Many Atlantans have fond memories of hosting the 1996 Olympics. Children all over Georgia hear their parents’ retellings of the games. Downtown Atlanta’s Olympic Torch, Centennial Olympic Park, and Georgia Tech’s own campus hold Olympic history. For Atlanta, the ‘96 Olympics cost nearly $1.7 billion, but the games also led to great economic benefits. Now, over two decades later, Atlanta is set to co-host another great event of international competition: the 2026 World Cup.
Ever since Atlanta’s MLS soccer team, Atlanta United FC, was founded in 2014, soccer fans have emerged all over Georgia. In 2018, when Atlanta United won its first MLS cup, Georgia found a resurgence in soccer pride, and the popularity of the club increased dramatically. In 2022, Atlanta United secured the MLS record for the highest average attendance for any team at 47,116. With Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the largest MLS stadium in the nation, combined with Atlanta’s Olympics hosting experience, it is only natural that Atlanta is one of the cities hosting the next World Cup.
For the first time in World Cup history, the 2026 World Cup will be jointly hosted by Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Atlanta will be one of 16 hosting cities. According to one Boston Consulting Group study, the estimated net benefit to Atlanta will be $415 million. In 2022, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said that the estimated revenue the World Cup could bring in is over $400 million. With its reputation on the line, Atlanta has already begun preparations.
These preparations include developing the Gulch, renovating MARTA stations, building new street grids, and developing rental housing.
The Gulch is an underdeveloped area in Downtown Atlanta that developers have major plans for. It is at the forefront of new development for the World Cup. In a proposal called Centennial Yards, developers are aiming to have over half of the Gulch hold restaurants, apartments, shops, and anything a tourist might want or need. Sewer lines will be renovated, and the area will become an entertainment district. Centennial Yards Company will be in charge of this project and has created virtual previews of what the city will look like after development. The developer group that created Centennial Yards Company, CIM Group, has also planned to build a new street in the Gulch, though it will not be entirely completed in 2026.
Housing will be a major factor in World Cup preparations. Some apartment complexes are already being built and put to use by CIM Group, but they have plans for more complexes and a hotel as well. Underground Atlanta, a lively district of Downtown Atlanta, has its own residential projects underway. While Underground Atlanta’s residential pricing has not been disclosed, CIM Group, as per their deal with the city, will price 20% of its units to be affordable for people making 80% of the area’s median income. Many of these projects were conceptualized prior to the World Cup announcement, but 2026 has become a new deadline for many developers. April Stammer, Senior Vice President at Newport RE LP, said that while Newport’s projects were conceptualized prior to the World Cup co-host announcement, they “are certainly keeping our eye on [the World Cup] as a target, but we had certainly planned for the next two pieces of development to complete by then.”
Transportation is another key aspect of the preparations. MARTA has announced a $260 million plan to renovate its Five Points Station. The plaza, concrete canopy, and roadway designs will become more accessible and aesthetic. Additionally, the east-west and north-south platforms are currently being renovated.
MARTA is the first transit agency worldwide to incorporate soccer fields inside train stations. In collaboration with the nonprofit organization Soccer in the Streets, the StationSoccer program will continue to thrive in the renovated Five Points Station.
Keli Davis, director of MARTA’s Facilities Capital Delivery Program, is confident that MARTA will finish the renovations before the World Cup. She says that canopy deconstruction should start in August 2023 and that MARTA is “looking to being done [with the renovations] at the end of 2025.”
Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is a non-profit development organization that has created a Downtown Atlanta Masterplan with input from the city government and community organizations. Key areas CAP focuses on while developing include sustainability and advocacy. The organization uses surveys, town halls, and focus groups to create a general idea of what the public wants. Jennifer Ball, the chief operating officer of Central Atlanta Progress, says that in terms of sustainability, “[CAP] has a track record of building bike lanes and sidewalks and rethinking our streets as multimodal corridors and incorporating into those design elements green infrastructure… to avoid inundation and flooding and spillover effects.”
Trees Atlanta is one of CAP’s partners. According to Ball, the two organizations “are working to plant 10,000 trees in Downtown, and many of those trees will be in place by 2026.” If all goes according to plan, Atlanta will not only be a more developed city by 2026, but it will be greener as well.
Whether the goals are reached or plans fall short, Downtown Atlanta will look vastly different in 2026 than it looks today. While this is a dream come true for both developers and Georgia’s soccer fans, Atlanta has the opportunity to prove that it can once again host a major sporting event.