the hall won't have the typical stodginess found in other similar shrines. By his estimates, approximately 500,000 annual visitors will look at etched glass panels honoring more than 1,000 inductees and touch 55-inch screens playing highlight reels.

Both the three-story, 94,000-square-foot building off Marietta Street and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, located a few blocks north, are scheduled to open before the year's end. The NCCHR's newly constructed 42,000-square-foot facility will permanently display King's historic personal papers and house interactive exhibits starting this month. The two new attractions, plus the eventual redesign of Centennial Olympic Park, could lure even more sightseers Downtown.

"We're filling in the last two blank spaces," Stephenson says about both museums from his offices inside the Georgia World Congress Center. "We'll bring people down here and this area will become more widely known as a destination."

Atlanta's hospitality industry, long supported by a thriving convention industry, has seen its reputation as a tourist destination also climb in recent years with the success of the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke, CNN Center, and SkyView Atlanta Ferris wheel. The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau reported a record-breaking 40.4 million total visitors in 2012. In January, the neighborhood landed on the New York Times' list of "52 places to go in 2014."

The forthcoming ribbon cuttings will likely help garner attention for Downtown. Despite some attractions, NCCHR CEO Doug Shipman thinks many locals are unaware of the area's concentration of attractions, restaurants, and parks.

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