ATLANTA — Depending on who’s talking, the massive influx of people for the NBA All-Star Game over the weekend was either a shot in the arm or a pain in the butt.
The number of people — 160,000 in all, according to city estimates, was four times more than expected, said Mayor Shirley Franklin. Hanging out at the city’s most upscale malls was a favorite activity, along with cruising Peachtree Street and partying in packed clubs. In a city notorious for traffic snarls on a good day, gridlock caused street closings and rerouting Friday night and Saturday.
Overcapacity crowds caused early closings at Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza by 4:30 p.m. Saturday, and before 6 p.m. on Sunday. Both malls are Simon Properties in Buckhead, an affluent area 10 miles north of downtown Atlanta.
An estimated 100,000 people packed into Lenox Square alone on Saturday afternoon, with slightly less at Phipps Plaza, according to Scott Higley, marketing manager, Lenox Square.
“It got to the point where we worried about the structural integrity of the building,” he said. “We had planned for a traffic increase for weeks with the city, but this was three-to-four times what was expected. Closing was the right thing to do, for many reasons.” Higley said security was heightened, with extra personnel called in from out of town.
Merchants gave mixed assessments of the crowd’s effect on business. Despite early closings, some mall stores reported record sales days. Other retailers complained that the sea of revelers, many in a party mode, kept serious shoppers away. The crowd at the malls was dressed largely in urban-inspired garb, with lots of logo jackets and sweatsuits. Women favored tight jeans, high heels, midriff-baring tops, fur of all descriptions, designer handbags and elaborate hairstyles.
Mall officials described crowds as well-behaved, with few exceptions. Sunday afternoon, firecrackers thrown in the Lenox Square lobby near a valet parking entrance, caused shoppers to scatter for exits. Also Sunday, three women were arrested for fighting after one began stripping for a video-taping male. Crowds resembling a packed nightclub stretched mall security to a dangerous limit Saturday.
High-profile designer boutiques, such as Louis Vuitton, an 1,800-square-foot handbag store in Lenox Square, benefited from the throngs. Felicia Leyva, store manager, Louis Vuitton, reported total sales of $180,000 from Friday through Sunday.
“We could have done $30,000 more, if not for the early closings, although they were necessary,” she said, adding that traffic was three times that of a “normal” weekend. Bestsellers included monogrammed bags and newer styles, such as Croissant and Elipse lines.
Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner, Jeffrey, Jill Sander and Bob Ellis boutiques in Phipps Plaza, described business as “unbelievable,” although traffic sometimes “overwhelmed” salespeople. Sales Saturday increased 70 percent for the three adjacent stores over Saturday a year ago, and more than doubled Sunday over the same day last year.
“I wasn’t in the store and didn’t see the activity personally, but I would think everybody [in Atlanta] would be happy with the effect on business,” said Kalinsky.
Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, of business and civic leaders, and a former Atlanta mayor, said that while the economic impact of the event on the city may have been significant, it was not worth the ensuing chaos.
“The bottom line may be more business, but at what price glory?” he said. “We can’t shut out major events, but we need improved controls on traffic and crowds. The NBA should be required to clean up all the debris and trash that is now strewn all over Buckhead.”