What's next, Beltline?
Taking stock of how far the $2.8 billion project has come - and what might come next
In the last year, the Atlanta Beltline has opened a breathtaking $12 million trail, lost its CEO, watched its best bet at securing funding for transit go down in flames, and ended up back in court over its main funding source. CL takes stock of how far the $2.8 billion project has come - and what might come next.
In early November, a team of planners and urban designers from Perkins + Will, the firm that will decide how the 22-mile project looks and feels, hiked parts of a Beltline segment between Adair Park in southwest Atlanta and Washington Park, west of Vine City. This portion of the Beltline, commonly referred to as the "southwest segment," is expected to be the next area to receive spending on paths similar to what can be found on the Eastside Trail.
Thanks to federal money that flows through the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Atlanta Regional Commission, a large chunk of the 3.4-mile southwest trail will become a reality. Unlike the Eastside Trail, however, which was funded primarily with private cash, there are loops one must jump through with state funding. The process could take two more years to complete. But it's better than no funding.
The construction of the trail, which winds behind backyards and old warehouses, poses interesting challenges. Long ago, construction crews blasted to build the railroad that once occupied the route. Now, a hefty portion of the southwest segment is below street level, making access points to the trail a tricky issue. The segment will probably require additional environmental work.
Designers are also currently envisioning an extension of the Eastside Trail from Irwin Street down across I-20 to Glenwood Park. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation recently awarded the project $3 million to complete that segment and build a much-needed link from the trail by the Masquerade to Historic Fourth Ward Park. That grant won't completely fund both projects and officials will have to wait to extend the trail until the new Edgewood Avenue bridge is constructed.
EDGEWOOD AVENUE BRIDGE
Yes, the Edgewood Avenue bridge is going bye-bye. The 106-year-old span that features some of the Beltline's coolest graffiti is reportedly one of the two "lowest performing" — think on the verge of being very unsafe — bridges in the city. The project, which could take up to 18 months, will include links between the busy street and the Beltline, which is one-half mile from the soon-to-be-built downtown streetcar.
ART ON THE ATLANTA BELTLINE
Art on the Atlanta Beltline began three years ago as an experiment. The hypothesis: that a temporary public art exhibition would drum up support for the project and draw Atlantans out into the undeveloped space. In a way, it would help make tangible the idea of the Beltline, still decades from completion.
Billed as the city's largest temporary public art exhibition, Art on the Atlanta Beltline has ballooned over the last three years, its number of participating artists increasing by more than 30 percent in 2011 and more than 40 percent to 70-plus artists in 2012. Atlantans have responded enthusiastically to the art programming, which has arguably become the Beltline's most effective PR machine.
"Three years ago when we started talking about Art on the Atlanta Beltline, if you walked anywhere on the Beltline you were the only person there. Today, you go down to the Eastside Trail and you're one of 5,000 people," says ABI Design Director Fred Yalouris.
But some critics say that the increase in quantity of works has occurred at the expense of their quality. Indeed, finding the right balance between saturating the trails with enough art to have an impact without spreading funds too thin is a challenge. (In 2012, the program's budget was about $150,000 and commissions ranged from $500 to $4,000.) One gets the impression while walking the Beltline's eastside and southwest trails where the art is located that, in some cases, money might have been better spent by providing the resources to make some works more substantive and eliminating others altogether.
Yalouris is adamant that Art on the Atlanta Beltline be a platform for emerging artists. He also emphasizes the fact that the public art project is a temporary exhibit and views the space along the 22-mile loop like a gallery wall where work is regularly switched out.
"There are only so many walls left along the Beltline," Yalouris says. "Basically, those walls represent exhibit space for us and because of that it must allow for changing exhibits."
