Can Atlanta Go All In on the BeltLine?

The project's been a huge early success, but the mass transit component is lagging, and there are already affordability concerns along completed portions of the trail. 

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Christopher T. Martin

ATLANTA—It's not often one can use the terms "transit-oriented development" and "magical" in the same sentence, but that's what came to mind during last September’s Lantern Parade. Ten thousand people watched a procession of giant glowing puppets and fanciful blazing lanterns wind along once-abandoned and kudzu-choked train tracks. A thousand marchers passed through five neighborhoods, where celebratory onlookers clustered on back porches and crowded restaurant patios, or perched themselves on former rail embankments.

That magical TOD experience came courtesy of the BeltLine: Atlanta's multibillion-dollar, 25-year project to transform 22 miles of railroad and industrial sites into a sustainable network connecting 45 inner-city communities. The project envisions wide walking and biking paths, access to nearby neighborhoods and businesses, parks and green space, and new homes, shops, and apartments. The city's emerging streetcar system will eventually be incorporated into the loop, too. The largest redevelopment project in Atlanta’s history — which is saying something in a city that was rebuilt from the ground up after a certain W. T. Sherman paid a visit 150 years ago — the BeltLine is one of the boldest sustainability projects in urban America.

Even in the light of day and without the whimsy of radiant puppets, it’s easy to get excited about the BeltLine's potential. Just spend an hour walking the parade's route — the Eastside Trail, completed in October 2012. The 2.25-mile trail connects Piedmont Park, the city's central green space, with the Old Fourth Ward, now one of Atlanta's hottest neighborhoods. A decade ago, the defunct rail line was overgrown and known for harboring vagrants and drug dealers. In those intervening ten years there has been $775 million in private investment along the Eastside Trail, according to the city’s office of development and planning.

The Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine by the glow of night (top, the Lantern Parade) and the housing development of day. (Christopher T. Martin)

This year the Eastside Trail will attract a million visitors, the same number who come to the Georgia Aquarium. On weekends, the trail is so crowded that local media outlets have published etiquette tips and user guides. People drive in from the suburbs to walk the Eastside Trail. You can order a fancy $13 BeltLine Burger or rent a two-wheeler from Atlanta Beltline Bicycle. “BeltLine” is plastered across for-sale signs in the yards of aging bungalows and on banners promoting new apartment buildings. Over the past six months, townhouses sprouted like mushrooms along the Eastside Trail.

"Those things sell as soon as they hit the market," says veteran real estate agent Bill McMurry. Today, McMurry says, one of the first questions prospective buyers ask about a property is: "Is it near the BeltLine?"

So the BeltLine is the kind of ambitious project that planners, developers, and politicians like to call "transformative." But true transformation will not be measured in residential units and miles of paved trail. The real measure of the BeltLine's success will be whether it can make a difference in Atlanta's car-dependent transportation system — and whether it can connect neighborhoods that have been separated by race and class since the days of Reconstruction.

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The Atlanta BeltLine all started with a master's thesis written in 1999 by then-Georgia Tech architecture and city planning student Ryan Gravel. Fifteen years later, Gravel and I are walking along a section of the BeltLine's Westside Trail, which is scheduled to be completed in 2016 — a couple years ahead of schedule thanks to an $18 million federal TIGER grant. Behind the trailhead is an abandoned shell of a warehouse, which stands on the site of Atlanta's first car factory. Trains stopped running here three decades ago, and a few miles of right-of-way have been cleared as a hiking path.

I ask Gravel if he walked the full 22-mile loop when researching his thesis. "I did — but in lots of small trips," he says. "There were places you had to use a machete."

Gravel is self-deprecating for someone who is a rock star in urban planning circles. He speaks at conferences, gave a TEDx Talk, and is working on a book. With prematurely silver hair and a penchant for dressing in tailored gray and blue, he has the look and style of Anderson Cooper or Mad Men's Roger Sterling. He never expected anything to come of the thesis, but after graduation colleagues at an architecture firm encouraged him to pursue the idea, so he contacted just about every local politician — including Cathy Woolard, who chaired the Atlanta City Council’s transportation committee.

