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The Beltline: Atlanta’s Promise Ring

By Kamille D. Whittaker

Seven minutes. That’s how long it took for the Atlanta BeltLine Driving Tour to make its most persuasive pitch. Quite frankly, it didn’t come from anything said by the tour guide or the hope-filled call for transformation by Mayor Shirley Franklin who booms from a video the underlying premise of why the BeltLine makes sense for the city of Atlanta — “no vision is too bold for Atlanta; no dream is too large. The Atlanta BeltLine Project will transform Atlanta and will define it for the next generation.”

Atlanta, after all, has always been an ambitious city. But, if you avert your attention from the guide rattling off stats and figures, and just look out the windows you’ll see it for yourself. On Bill Kennedy Parkway, shortly after pulling off from the tour’s starting point in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood, there’s a burnt out shell of a boarded housing complex with torn couches strewn across the patches of dirt and grass behind a chain linked fence. Though no longer inhabitable, fronting what used to be the entrance reads a sign: “Welcome Home.”

Not more than 30 seconds later, the view is quickly replaced by a condominium development with quaint garden plots, ornately railed steps and faux-brick siding. That’s how the tour continues for the better part of three hours. It snakes around the inner core of Atlanta; following the railroad defined pathway that, in 25 years, could become the thread that connects 45 of Atlanta’s currently disjointed intown neighborhoods and future economic development nodes via green space, walking trails, light-rail transit and new commercial and residential development. Through alternating patches of blighted eyesores and ritzy new high-density living developments you can easily see both Atlanta’s plight and promise.

 

Ultimately, the BeltLine is Atlanta’s attempt to find its flavor — a sense of place that is characteristic of comparable metropolitan cities like New York and Philadelphia; and to infuse both a tangible and intangible sense of community into the otherwise uncoordinated framework that has been prevalent in the city for decades. The BeltLine, it seems, is the answer. In 1999, a Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student, Ryan Gravel, wrote his Master’s thesis based on the observation that there existed a loose network of four historic railroads that form a rough loop around the center of the city. The lines were built after the Civil War to expand the industrial base of the city, and for the most part, predated the adjacent neighborhoods. Gravel’s thesis linked mixed-use redevelopment of the industrial land along the way to a new proposed transit line which extends to include intown neighborhoods to the south and west, and connects with MARTA trains at four points. Bicycle and walking paths, and parks paralleled the transit, creating a 22-mile loop of green space around Atlanta. In 2005, with the blessings of Mayor Franklin, who green-lighted multiple taskforces committed to seeing the BeltLine come to fruition, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and Atlanta BeltLine Partnership merged in order to coordinate and implement the city’s 25-year vision for the project. The expectations for fast growth and development are soaring.

A recent study projected that the project will spur more than $20 billion in development and increased property values over the next 25 years and create roughly 37,000 permanent and 48,000 temporary jobs as well as about 28,000 new housing units with one-fifth of those (5,600) being dedicated to workforce housing.

Coupled with these high expectations, however, are the reality checks, not the least of which are questions of both logistics and logic. How will the undertaking be funded? Who will be included? Who will be left out? And more abstractly, can a sense of community really be manufactured?

“The BeltLine has a projected $2.8 billion budget,” says Valarie Wilson, executive director for the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership — the non-profit portion of the public-private marriage to Atlanta BeltLine Inc. “Funding is going to be raised from a variety of resources including funding from the federal government which is a major portion of the funding for the transit component; a capital campaign by the BeltLine Partnership for the land and trail development and also Parks opportunity bonds and watershed management dollars for the proposed Belmont quarry and tax allocation districts.” In recent months, tax allocation districts, or TADs, have caused some controversy.

According to the BeltLine partnership, properties in the potential TAD generate tax revenues for the City of Atlanta, Fulton County and the Atlanta Public Schools. Once the TAD is adopted, the existing tax base becomes frozen for a 10-year period. As property values rise within the TAD, any incremental tax overage would be used to repay the bonds issued by the city to pay for BeltLine capital infrastructure, including transit and property for parks. It should be noted that in a TAD, current taxes that go toward schools would not be allocated to a developer. Only the increase in taxes — due to increased assessments on developed versus undeveloped property — would be allocated to pay off the bonds. For example, Atlantic Station, before its redevelopment, only generated $325,000 in taxes annually. That money still goes to the city, county and school board. At the end of 10 years from the TAD bonds inception, it is estimated that Atlantic Station’s property tax receipts will be $40 million — which will be a huge boost to the nearby schools.

In Mayor Franklin’s opinion, TADs are the most realistic and expeditious way to raise the significant capital needed to complete the BeltLine without tax increases or other City financial obligations.

In 2006, there was actually a challenge to the constitutionality of the TAD — as to whether or not revenue developed by the APS could be allotted to commercial development. The state supreme court ruled it was unconstitutional. On Election Day, the public will be able to vote on an amendment to either uphold or reverse the ruling. The APS is in favor of the TADs, however, seeing that increased economic development around the schools — 44 of which will be in the BeltLine corridor — ultimately means increased revenue for the schools because of higher property taxes.

It’s all of no consequent to State Senator Vincent Fort.

“We should not be engaging in developer welfare by setting aside TAD money. I don’t believe we taxpayers should rush to subsidize wealthy developers for areas that they were planning on developing anyway, like the area around Piedmont Park. I am not against the BeltLine, per se, but I am against moving forward with planning without getting the community involved and having their concerns make an impact.”