Moving forward, Yalouris is open to the idea of allowing certain pieces to become permanent fixtures on the paths. In fact, works by Lonnie Holley, BORN, HENSE, Loss Prevention Collective, Kyle Brooks, and others have already been added to a Beltline art permanent collection, although the program does not currently have any kind of budget to provide maintenance or upkeep. For future exhibit installments, Yalouris recognizes the importance of effectively siting works as the corridor continues to be built out, and wants to increase outreach to local educational institutions for participation in the project. Additionally, tightening the focus to include fewer, higher-quality (and possibly some permanent) artworks rather than trying to get the most bang for its buck could also serve Art on the Atlanta Beltline well down the road. — Debbie Michaud
THE SOUTHEAST ARC LINKING GLENWOOD PARK TO ADAIR PARK
CSX, the rail company that owns the tracks, is no closer to selling the segment.
For several years, it seemed Atlanta Beltline Inc. was focused first and foremost on building parks. In addition to building Boulevard Crossing Park in Chosewood Park, D.H. Stanton Park in Peoplestown, and the centerpiece Historic Fourth Ward Park and nearby skate park in northeast Atlanta, ABI held community meetings and park-visioning get-togethers. Then came the private cash to build the Eastside Trail and parks seemed to take a backseat.
Beltline officials, however, are continuing the long and unsexy process of environmental remediation on the property near Boulevard Crossing Park, only one phase of which is built, and prep work on other greenspaces. In addition, acquisition of parkland continues in southwest Atlanta, although you'll be hard-pressed to find out which parcels, for fear of a land rush.
The crown jewel of the Beltline's park plan — the proposed Westside Reservoir Park, which would feature a lake made from a quarry that "The Walking Dead" viewers will recognize — remains on the horizon but no closer to reality. The 350-acre northwest Atlanta greenspace, which would become the city's largest, could cost upward of $100 million to build.
Last July, when metro Atlanta voters overwhelmingly rejected a 1 percent sales tax that would have generated more than $7 billion to build new roads and transit, they punted the best option to build rail quickly along certain segments. The list of projects to be funded by the tax included rail along the project's southwest and northeast edges, each with spurs linking to Midtown.
But the past is the past and Beltline officials are moving forward. When exactly we'll actually see transit, which sources say remains a "high priority," is unknown. Transit planners at ABI are awaiting the completion of a so-called implementation plan that allows Atlanta residents to say what they'd most like to see built.
Mayor Kasim Reed is actively negotiating with the private sector to build key segments of the rail line. But how such a deal would actually work is complicated — would the private company operate the rail line or just build it? For the last several months, Beltline transit planners have been considering just such an approach. But don't hold your breath.
Yes, the Beltline could be heading back to the Georgia Supreme Court, which in 2008 ruled that the project's main funding source violated the state's Constitution. It'll likely face John Woodham, the same Buckhead lawyer who mounted that challenge.
The Beltline relies on a tax allocation district, or TAD, for the majority of its funding. TADs fund improvements in specific districts with bonds that are paid off with future increases in property taxes. Though ruled unconstitutional in 2008, voters later amended the Constitution to allow the complex funding option.
In 2011, however, Woodham and others filed a lawsuit in Fulton County court arguing that the city and other entities did not follow proper procedure after the 2008 ruling. As a result, they opted not to "reenact" their TAD. He's asked the case be bundled with another lawsuit he'll argue in front of the justices in January. Beltline officials call the lawsuit a "distraction and inconvenience."
Woodham tells CL the case offers a "whole spectrum of possible outcomes." Should the Supreme Court side with the city, the Beltline would most likely continue along as if nothing happened.
Were Woodham to emerge victorious yet again, he says, the Beltline TAD could be shut down. That could leave many project supporters, developers who bet on land, and bond attorneys very confused. And angry.
No sooner had the Beltline's Eastside Trail opened than reports began to emerge that ne'er-do-wells were targeting people jogging or biking along the path. Considering that some areas of the trail aren't near access points, the path can leave some users without an escape route.
