The construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is one of the most complex projects the city of Atlanta has seen.
The building will stand 30 stories high, and its retractable roof, which is designed to open or close in less than seven minutes, is the first of its kind in the world. The stadium is also expected to be the first professional sports arena to earn LEED Platinum certification, the highest level for the environmental performance of a building.
Add a tight construction window in a difficult location and concerns from the community about the promised revitalization of nearby Westside neighborhoods, and the construction has all the elements of an award-winning documentary.
Enter David Lewis, an award-winning Atlanta filmmaker and journalist. He was assisting Arthur Blank with a b’nai mitzvah video project for Blank’s twins in 2013 when he approached the Falcons owner with an idea.
“I said to him, ‘Arthur, are you documenting the story of the stadium? Because it’s a fascinating story,’ ” Lewis said. “ ‘You’re choosing to build an incredibly complicated building in about the hardest place you could possibly build it financially, technically and in terms of the politics.’ ”
Blank brought in his chief of staff, Kim Shreckengost, and ran the idea by her. A few months later, in February 2014, Lewis got the go-ahead to start filming.
Lewis began shooting before any concrete was poured. To date, he has compiled more than 10 terabytes of video footage for the documentary project.
“I’ll be filming pretty much until it opens, then it’s time to look through the tsunami of footage we’ve shot over a three-year period,” he said.
The stadium is scheduled to be completed in June. It will serve as the home of the Atlanta United soccer team as well as the Falcons starting next season.
“On one hand, it’s the story of the construction of an iconic building and all of those challenges,” Lewis said. “On the other hand, it’s the story of the various philanthropic efforts Arthur has been funding on the Westside.”
Those efforts include the establishment of the Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which will make strategic investments in the neighborhoods. The site of the Georgia Dome, which will be imploded, will become a park serving as a “gateway to the Westside.”
But there are concerns from the community about gentrification and shallow promises for urban renewal.
“Old issues of race and class in this town are going to be played out in this story,” Lewis said.
Working on the project with Lewis, a member of Congregation Bet Haverim in Toco Hills, are two other Jewish Atlantans, director of photography Michael Epstein and associate producer Jacob Velcoff.
Lewis and his team at David Lewis Productions use a mix of traditional and drone cameras to capture the story of the stadium.
Lewis and Velcoff also produced Atlanta’s official Super Bowl bid video (youtube.com/watch?v=nQpF8BpBUxc), which was shown to the owners of the 32 NFL teams during their spring meetings to help secure the 2019 Super Bowl for Atlanta.
“It’s been a lot of fun working with David, and I’ve learned a lot,” said Velcoff, who graduated from the University of Texas in 2014 with a degree in film production and grew up attending Temple Kol Emeth in East Cobb. “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from him is how to write something as it’s happening. He’ll be doing an interview, and he’s already editing it in his head. Then he’ll ask a question that’s two steps ahead.”
Shooting on top of a 30-story stadium with drones is hardly the most dangerous thing Lewis has done in his 30-plus-year career, which includes stints at CNN, Fox News and ABC News. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Lewis traveled to Lebanon to do a documentary on Hezbollah for “Frontline.”
“I had some Lebanese connections who helped me get access to Hezbollah, and I pitched it to ‘Frontline,’ who said yes,” Lewis said. “As an American Jew, you can’t exactly dial up 1-800-Hezbollah and tell them you’re coming, so let’s just say I did not tell them the whole truth about my background.”
Lewis has been back to Lebanon 10 to 12 times since and said the contrast of nightclubs and high-end restaurants with refugee camps and poverty makes it one of the most interesting places in the world.
This isn’t the first time Lewis has been profiled in the AJT. In 2004 he was on the cover for a story about a nonprofit project he co-founded with fellow journalist Ray Hanania called Comedy for Peace, which used standup comedy to bridge the gaps dividing Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and Jews.
Although he has lived in Atlanta for more than 25 years after growing up in Boston, Lewis said it’s tough to shake his original NFL allegiance to the New England Patriots.
“After doing this project for Arthur, my greatest nightmare is that the Patriots and Falcons face off in the Super Bowl,” Lewis said. “I told Arthur once though at an event that if the Falcons play the Patriots in a Super Bowl, I’ll root for the Falcons, and I’m a man of my word.”