Senator Fort touches on some compelling points. At a public hearing held by the Atlanta City Council, members of the community pointed out that TAD money can only be collected and used in economically and socially depressed areas and that many sections do not meet that criteria. Furthermore, the point was made that in order to achieve TAD status; it must be proven that redevelopment would not be possible for the TAD without government involvement. And as Fort mentioned, that clearly isn’t the case. But there are certainly areas in which that it is precisely the case. If the public votes for the amendment in the BeltLine’s favor and reverses the high court’s ruling, the underdeveloped areas in the southern quadrants would be guaranteed some attention — whether private investors see it fit for redevelopment or not. But what kind of attention will it be?

“Even with the TADs there are some equity issues here,” says Fort. “Why should the city allot $66 million to develop walking trails when I can walk on a sidewalk?! Everywhere else is getting multi-story development and all we get is a dirt trail!” According to Wilson, however, “With the BeltLine TAD there is a direct funding stream for economic development specifically targeted to development on the Southside. There is a plan for equitable development all along the BeltLine and all of it is happening simultaneously and right now, we are halfway through our 5-year plan.” But if the BeltLine TADs are considered unconstitutional, the growth and development in the southern — mostly southwestern — quadrants of the BeltLine are bound to be lopsided. Especially considering that the northern and most sought-after neighborhoods — including Inman Park, Virginia Highland, Morningside and Ansley Park — have already gotten a head start with funding for development for that region largely secured. For example, a permit request is currently pending to build 1,800 parking spaces for a pair of high-rise condos with a total 750 units on the eastern edge of Piedmont Park. The towers — 38 and 39 stories respectively — are slated to be the first official residential component of the BeltLine. Reservations about the North-South, boom-bust split are not just an unfounded notion. The city of Atlanta was actually planned this way, not unlike other major metropolitan cities.

In “Atlanta: A City Divided” Dan Chapman writes, “What do Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Los Angeles have in common? What trait do cities like Seattle, San Diego, Indianapolis, Dallas and Houston share? They’re all split somewhere through their municipal midsections, with their southern halves weighing down their northern counterparts.” Chapman refers to one of Atlanta’s earliest city planners, Warren H. Manning who helped lay out Piedmont Park and the Druid Hills neighborhood in 1895. Manning witnessed the days of unbridled, unplanned, unresponsive (to those less fortunate, at least) growth as Atlanta’s business and residential core stretched north along Peachtree Street. He noted that early Atlanta bunched around the downtown railroad terminus and expanded outward until thwarted by West End and Inman Park.

Fort may be on to something.

There’s a lack of transparency. The BeltLine was sold as a transportation project and the public needs to know that it may be 10-20 years before one piece of light rail gets laid down. I am 52 years old and there’s a good chance that I will never ride.” Speaking of transportation; what about MARTA? Is the BeltLine “smarter” than MARTA? While MARTA is certainly a key advocate of the BeltLine and, as Wilson explains, has been at the planning table every step of the way; should limited city resources be allocated for creating a new major transit loop when MARTA, the region’s primary transit provider is languishing, their cooperation notwithstanding?

Additionally, consider the figures from a 2004 Bertaud and Richardson study of Atlanta’s current rail system which states that only 4.5 percent of all trips are made via public transit.

Dr. Robert Bullard, professor and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, compounds his views of MARTA with other inequities he observes. “I think there needs to be a lot of discussion about the implications of implementing a BeltLine at the same time that MARTA is struggling. The major transit system in the region is struggling. How do you strengthen the existing system and at the same time, not carve off a piece and give it priority, and let the other piece drown? And how do you create a system that is equitable so that you do not somehow shortchange those people who have to wait? So it’s almost like a “Catch-22” [because] money follows power. And so that is something that really has to be thought through in terms of resource allocation, particularly when resources are very, very scarce. So you are going to have to do some type of, not just cost benefit analysis, but really a social equity analysis of implementation and what that means for basic access.”

Bullard continues to talk about a prevalent obstacle when asking the tough questions, “When you start raising those kinds of questions people think you are trying to stop it or block it or that you are opposed to trying to make it work. But even West End is changing as we speak in terms of lofts and those old warehouses; and you know, we didn’t even have a grocery store in this area!”

But the elephant in the room is easily the issue of displacement. The formula is not rocket science — economic development leads to higher property taxes which drive residents out who can’t afford the increase.

“The issue with gentrification is that not enough care has been taken to determine how the development is going to affect the neighborhoods. Without this transparency in place, the BeltLine essentially will serve as an engine for gentrification,” Fort contends.

“We actually looked across the country to look at other cities with major redevelopment plans like Chicago, Seattle and Portland. We were interested in finding out what kinds of things were done to mitigate displacement?” Alarmingly, nothing, says Wilson. “They went into it without thinking about it. And so we asked ourselves, ‘what are the tools that are already there and [which] are missing?’ We found that we have community land trusts that will preserve affordable housing and not only that, land trusts have been proven successful in other cities so it’s a tool that we can use.”

Key word: Can.

Much has been said about the material aspect of the BeltLine. Whether the motivation is present to preserve the flavor of the community that already exists remains to be seen. But for such an ambitious undertaking, comprised of public transportation, commercial and residential development, and added green space, it’s essential that the core element that provides the fuel for this to work — the consumers who will patronize the boutiques and coffee shops, and the residents who will live in the high density housing, for example — are considered to be more than just drawings on a BeltLine diagram.

And that, essentially, is the point Senator Fort is trying to make. How the details will play out remains to be seen. But the key is to strike a balance between growth, green and equity goals — even if it means actually reshaping Atlanta’s image in the world from one predicated on commerce to one based on community. If the BeltLine can transform Atlanta, its flavor may be next. “I don’t want good will, hope and promises,” Fort says. “Promises are not plans.” AT

 

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