The Beltline’s tipping point

You can understand why Beltline officials have earmarked $10,000 in the project’s upcoming fiscal year for “crisis communications.”

Since the city embarked on its mission to build a 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit around Atlanta’s urban core — a project that officials say will transform the city from a car-dependent hodgepodge of villages to a smart-growth wonderland served by streetcars — it’s faced its share of catastrophes. In 2008, a state Supreme Court ruling temporarily stripped the Beltline of half its funding. Later that year, a controversial payout to Gwinnett County developer Wayne Mason raised questions over decisions about how the project allocated taxpayer dollars. In January, a bitter battle over rusty railroad tracks waged by the Beltline and a partnership of Amtrak and the Georgia Department of Transportation seemed ready to cripple the project.

But in all these crises, the Beltline emerged victorious. And on July 10, project officials had more good news to report.

After weeks of negotiations, Beltline officials struck a deal for two vital segments of GDOT-owned abandoned railroad tracks in southwest and southeast Atlanta. Atlanta Beltline Inc., the agency charged with implementing the project, now controls nearly 50 percent of the right-of-way it needs to form the spine of the 22-mile transit loop.

That deal marked a tipping point for the Beltline and put the project ahead of its own goals. By 2030, officials say, light-rail streetcars will cross Ponce de Leon Avenue near City Hall East, glide past or near more than 1,200 acres of newly created parks on the Westside, in West End and just south of Grant Park, and connect more than 45 Atlanta neighborhoods. This fall, work crews will break ground on a new park in Old Fourth Ward near the Masquerade and City Hall East. Next year, more than eight miles of unused railroad tracks will be turned into urban hiking trails in southwest Atlanta near Capitol View and northeast Atlanta near Ansley Park. And work on a giant reservoir park in northwest Atlanta — one that’ll be larger than Piedmont Park — will continue.

“We’ve reached a critical mass,” says Ethan Davidson of Atlanta Beltline. “All the hard work we’ve been putting in this project for the last three years is starting to yield tangible results for the city. Over the next two years, the Beltline will become less of a buzzword and more of a reality.”

But for all the Beltline seems to have going for it at the moment, it still has its challenges: a stalled housing market (one that, through rising property values, was supposed to fund the Beltline), increasingly tough land negotiations, an impatient populace, and a new mayor who will be responsible for keeping the public and private sector enthusiastic about a project that might still be 20 years from completion.

Half of the Beltline’s funding is supposed to come from a complicated and, in these economic times, risky financing mechanism. Called a TAD, for Tax Allocation District, the model uses future increases in property tax revenue to pay for construction costs. The problem is, property tax revenue has dropped at a time when Beltline officials — and pretty much everyone else — expected it to rise.

What’s more, developers have scaled back construction because of a glut of condos and decreasing demand for housing. And housing density along the Beltline is a far cry from where it needs to be to fuel the TAD and make it a more viable contender for vital federal funds.

Once the economy stabilizes, the Beltline will have to compete with other neighborhoods and a saturated condo market to attract development. 

Mike Dobbins, a former Atlanta planning commissioner who now teaches at Georgia Tech, thinks developers will be attracted to neighborhoods that aren’t directly served by the Beltline and already have dense development and public transit options: downtown, Midtown and Buckhead.

He says of the Beltline: “There’s not going to be any type of transportation in any kind of near-term framework. The market’s not going to be effective where there’s no transportation.”

Yet officials are confident that new parks and trails that are set to break ground in the next year will become a magnet for development. They also point out that the TAD funding mechanism was designed to weather several economic cycles — good and bad.

There also are several opportunties that could serve to give the Beltline an additional boost. Officials say a local infusion of cash, which could include a transportation funding proposal that state lawmakers have failed to pass for two consecutive years, could make transit possible along some parts of the project in as little as four years.

To date, philanthropic foundations and corporations have contributed more than $30 million to assist with greenspace and trails, and the nonprofit Beltline Partnership is working to raise another $30 million. In the fall, officials plan to issue another set of bonds to generate more cash. Davidson from the Beltline says the project is on “very stable footing” for the next two years.

Any money raised now could go further than it might in the future. With land prices low, Beltline officials — in conjunction with Atlanta’s next mayor — will begin negotiations on the rest of that vital right-of-way. The freight-heavy northwest section of the Beltline loop will have to be secured, as will an arc in southeast Atlanta still controlled by CSX.

The next mayor will not only have to find a way to draw development to the Beltline, but must also appease vocal neighborhood groups that have been averse to unchecked growth and protective of the integrity of the project.

“Any viable mayoral candidate is going to support the Beltline,” says Ryan Gravel, the urban designer who conceived the project as a graduate student at Georgia Tech. “The question is, are they going to implement a vision that is consistent with the last nine years of the public’s aspirations?”

The front-runners in the mayor’s race  — State Sen. Kasim Reed, City Council President Lisa Borders and Councilwoman Mary Norwood — all say they are ready to forge ahead with the $2.8 billion project. But two of the candidates have different ideas when it comes to making the Beltline a reality.

Reed, who in 2008 co-sponsored legislation that allowed voters to restore funding to the project, says he thinks the Beltline’s 25-year timeline — a source of frustration for many residents — could be shortened. He says the city should consider partnering with private entities for the Beltline’s transit component and ratcheting up the tenacity when it comes to pursuing federal funding.

“I think that we have to get the stakeholders around the table and figure out how we move the Beltline faster,” Reed says. “I believe the vision will take hold in a more muscular way if it’s an eight- to 12-year vision rather than a 20- to 25-year vision. I think that is very tough for people to hold on to.”

Borders takes a different perspective. The former vice president of marketing at influential Cousins Properties says the project would benefit from her experience in the real estate development world.

“There are some things that absolutely cannot be changed and cannot be rushed,” Borders says. “For those people who want to rush the Beltline, I would tell them we need to do it as expeditiously as possible. But we should never sacrifice quality for speed.”

“It’s hard to keep momentum during tough economic times,” Gravel admits.

But he says that the July 10 agreement between Beltline officials and the Georgia Department of Transportation — a deal that secures the foundation of the Beltline — is a sure indicator that the project is progressing.

“The deal goes a long, long way toward building more momentum and providing assurance to the public — and to the world — that the project is going to happen,” Gravel says. “As soon as we start talking about what this project is going to look like and feel like, and start getting specific about how we’re going to use and engage it every day, then we’re going to really get moving.”