"I was immediately taken by it; not because I am brilliant but because Ryan's idea was brilliant,” recalls Woolard. At the time, constituents would call her "constantly" to complain about the abandoned tracks. "When they could see the rail line as something positive, it changed everything," she says. She and Gravel began their own speaking tour, talking up the BeltLine at every homeowner's association meeting that would host them. “The neighborhoods really responded to the BeltLine because it was something they could fight for instead of against,” says Gravel.

In 2001, after Woolard was elected City Council President, she and Gravel took the BeltLine message to the office of newly elected mayor Shirley Franklin. “Cathy advocated for the BeltLine nearly every week for over a year," recalls Franklin. In 2006, after multiple feasibility studies, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) was formed to oversee the project. A year later, the project received $300,000 in federal funding for design and engineering, and in 2008 the first bonds were issued through a city tax allocation district. Local businesses had been early BeltLine boosters, and joined the fundraising arm, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership. Public support was rallied with BeltLine bus tours, and events like Art on the Atlanta BeltLine, and 5K runs on future sections of the trail.

"It has really been grassroots, all the way," says Woolard. "It did not come through the Chamber of Commerce, or the transit entities, or politicians. It took a village to figure it out — just not the village that normally does transit in Atlanta."

This master map of the BeltLine project shows the basic loop (sections in dark green have been completed), as well as connections to MARTA (in orange) and other area attractions; more maps are available at the BeltLine's main site.

The man now charged with overseeing the BeltLine's implementation is Paul Morris, who joined ABI as CEO last July. "We have to be working on all aspects of the BeltLine all of the time," says Morris. "It can't be done piecemeal." To that end, ABI is acquiring land and right-of-ways for the entire circuit, even while funding for construction is being secured. Last December, ABI produced a 17-year strategic plan to complete the BeltLine by 2030. On the agenda for the next five years: extending the Eastside Trail to the south, building the Westside Trail, connecting the BeltLine to the Atlanta Streetcar system, and starting to convert century-old Bellwood Quarry (best known as a location in the first season of The Walking Dead) into a reservoir and park.

As Gravel and I return to the start of the Westside Trail, a black SUV pulls up. A man jumps out, walks over to the trail, looks at the signage, and then turns to us: "Is this the BeltLine?"

"It's part of it," says Gravel.

"Wow. So here it is," the man says.

"Do you live around here?" asks Gravel.

"No. I'm from South Carolina," the man says. “But I’ve heard about it.” He looks around a while longer, gets back in his SUV, and drives off.

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What makes the BeltLine potentially so transformative is that, unlike the hundreds of "rails to trails" projects nationwide, it is designed as a transportation project. It will include light rail lines with 45 neighborhood stops and connections to the city's MARTA rail system and the Atlanta Streetcar. "In my mind, it was a transportation plan — and it still is," says Cathy Woolard, who's now an ABI board member. "At the heart it is a plan which orients development toward transportation and encourages density, which Atlanta needs."

The big question in the coming years will be finding the money to make that plan a reality. Some $600 million in funding for BeltLine streetcar lines and connections to MARTA was included in the $8.5 billion 2012 regional T-SPLOST transit sales tax referendum, which was trounced by voters. (The city of Atlanta, with its half million residents, supported T-SPLOST, but many suburban voters in metro Atlanta, with a population of 6 million, did not.) Mayors of some suburban cities publicly questioned the BeltLine’s inclusion in the T-SPLOST project list, the sheer size of which (157 projects!) overwhelmed voters, many of whom harbored a general distrust of transit agencies. MARTA had stung riders with fare hikes and schedule cuts, and construction on the Eastside Trail and the streetcar projects were behind schedule. There's still no hard start-date for the streetcar, which was supposed to start running last fall.

Renderings of Murphy's Crossing (top, planned for the Westside Trail) and the Southside Trail (middle), and 

Ponce Plaza (bottom) show the BeltLine's close integration with transit. (Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. / Perkins+Will)

On the other hand, completed smaller trails and parks and the stunning success of the Eastside Trail have made the BeltLine far more popular with voters than it was back in 2012. MARTA has a new CEO who has balanced the agency's budget and improved service. Next year, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed plans to hold a city referendum on bonds that would fund infrastructure projects, including the streetcar expansion to the BeltLine. City Hall and ABI are optimistic that voters will support it this time.

