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Opinion - Time to rethink private events in public parks

Why do we gate off our most prized spaces, even for a night?

Like so many big music festivals these days, this past weekend's Shaky Knees Festival had an impressive lineup. The headliners were some of the biggest bands of the last 20 years, plus a slew of other rock and alternative acts with loyal followings. When the lineup was first released, my interest was piqued; I'm still kicking myself for missing the Strokes at Music Midtown in 2004.

Shaky Knees' rapid rise over the last three years from the Masquerade Music Park to this year's three-day takeover of Old Fourth Ward's Central Park was welcomed by many, especially those currently enmeshed in the zeitgeist scene of #festivallife.

But in the weeks leading up to the event, I debated buying a ticket. And the more I envisioned enjoying some of my favorite bands with the skyline as a backdrop, the more I couldn't ignore the storm cloud of another growing trend: a disturbing disregard for the "public" part in public parks, a bend toward privatization and profiteering that's at odds with almost everything these cherished spaces are meant to represent.

I'm not against concerts being held in parks. They are a beloved and time-honored tradition. This month, the Atlanta Jazz Festival is celebrating its 38th year in Piedmont Park. And in the last 20 years there have been plenty of successful alternative shows around town: On the Bricks at Centennial Olympic Park, earlier SweetWater 420 Fests at Candler Park, and 99X Downtown Rocks at Underground Atlanta.

The one thing all those concerts had in common? Their price tag: free and open to any one who wandered in.

Whether free or not, big concerts always come with a few costs: inevitable traffic congestion in the surrounding neighborhoods and wear and tear on the site.

Wear and tear has taken the spotlight of late after the disastrous timing of record rains and an estimated 70,000 people in Centennial Olympic Park for last month's ticketed SweetWater 420 Festival. The mud churned up was calf-deep and the park will be a maze of barricades for the better part of the next month, with the majority of the former lawn areas cordoned off as the grass re-establishes itself.

A park spokeswoman for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, the state agency that manages the park, says private events are a crucial part of the park's revenue. The GWCCA wants the park to sustain itself. Its budget is higher than the average park given the cost of operating the Olympic fountain and other water features, she says.

In City of Atlanta parks, event organizers are responsible for 100 percent of the clean-up and remediation of parkspaces. But the remediation process can vary from a few days to well over a month. Council districts where the events are held don't receive revenue from permit fees, which cost around $15,000 for for-profit events with an anticipated attendance of 50,000 people or more. Street closures, security, and other permits cost extra. Fees go into a trust from which city events staff and festival monitors are paid.

The issue for the state and city alike is the rising frequency with which the public must accept those aforementioned inconveniences while also being denied access to their own taxpayer-funded resources. Last summer, in a two-week period, major private events dominated the space at Music Midtown in Piedmont Park and the OutKast #ATLast shows in Centennial.

I boycotted Music Midtown on principle for the rude work crews setting up the event disrupting the most pleasant part of my daily commute. But I felt compelled to attend OutKast's homecoming. The concert did not disappoint. Some friends and I returned the following night just to take in the scene. After circling the chain-linked enclosure for an opportune spot I was momentarily in eyeshot of the stage. Then a guard approached: "Hey! You gotta move."

"Why?"

"You can't be there."

We ended up watching from the top of a parking deck, a bird's eye view into the last place I would want to see one of the metro area's original sins: a gated community.

According to the Trust for Public Land's ParkScore index, Atlanta ranks 42nd out of the top 60 biggest U.S. cities for how well the city is meeting its need for parks. Only 5.8 percent of the city area is parkland, compared to percentages three or four times higher for top 10 cities. The truth is Atlanta is underserved when it comes to parks and city leaders should show some action where that statistic is concerned.

Given our lack of parkspace, the city should impose a ban on large-scale, ticketed events in existing public parks. If city government is keen on hosting these events and reaping the revenue they provide, they should devote new and designated parkland for it. Two properties exist along Northside Drive alone: one just north of Ikea — the parcel was last reported as eyed for development — and the former site of the Herndon Homes public housing complex. Consider South Downtown, which is served by transit and surrounded by parking lots. Or the most obvious candidate for a Chastain-on-steroids addition: the old Atlanta Prison Farm.

Politicians love to play up their appreciation for public spaces. Constantly referring to them in endearing clichés like "jewels of the city" and frequently citing them as the single best attraction for both tourists and locals alike, it's impossible to disagree. So what does it mean if even for a few days, any random visitor, passer-by, or daily user can no longer freely enjoy the city's greatest gift?

Nick Stephens is an Atlanta writer.