Portions of the Atlanta BeltLine have now opened, but the $4.8 billion project still faces a long road ahead. David Goldman/AP

Author Mark Pendergrast on why a 22-mile path around the famously sprawling city could be a game changer.

In the introduction to his new book, City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future, Mark Pendergrast writes that “Atlanta is on the brink of either tremendous birth or inexorable decline.” Having lived in Atlanta for several years, I’ve become familiar with the forces at work here that suggest the latter.

The city’s structural challenges are immense. Atlanta leads the nation in both income inequality and sprawl. Its car-choked roads and highways rank among the very worst in the world, and when things go awry—as when Atlanta receives two inches of snow, or a highway bridge collapses—the city’s infrastructure becomes a national laughingstock. Atlanta’s public transportation system, MARTA, has long been underfunded and unloved. Relatedly, Atlantans are among the least healthy American urbanites when it comes to exercise: A recent study found that 79 percent of city residents “do not meet minimum recommended physical activity guidelines.”

Currently, however, Atlanta is undertaking one of the nation’s most ambitious urban redevelopment programs. The Atlanta BeltLine—born of a 1999 master’s thesis by a former Georgia Tech architecture student named Ryan Gravel—will eventually be 22-mile multi-use path connecting 45 neighborhoods. It promises to convert a ring of mostly abandoned railroad tracks into a chain of interconnected parks and pathways, which will attract bars, shops, restaurants, and new housing all the way. Though it’s been dubbed “a glorified sidewalkin the New York Times, the BeltLine may eventually feature an adjacent streetcar or light railway line. Many locals hope that the $4.8 billion project could be a game changer for Atlanta.

As Pendergrast explores in City on the Verge, the BeltLine also reflects the city’s troubled history of racial conflict and its modern efforts at reconciliation. “The racial divide remains an often unspoken aspect of every other issue facing the city, including transportation, housing, food, education, religion, health, and the environment,” he writes. Although many affluent African Americans live in Atlanta, it “continues to maintain fundamentally unequal schools, jobs, parks, and medical care for black versus white.” Pendergrast describes failed urban renewal policies that encouraged migration from the city center, and shows how white (and black) flight, along with the triumph of the automobile, fed a cycle of sprawl: Today, the population of the city proper is about 450,000, but nearly six million people live in Atlanta’s outlying suburbs.

Recently, we spoke over email. Here’s lightly edited version of our conversation.

I'm a person who loves charming, walkable cities; I’ve lived in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I moved to Atlanta seven years ago. Some longtime residents don't like me saying this, but it’s not as alluring as other places I’ve lived.

I went to Harvard long ago as an undergrad, and I've revisited Cambridge and New York over the years, so I know their appeal—when you take the subway there, you walk up into vital, dense, interesting neighborhoods, whereas in Atlanta, when you come out of a MARTA station, you generally face a desolation of parking lots. That is changing now, with transit-oriented developments in process or in planning stages.

You write that the BeltLine could be an incredible catalyst for that kind of growth. But it’s not planned to be finished until 2030! Robert Moses built giant expressways, parks, bridges, tunnels, and public housing faster than Atlanta can build a 22-mile cement path. What gives?

First, it is expensive, and Atlanta's tax base isn’t that big. So they have had to rely on federal grants, philanthropists and foundations, and tax allocation district funds that were hammered by the Great Recession. The idea behind the TAD is to freeze the taxes going to the city, county, and public schools for a specified period of time, so that tax increments above that amount help to fund the project.

Also, they are building the BeltLine to provide space for two streetcars to run alongside the trail, in opposite directions. That adds hugely to the expense. It isn't clear at this point when or if they will add streetcars to the BeltLine.

In the last chapter of the book, I suggest that they just secure the rest of the BeltLine corridor—about 40 percent of which is still owned by the railroad company CSX. Then they should slap a trail down. It doesn't even need to be paved. If they put it right in the middle of the former rail corridor, it won't require retaining walls or much foundational work.

