- Tim Tucker The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
When Hawks fans arrive at Philips Arena for this season’s home opener Friday night, they’ll see the early results of the building’s ongoing makeover.
They’ll have to wait another year to see the full effect of the $192.5 million transformation.
For now, the most striking changes are the addition of an on-floor bar and court-side club behind one basket and the subtraction of the top two rows of suites that had been stacked on the west side of the building.
Those two rows of suites and the old two-level press box above them were demolished during the summer, and the space is now hidden from view by three massive signs, the largest of which features a rendering of the fully renovated arena and the words “COMING SOON!”
By the start of next season, that space will be filled with new upper-level sideline seating and a new upper concourse.
Also by next season, the remaining suites will be reconfigured, several new premium clubs and gathering spaces will be created, the video board over center court will triple in size and the concourses will be reworked to allow 360-degree mobility around the arena, among other changes.
“We’re in the middle of the transformation,” Thad Sheely, the Hawks’ chief operating officer, said. “We’re in the middle of making this place totally different.”
The ultimate result, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said, will be “a brand new building under the same roof.”
The biggest additions for this season – the on-the-floor bar, called Hawks Bar, and the adjoining club, called Courtside Club – were built into previously underutilized space that had been occupied by retractable seats and their underneath support structure.
Fans with tickets in the four rows of courtside seats -- a total of 590 seats -- will have access to the bar and club.
“It really just worked out from a construction sequencing perspective that these are the first things we open,” Sheely said.
The teardown of two of the four rows of suites on the west side is a can’t-miss change, although the space hasn’t been repurposed yet. One of the arena’s distinctive features when it opened in 1999 was the stack of all suites on one side of the court. Removing that stack was the first decision made in planning the renovation.
“That’s the power move that allowed us to really rethink and re-fashion what this building is about,” Sheely said.
Much of the work done to this point -- Phase 1, the Hawks call it -- has involved demolition or infrastructure to prepare for what is still to come. Among the demolition: ripping off the first six rows of upper-deck seats to improve the sightlines from the seats below.
The arena hosted no events from mid-June until two concerts last weekend, allowing four months as a hard-hat zone.
The second phase of the renovation will occur during the Hawks’ season, although behind various walls and not within view of the seating bowl or concourses.
Then the transformation is scheduled to be completed next summer, wrapping up in time for the start of the 2018-19 season.
The arena’s size – about 650,000 square feet – won’t change, but much of the 100,000 square feet that wasn’t previously fan-useable will be repurposed. For example, the space near the Hawks’ locker room that housed the basketball-operations offices will become a premium club next season. (The offices were moved this week to the team’s new training facility in Brookhaven).
The Hawks’ philosophy behind the redesign is to make attending games a more social experience by giving fans a range of options beyond traditional seats or suites. This change reflects a trend in stadium design, also seen in various ways at the Braves’ SunTrust Park and the Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Philips Arena will have fewer suites and smaller suites than before, but when the project is completed it will have more social gathering spaces, more clubs, more ways to experience an event. The total number of premium seats will remain about the same -- 3,500, down from 3,800. But rather than having basically two premium products -- club seats and suites -- the arena will offer seven, Koonin said.
“We’re projecting, based on a lot of research today, how people will consume sports in the future,” Koonin said. “This is a fairly seismic shift.”
“People don’t want the same thing anymore – you have to have something that speaks to that individual or business and what they want and how they want to socialize,” Sheely said.
By the start of next season, new features inside the arena will include a conference center, Atlanta rapper Killer Mike’s Swag Shop barber franchise, TopGolf Swing Suites and gourmet southern-style restaurant Zac Brown’s Social Club.
The changes will reduce the arena’s overall seating capacity, which is listed in the Hawks’ media guide as 15,711 for this season. That is down from 18,047 last season. Some seats will be gained back when renovations are completed next year, although there still will be a net loss of seats.
Public funds will pay for $142.5 million of the project’s cost, mostly from Atlanta’s rental-car tax, with the Hawks responsible for the other $50 million.
The Hawks’ decision to renovate came after the Braves and Falcons opted to leave stadiums not much older than Philips Arena.
A new state-of-the-art NBA arena in downtown Atlanta would have cost about $550 million, Sheely said. But contractors calculated about $350 million of that would have been for the “core and shell of the building, the foundations, the structure, the roof and all the things that basically don’t touch the fan,” he said.
“That leaves about $200 million that is all the finishes and the club spaces and the scoreboard and the technology and the concession stands and all the things a normal person sees and experiences when they walk into a building.”
The renovation budget, just shy of $200 million, essentially will allow the Hawks to address all of those things while staying in their preferred location, Sheely said.