“It’s exciting to see a project rooted in transportation provide so many positive attributes unfolding right before our eyes,” Reed's office tells Cities in an email. “I will continue to do everything possible to encourage its development.”

Even if funding is finally secured, there's still the matter of convincing Atlanta residents to get out of their cars and use such a system. The BeltLine already promotes walking and biking, and the Eastside Trail is great for weekend jaunts between neighborhoods or as a means to reach restaurants or special events. But trails don't replace comprehensive transit and realistically, commuting by bike or foot isn't for everyone, certainly not in Atlanta, where summer temperatures are in the 90s (with 90 percent humidity to match).

"I love to ride my bike on the BeltLine, and I do all the time," says Kwanza Hall, who represents the Atlanta City Council district that includes the new streetcar line, the Old Fourth Ward, and most of the Eastside Trail. "But I am not going to bike in a suit in the summer on my way to a business meeting."

If the BeltLine’s light rail network is built, it could potentially transform travel within the city of Atlanta. Right now, MARTA's rail lines are limited; they run north-south and east-west. If you want to cross town, you have to travel through the city center and transfer.  "The travesty of MARTA is that it's only a barebones skeleton," says Hall. While bus service between MARTA's rail stations does exist, it is slow, and schedules have been reduced or scrapped in the interest of budget cutting. There is no easy way to get to someplace off of MARTA's limited rail grid. Even if you can commute to and from work by MARTA rail, you need a car to get to the store, bank, doctor, or just about any other errand. That’s why almost every Atlantan who can afford a car owns one and uses it to get around town, which means traffic is almost as bad in the city as it is on the metro area’s interstates.

"It’s not just the highways any more," says Cathy Woolard. "Those of us who live in town used to be able to let tourists and suburbanites have the highway and take surface roads, but now all of those are crowded too."

By intersecting with MARTA’s rail lines and looping around the city, light rail on the BeltLine would create cross-town connections that do not exist, and make navigating Atlanta infinitely easier and quicker than it is today. With more than 40 neighborhood stops, rail on the BeltLine would exponentially expand the scope of transit in Atlanta.

Here’s an admittedly self-interested example. I live on the southeast side of the city, just over a quarter mile from the planned extension of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail. If I could walk to the BeltLine and get on a trolley, I’d be minutes from at least three grocery stores. Right now, there are none in a two-mile radius of my home. I could take the BeltLine to my doctor’s office, to visit my in-laws, to shop and eat on the west side of town. I would no longer need my car.

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From the windows of her loft, Kit Sutherland can see Ponce City Market, the Eastside Trail, and Historic Fourth Ward Park — what she calls the "three-legged stool" of neighborhood growth. Back in 2001, when Sutherland and her husband decided to move into the impoverished, sparsely populated Old Fourth Ward, her husband's law firm colleagues were "incredulous." Now she leaves the windows cracked to hear the white noise of construction vehicles and delivery trucks at Ponce City Market, the $200 million conversion of a former Sears warehouse center into a dining, retail, office, and residential complex. "We love it; it's the sound of progress," says Sutherland.

The park (one of 65 in ABI’s development plan) is gorgeous. Designed and constructed by ABI, it has a two-acre lake surrounded by a grass amphitheater, walking trails, and a giant "splash pad" playground. The park and Eastside Trail were jointly awarded the Environmental Protection Agency's Overall Excellence in Smart Growth award for 2013. Casual visitors don’t notice what most impressed the EPA — it's constructed on a former brownfield site and the "lake" is a catch basin for storm water.

The housing market has noticed, and the Old Fourth Ward is experiencing a resurgence. The neighborhood's population dropped from 22,000 to 6,000 between 1960 and 1980, and in the 1990s half the community's residents lived the Village of Bedford Pine, the largest Section 8 housing project in the Southeast. Today, new apartment buildings ring the park and have brought more than a thousand newcomers. More apartments are being built, and leasing for units in Ponce City Market opened April 15 with rents starting at $1,225 for a 575-square foot studio — astronomical for Atlanta, where $1,200 is standard for a spacious two-bedroom, two-bath.