I visited my brother in Toronto last year, and we walked along the Toronto Beltline—yes, that's what it is called. They’re pursuing the same idea, though theirs is not a loop, and it’s not complete. The section we walked on was composed of compacted, fine gravel, and it was fine for bikes and pedestrians.  Why not do that to complete the Atlanta BeltLine, and then go back and tear it all up to put in streetcars and a concrete bike path when the time comes?

Some critics complain that the BeltLine is geared toward middle and upper class Atlantans, and it’s not the type of development that poorer citizens may desire.

My impression is that the Eastside Trail section of the BeltLine—part of which has already been completed—does indeed appeal primarily to middle- and upper-class folks. About half the city population is white and half black, but that isn’t reflected by who you see on the Eastside Trail. It’s majority white.

Having said that, though, I think the trail can appeal just as much to lower income folks, especially if it provides transit in the form of streetcars that link with bus rapid transit and MARTA, eventually. It will be very interesting to see who uses the Westside Trail when it opens later this year, since it’s going through predominantly African American neighborhoods.

The BeltLine is being funded in part with property taxes meant for Atlanta’s public schools. Some have argued that in essence, poor people of color are paying for amenities enjoyed by white homeowners. And some lower income Atlantans fear that they're going to be pushed out of their homes as a result of the BeltLine. Are they right to be concerned?

Yes, lower-income Atlantans have every right to fear displacement as a result of the BeltLine. It has already happened near the Eastside Trail, as rents and house prices have shot up. The TAD was set up so that 15 percent of all bond proceeds go to pay for affordable housing near the BeltLine, with a goal of 5,600 units by 2030. They are far, far from that goal, largely because the economy tanked and the TAD is just starting to provide funds, with a new bond planned. Ryan Gravel, the BeltLine visionary who first suggested the project, quit the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership board a few months ago to protest lack of focus on affordable housing issues.

Since then, various city and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. efforts to boost affordable housing have been announced. This is all to the good, but until the city passes a comprehensive inclusionary zoning law, it is mostly an ad hoc process.

The question of whether school taxes (along with county and municipal taxes) should contribute to the TAD—that was the subject of a lawsuit in which the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal. [Later, TAD was saved by a ballot referendum that amended the constitution.] We don’t have room here to get into that whole debate, but those in favor of the TAD believe that as the BeltLine attracts new residents and development, the tax base will rise, and eventually that momentum will help the schools.

You argue that Atlanta's current redevelopment efforts could provide a model for other cities moving forward. What lessons—or warnings—should people be taking from Atlanta as they look to improve their own communities?

Very briefly: A grassroots effort to support a brilliantly conceived project can really jumpstart innovative urban efforts. In this case, Ryan Gravel and then city-council member Cathy Woolard, who’s now running for mayor, spent several years building community support. Without it, this would have been just another mega-project imposed from on high.

Having said that, however, it was important to set up a bureaucratic mechanism with full support from the city, but with enough autonomy to act decisively and quickly. Nothing will go the way you plan, exactly, and you will have to adjust continually to unexpected challenges. In the case of the BeltLine, those challenges have ranged from the economic downturn to neighborhood battles over planned twin towers [a proposed high-rise apartment complex that would have hovered over Piedmont Park], and many other near-disasters.

Other lessons: It’s important to attend to issues around affordable housing and dealing with impact of gentrification. It is also important to get philanthropies and businesses to help. In Atlanta, money from Home Depot, Coca-Cola, and Cox Enterprises, in addition to others such as UPS and Kaiser Permanente, has been crucial.

I’m excited about all of this, but it’s clear that Atlanta has a long ways to go. I’m forty-six, and I’ve been thinking about relocating. What would you advise?

I certainly can't tell you where to live or how to live your life. As I said in my book title, Atlanta is on the verge of many things, and most of them are headed in a positive direction. The good news is that Atlanta is still a city in its adolescence, and you can have input and impact, if you stick around.

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