Beltline trail progress prompts pushback from community garden

Some Ashview Heights residents want more info about plans for ABI property

Four years ago, Shawn DeAngelo Walton was walking with a friend in the Ashview Heights neighborhood when he came across a community garden that was overrun with tall grass and tires.

He could see the remnants of a neighborhood garden in the middle of the West Atlanta community — but the crops needed more attention. So he partnered with Ashview Heights Development Association, the organization overseeing the garden, which began around 1995. Since then, Walton says, they've helped nurture it into a community space where people can gather and grow tomatoes, peppers, and kale, among other crops.

"It's not a froufrou garden," says Walton, who says the garden has become a source of pride for the community, which has battled prostitution, foreclosures, and crime. "It's a serious situation and enjoyed by a lot of people."

There was just one problem. The garden sits on property that, for decades, had no purpose or future — and wasn't owned by the community. Today, the plot is owned by Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit tasked with building and planning the $4.8 billion smart-growth project. ABI wants the option of using the land, potentially as a contruction staging site as it prepares to pave the Westside Trail, a 3-mile bike and jogging path that connects Adair Park and Washington Park. Walton's protesting the move.

Starting this fall, ABI crews are expected to break ground on the first of several phases of the Beltline's newest path, which could rival the popular Eastside Trail. The path will snake behind single-family residential neighborhoods in some of the city's most historic — and overlooked — communities. To do so requires accessing the corridor, which ABI purchased from the Georgia Department of Transportation this summer.

In June, Brian Hooker, ABI's director of real estate, said at a Beltline meeting in West End that the organization was "supportive of Shawn" but the "needs of constructing trail supersede interim uses of the land" — meaning, in this case, the garden.

"We do own that now," he said. "Where there are interim uses of the site, eventually those will no longer be permitted."

ABI, which is looking for a project contractor, says it's been clear that the garden's use of the land was temporary. It recently offered to help Walton locate a new site and said it would support the garden's using the property until Oct. 1. A Beltline spokesman declined to comment further on the issue.

The brouhaha is the latest example of what happens when a long-forgotten railroad corridor becomes a multi-billion dollar public works project. Along other parts of the project, homeless people have been ordered to leave and even some property owners have been informed that they were actually using parts of Beltline land. The most obvious example is along the Eastside Trail near Paris on Ponce, where condos' patios were sliced and fenced off so the project could reclaim its land to build the mixed-use path.

But Walton, who also operates a nonprofit called WeCycle, which helps southwest Atlanta children learn how to repair bikes, claims he has tried to work out licensing deals with ABI in the past to use the property. Most recently, he wanted to hold a WeCycle fundraiser and block party on the land, which prompted ABI to express concerns over insurance.

Walton says he's less concerned about the garden but wants to know ABI's plans for the property. He argues that, if the land is used as a long-term construction site and access point for equipment, it could affect residents' quality of life. He's declined ABI's offer to locate an alternate site for those reasons, he says, adding that the organization's proposal did not include funding to help start another garden. A petition has garnered more than 300 names. On Saturday, he and others protested the plans during a 5K along the trail.

"Despite everything we do — helping idle teenagers and youth, fighting obesity — they're putting the nail in the coffin of a minority business that's been engaged in the uplifting of Ashview Heights," Walton says.

Not all residents are on board with Walton's course of action. Elizabeth Whitmore Hall, who moved to Ashview Heights last October, says she's sympathetic to Walton's situation, but wishes he'd be more open to considering another location. She notes that there's another garden nearby that could use help. Hall's concerned that pushback could ultimately upend part of the Beltline's plans for the area, which she says could benefit from the investment and boost brought by a multiuse bike trail and linear park along its edge.

"It's definitely disheartening because I know that bringing the Beltline to the west side and having an opportunity to flourish is a great thing for us," Hall says.

As CL went to press, Walton said talks with project leaders had stalled.