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Atlanta’s BeltLine: So Much More than a Walkway

By Phil Bors on May 11th, 2016

I just returned from Atlanta after participating in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) second annual Walkability Action Institute, which was convened by CDC and organized by the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (NACDD). Having worked for a state health department, I traveled to Atlanta many times to spend countless hours in workshops convened by CDC. However, aside from the Braves, the ’96 Olympics, and a reputation for runaway sprawl, I didn’t know the city very well.

I’ve since learned that Atlanta was originally a major railroad hub, which left behind a circular, 22-mile potential trail corridor. The city, investors, residents, non-profits, and 45 of its neighborhoods have come together to reclaim the abandoned rail line and have branded it as the Atlanta BeltLine. I was impressed by this collective effort for its shear ambition, the amount of heavy lifting by its organizers, and proof of concept that is already on the ground: seven miles of trail are completed. The coordination, fundraising, community engagement, and construction is led by two agencies: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership.

The BeltLine is 10 years into a 25-year redevelopment project that will create a paved, multi-use pathway. When completed, this public asset will do much more than provide active transportation options—it will also connect neighborhoods, spur economic development, create new street car transit links, display public art, grow a linear arboretum, engage residents, and generate new affordable housing options. What began twenty years ago as a far-fetched idea is becoming a vital public space where Atlanta residents and visitors come to be active, get from place to place, and just hang out.

I was introduced to it through a Walkability Action Institute assignment. In small teams, we scavenged the built environment connecting streets from Decatur, transit lines, and the BeltLine itself for features that were supports for and barriers to walking. We traversed the Eastside Trail, which is the first segment developed in the old rail corridor. Along the trail, which is accessible from public transit, we saw old warehouses giving way to new patio restaurants, bike rental shops and apartment buildings. Restored buildings now face the BeltLine rather than being primarily oriented to the street. Areas of the corridor that were previously dominated by kudzu have been cleaned up and planted with trees, bushes, and flowers that brighten the spaces in between. And an infusion of public art adorns the trail’s highway overpasses, adjacent buildings, and open spaces.

The project is financed by various sources, including a tax assessment district (TAD) for properties adjacent to the BeltLine corridor. The 25-year TAD is projected to increase the tax value by $20 billion dollars. If projections are true, proceeds will benefit Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County, and the City of Atlanta for years to come.

The project also has its critics, who doubt the BeltLine’s ability to serve as a regional transportation solution. The project has also been accused of contributing to gentrification, which would raise property values—and monthly costs—of longtime residents. It’s unclear if Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.’s affordable housing efforts, including 5,600 projected units, can offset new economic pressures for low income families. The BeltLine’s original idea guy, Ryan Gravel, offers a thoughtful reply to these concerns.

Despite these possibilities, it was easy for our visiting teams to see the upside of this incredible, burgeoning project. My hope is that it will benefit those living in adjacent neighborhoods, who need the health and economic boost the most.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time