Across town at Adair Park, a working class neighborhood that adjoins the future Westside Trail, property values are going up even though it will be at least two years before the trail is completed. “This is a transitional area, but even it is beginning to be a little bit gentrified," says Randy Gibbs, who moved to the neighborhood in 2011 after leaving the Air Force to attend graduate school at Georgia Tech. Gibbs, who works in real estate sales, says bungalows that went for just $40,000 or $50,000 a few years ago can now fetch $120,000.

The rapid change is better for some than for others. Everyone I spoke with agreed: the success of the BeltLine will make it harder to keep homes and apartments affordable. Gentrification presents a particular challenge in Atlanta, which has the highest income inequality rate in the country. "It's a big concern," says ABI's Paul Morris.

The BeltLine's plan calls for 5,600 units of "work-force" housing to be built between now and 2030. ABI is contributing $2 million to Ponce City Market to offset rents for low-income residents. In 2011, ABI bought Triumph Lofts, a property adjacent to a future segment of the trail that was in receivership, and sold units to low-income buyers. With ABI's down payment assistance, monthly payments on the two bedroom units were less than $1,000 — below rents in the area. When the lofts became available there was a waiting list of 1,600 for just 28 units.

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On a gloriously sunny Saturday in April, thousands showed up for the first BeltLine Boil, held on the lawn at the BeltLine's Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark. The main attraction: a competition between local restaurants, several of which have patios that open right onto the Eastside Trail. Chefs prepared variations on the Low Country Boil, the Southern stew of shrimp, potatoes, sausage, and corn. On the big stage, the slate of musicians ranged from Southern rock and bluegrass to R&B and blues. Vendors sold beer and Jack Daniels, and people sat at tables sampling food, or lazed on the lawn listening to the bands. Along the Eastside Trail streamed hundreds of cyclists, dog-walkers, kids peddling trikes or wobbling on training wheel, rollerbladers, curious suburbanites, tattooed college kids, and parents pushing behemoth strollers. In the distance, sun glinted on the towers of Atlanta's skyline.

Here’s what was striking about that moving mass of Atlantans: it actually reflected the city's racial and ethnic diversity. When you walk along the Eastside Trail, which I do at least once a week, Atlanta actually looks the way it does when it promotes itself. But instead of being staged by a marketing team or an art director, the mix of people is authentic. And that is a very big deal.

Historically, Atlanta's infrastructure enforced segregation. Railroads crisscrossed the city and separated neighborhoods by class as well as race. City planners intentionally zoned industrial areas as buffers between black and white neighborhoods well into the 1960s, and the remnants of those building practices are starkly evident when you take the Atlanta BeltLine bus tour and pass from blight to wealth and back again at each mile of the trip. Atlanta has a rocky track record when it comes to combining big civic projects with the needs of its poorest citizens. In the 1950s and 1960s, highway construction and urban renewal projects displaced thousands of poor residents. Despite the boom of development around the 1996 Olympics, the neighborhoods around Turner Field and the Georgia Dome languish.

The BeltLine has the potential to cross the literal barriers that have separated Atlantans and thus begin to break down far more complex social barriers. Atlanta’s traffic woes are obvious. But the difficulty in getting around here, and the entrenched patterns of segregation have contributed to another kind of gridlock, make this one of the cities with the lowest social and economic mobility in the country. The BeltLine can provide parks and bike trails and cultural events, all of which is marvelous. But if it connects Atlanta’s schools, jobs, and neighborhoods, and gets us out of our cars, it will really live up its potential.

"The tracks used to divide us, and the BeltLine now brings us together," says Kwanza Hall, the city council member. "The BeltLine surely has been the biggest driver for bringing us together as a city. That's a beautiful thing."

Top image: The BeltLine's Fourth Ward Park has helped produce a housing resurgence in the Old Fourth Ward. (Christopher T. Martin)

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Rebecca Burns is an Atlanta-based journalist and author. The deputy editor of Atlanta magazine, she has written three books on Atlanta history, including Burial for a King (Scribner, 2011). She has taught journalism at Emory University and the University of Georgia.