City officials say public safety along the project is a "top priority" and added there are now plans to install "additional lighting and safety measures on the Eastside Trail expeditiously." They're also considering installing mile-marker signs and call boxes. In the short term, officials plan to hold conversations with adjacent property owners to see if their lighting could help illuminate the trail. APD will police the trail on bikes, foot, and electric vehicles. That much-discussed unit dedicated to patrolling the trail? They'll be dispatched next spring. More eyes on the trail would help since it's open way past dark. Technically, the trail closes at 11 p.m., even though it's partly intended as a transportation alternative. ABI currently has no plans to open it up 24 hours a day.
A few weeks before the T-SPLOST failed, ABI came under fire when an AJC analysis found that project officials expensed a wedding gift, parking ticket, and dry-cleaning, among other inappropriate purchases. Five days later, the project's board showed CEO and President Brian Leary the door.
Executive headhunter Korn/Ferry International has been selected to find the new project leader. Until then, Lisa Gordon, the project's former chief operating officer, is acting as interim CEO. Whoever snags the job — which paid Leary a $195,000 salary in 2011 — will be expected to navigate a tricky sea of politics, high public expectations, and increasing scrutiny.
Local advocates are urging the board to hire someone who will establish strong ties with other parts of the city affected by the Beltline.
"It's really going to take the whole community to make the Beltline a reality if it's gonna happen," says Deborah Scott of Georgia Stand-Up, a think tank. "To get projects off the ground on the southside, it's gonna take trust with the community. I'm not sure we have that right now."
POT O' CASH
Some cash from the Beltline bond issuances is supposed to help spark new businesses and create jobs along the project. Thus far, relatively little has been done with that cash. Currently, there is a little more than $600,000 in the bank. In years past, competing schools of thought have argued over whether ABI should collect cash or dole out small grants. ABI's director of affordable housing James Alexander says project officials considered creating policies on how to award that cash earlier this year, but pressed the brakes after learning the city was crafting its own economic development strategy. "We see the Atlanta Beltline as a component of a larger citywide strategy," he says. "To that end we've been working with them on that."
Fifteen percent of each Beltline bond issuance is, by law, earmarked and placed in a trust fund to boost the amount of affordable housing in Atlanta, be it by helping potential homeowners with down-payment assistance, giving developers incentives to build affordable units, or other means. In the project's 25-year lifespan, officials estimate at least 5,600 affordable units will be created along the Beltline.
But according to a report in January commissioned by the Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee, the citizen group tasked with overseeing the Beltline, the project has lagged on that front. Between 2008 and 2010, only 147 units were built — a total that doesn't include ABI's purchase, with trust fund cash, of the 30-unit Triumph Lofts in Reynoldstown.
Beltline officials blame two culprits for the slow efforts. First, the aforementioned 2008 legal woes hamstrung ABI's finances, which meant less cash to deposit in the trust fund. Plus, the economic crash and dismal housing market ruined developers' appetites and abilities to build any housing, much less affordable units.
Alexander says the project is working with a consultant to refine and improve the affordable housing program, which is now down to roughly $1.8 million. But the project has pledged to help fund more than 120 units in two proposed developments in Reynoldstown and Adair Park, and others in Old Fourth Ward. The downside: The majority of those units convert to market rates after so many years.
BRING YOUR BEST, DEVELOPERS
As the economy slowly improves, developers are flocking to the Beltline. And neighbors, if they're not pleased with the proposal, are pushing back hard. Case in point: Atlanta developer Jeff Fuqua's plans to turn a former concrete facility across the street from Glenwood Park along the Beltline in southeast Atlanta into a massive retail complex. Residents of surrounding neighborhoods say the design — a sea of parking and a 155,000-square-foot, suburban-style store — isn't right for the Beltline, the neighborhood, or the city. Whether the city agrees with them remains to be seen.
Note: This article has been altered to correct a reporting error. Federal funding, which passes through GDOT and the Atlanta Regional Commission, will be used to fund much of the Beltline's southwest trail. The piece has also been updated to include comments from city officials about new plans to improve public safety along the Eastside Trail.