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Duane D. Stanford and Joey Ledford - Staff SOURCE: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Going into the NBA All-Star weekend, Atlanta officials expected problems on the city's streets. They just hadn't planned for thousands of cruisers crashing the party.

A gridlocked Peachtree from Buckhead through Midtown to Underground. Closed freeway ramps. Packed parking lots at Lenox Square and Greenbriar Mall. For those who lived in Atlanta in the early 1990s, the scene was reminiscent of the days when Black College Spring Break --- Freaknik --- dominated the third weekend of April. Thousands of partygoers crowding into Hotlanta to drink, cruise the streets and gawk at the opposite sex.

As residents awakened Monday from a weekend that was supposed to be about basketball, bull riding and gardening, Atlanta officials all but admitted they had not planned for the worst and pledged to do better next time.

Mayor Shirley Franklin said the rolling party was so large it threw off all the city's plans to manage traffic, which clogged Buckhead, Midtown and parts of downtown.

"Were we expecting people to come to the city and enjoy the parties? Sure. Were we expecting so many cruisers? No," the mayor said.

Councilman Howard Shook, who lives in Ridgedale Park near Lenox Square mall, said he spent his weekend fielding calls from angry residents who were stuck in traffic.

"We handled the Olympics, which tells me we can handle huge crowds that are coming for specific events," Shook said. "I don't think there's a city in America that can handle these rolling car parties. We can't."

But Atlanta has in the past.

By 1999, the city had tamed the Freaknik beast with a traffic plan that showed far less tolerance for the antics of cruisers looking to park and party in the middle of the street. Cruise but move, was the warning.

So why weren't those lessons put into play during the All-Star weekend?

Police officials weren't saying Monday. But cruising clearly was on their minds last week and Sunday. Officials said they would close Peachtree Street and clear the traffic if cruisers stopped the flow of traffic.

Retired Atlanta Police Sgt. John Woodard, who helped draft past Freaknik and Super Bowl traffic plans, said cruisers have to be stopped before they clog the roads.

"You've got people in there who should have known better," Woodard said. "For that kind of traffic, you have to close roads and divert traffic if you want to maintain access."

For the Super Bowl in 2000, Peachtree Street was closed to all but local traffic. During Freaknik, police shut down roads at the first sign of cruising. And they left some roads closed so they would have a route into anticipated hot spots.

Many of those stuck in this past weekend's mess reported seeing few if any police officers directing traffic. Woodard suspects police had a difficult time getting to the trouble zones. In 1994, when the city was caught off guard by 200,000 Freaknik partygoers, emergency responders could get to only about 34 percent of the 911 calls.

"We don't have a bunch of little helicopters to move police around with," Woodard said. "You have to be able to get to those areas."

Other problems

Cruising wasn't the only problem this weekend, said Michael Meyer, Georgia Tech civil engineering professor and nationally noted transportation guru. He said event planners didn't do enough to emphasize the need for visitors to take MARTA, which adequately serves both Buckhead and downtown.

Other than some crowding at Lenox, MARTA seemed vastly underused, especially when compared to the 1996 Olympics, when packed trains and buses left the roadways clear for travel.

Out-of-towners who drove into Atlanta for the Pro Bull Riders rodeo Saturday and the Southeastern Flower Show found themselves trapped with cruisers who had no clear destination. Other visitors drove the Perimeter looking for ways back into a congested city that was forcing traffic out.

WSB traffic reporter Herb Emory said one of the unintended consequences of closing streets and rerouting traffic led to a lot of out-of-town visitors becoming completely lost.

"I saw plenty of cars from New York and New Jersey wandering around at 5 in the morning near Six Flags," he said. "Once they were forced off into unfamiliar territory, people didn't know where they were going."

After the Buckhead ramps were closed on Ga. 400, traffic management signs that are supposed to warn motorists of trouble spots were of no help Saturday because of a technical glitch. On Sunday, messages were posted saying access had been restricted.

Denise Starling, transportation planner and head of the Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association, said the city needs a regular plan for handling such events. Park-and-ride lots with shuttles as well as more pedestrian areas can help get people out of cars, she said.

"You can control it," Starling said. "You have to dictate what the behavior is."

The gridlock was worrisome for Georgia homeland security officials, as well, who kept a close eye on Atlanta this weekend as the nation functioned on Code Orange high alert. Jim Shuler, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Task Force, said there are lessons to be learned.

"If the worst were to happen, that kind of gridlock could make evacuation of that area extremely difficult," Shuler said. "Trying to evacuate the downtown of a major city is already extremely difficult."

Next big test

The next big test for Atlanta will come in April when the city hosts an event organizers are billing as "the Woodstock of hip-hop." Officially called the Urban Hip Hop Music Festival, the celebration will combine a one-day panel discussion at Morehouse College with a two-day, all-star music festival at Turner Field. Expect to see cruisers at full throttle.

For residents stuck in the weekend mess, reactions were mixed.

Michael V. Hunter works at a watch store at Lenox Square, which was closed early on Saturday and Sunday because of crowding. On Saturday, it took him an hour and 25 minutes to get from a stoplight just outside the mall to his store, a trip that normally takes 5 minutes.

"The city dropped the ball. With an event that size, you're going to have crowds, but there didn't seem to be a plan in place. Where was law enforcement inside the mall on Sunday? If a city of this size can't handle an event, it looks bad. These crowds should have been expected and planned for."

Peggy Whitaker, a resident of Peachtree Heights East in Atlanta, said her 10-minute, 1.5-mile trip down Peachtree Street took three times as long Saturday, even using back streets. Cars overflowed into her neighborhood overnight Saturday until 4:30 a.m.

"When the cruising was at its peak, the traffic through the neighborhood was out of control," Whitaker said.

Still, she felt Atlanta police did well considering the high volume of cars --- a number she felt police weren't ready for. "I don't believe it was anybody's fault," Whitaker said. "Mayor Franklin and chief Pennington did an amazing job, considering."