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The shark that ate downtown

Atlanta needs people-friendly neighborhoods, not fish tanks

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Look, if Bernie Marcus wants to spend $200 million to build a waterlogged monument to himself, that's just dandy. Hell, he could erect a 20-story statue of Daffy Duck, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, Daffy might lure a lot more tourists than Marcus' fish-tank mascot, Deepo, a shameless knockoff of Disney's anthropomorphized Little Mermaid menagerie.

But lost in the tidal wave of media and political/civic/business-honcho gush over the May 29 groundbreaking for Marcus' Georgia Aquarium, is a nagging little question: Is this really how we build a great city?

Just a short couple of miles from the aquarium's site near Centennial Olympic Park, you can find another vision for Atlanta. On the moonscape rubble of an old concrete recycling plant in Ormewood Park, a $100-million experiment in what's dubbed New Urbanism is under way. It's the dream of Charles Brewer, who founded and left Mindspring (now EarthLink) and who, like Marcus, needed to exercise all of those under-worked dollars in his bank account.

Let's have some fun and explore the two concepts: the Atlanta Marcus wants, and the city Brewer dreams about.

At the heart of what Marcus preaches is turning Atlanta into a tourist destination. "People will want to come here from other states," he effusively told the adoring crowd at the groundbreaking. "New York has Broadway. San Francisco has the waterfront."

And somehow, Bernie's Fish Tank is going to be competition for the Big Apple and Frisco. Right.

To draw the crowds Marcus is talking about, you'd need a much bigger critical mass of attractions than an aquarium and its companion, a building full of Coca-Cola puffery. Little Deepo can't compete with the roaring Mouse just a few hours south of here. Not to mention that aquariums are seldom high-repeat-visit destinations. And the more educational the fishbowls become, the more droves of people avoid them.

About the best you can say of Marcus' logic is that he might not have thought this concept through. Or maybe it's irrelevant. My read is that he wants a latter-day pyramid glorifying Bernie Marcus.

So, if you take Marcus' real driving motivation -- mega-self-aggrandizement disguised as a civic contribution -- and heavily season it with Atlanta's trademark gullibility, voila!, we have an aquarium.

For decades, cities have wrestled with how to revitalize downtowns. No doubt things are currently happening in Atlanta's downtown -- without, it should be noted, the aid of a theme park. I won't go so far as suggesting that to reanimate many other parts of Atlanta's core would be equivalent to getting a week-old corpse at the morgue to do the Macarena. But it's close.

At least if you do it Marcus' way, which I'll call the "Big Bang." It goes like this: Hucksters periodically hit the roads for cities with decayed downtowns. In their salesmen's suitcases is the Big Bang du jour . One year, their bag of tricks will be hugely expensive heavy-rail systems -- MARTA. The next year it may be a "festival marketplace," such as Boston's Faneuil Hall, which worked - but most of its clones didn't (see Underground Atlanta). Performing arts centers? The same.

Some cities -- Denver comes to mind -- heavily invested in entire historic districts, turning old warehouses and storefronts into entertainment meccas, often anchored by big sports or cultural facilities. Call them Bigger Bang cities. They, too, worked for a while, but most also left the burgs with just another layer of urban failure.

Then, there are aquariums. I was rather surprised at Marcus' choice of monuments. After all, Home Depot was a novel concept. But aquariums? The nation is already awash in them. Many have failed - Long Beach, Calif., Denver and Tampa were colossal disasters. And, in general, as veteran Maui Ocean Center manager John Tighe commented in February: "Unfortunately, there is a tendency to build aquariums much larger and grandiose than the business model will support."

Key to that fatal optimism is overestimating attendance and underestimating operating costs. In Tampa, "consultants" (the operative syllable is "con") said the Florida Aquarium would draw about 2 million people a year (exactly what Marcus says the Georgia version will attract). About 1 million of those people never showed up the first year in Tampa, and numbers plummeted from there. The debt-strapped "privately funded" facility cost Tampa a $104 million taxpayer bailout.

Admittedly, Marcus' aquarium has a big advantage: His $200 million contribution will ensure that there's no mortgage payment. So the aquarium will probably succeed -- or die a very, very slow death. He's been thin on details about exhibits, ticket prices and the like -- so it's hard to augur the aquarium's chances.

There is a similarity with Tampa, however. Both were envisioned as reinvigorating downtown areas. It didn't happen in Tampa. That city's Channelside district is still the pits.

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