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Beltline Westside Trail brings anticipation, concerns about displacement

What impacts will massive public investment have on southwest Atlanta?

On Nov. 12 Atlanta Beltline officials will break ground on the long-awaited Westside Trail, and a new chapter in southwest Atlanta begins. It's a future some locals are viewing in frontier boom-town terms, filled with a mix of exciting opportunity and concerns about potential displacement.

About the only thing certain is that the $43 million trail, arguably the biggest public investment the area's seen since MARTA was built, will open approximately two years from now — and trigger change along its 3-mile route between Washington Park and Adair Park.

"It's impossible to overstate how significant a game-changer this is going to be for the Beltline and the city," says Atlanta Beltline Inc. President and CEO Paul Morris of the latest section of the 22-mile parks, trails, and transit project.

What once were abandoned railroad tracks and overgrown bushes will become, thanks in part to an $18 million federal grant and $10 million from private donors, a 14-foot-wide well-designed trail with lighting, benches, and art. Ramps and stairs will connect to adjacent streets and historic neighborhoods, linking growing communities. New residents could fill affordable and empty houses, convincing retailers to revive vacant storefronts.

For the kind of changes the Beltline brings, look no further than the recently completed Eastside Trail, which boosted northeast Atlanta's already bustling development boom. It has also helped spawn some of the city's coolest redevelopment (Ponce City Market) and some of its higher rents (again, Ponce City Market). Numerous factors, including the quality of schools and economic conditions, could determine the new trail's impact. But if one thing's certain, the mostly residential neighborhoods along the segment are likely to see significant change.

"Everyone's kind of holding their breath, waiting to see what change happens," says Jair Sweatman, chairman of Neighborhood Planning Unit K, which includes such neighborhoods as Hunter Hills and Washington Park, on the trail area's northern end.

Some change is welcome in these historically black neighborhoods, many of which were hit hard by the Great Recession and were among the city's biggest mortgage fraud victims. Some residents can't wait to see increased property values, more businesses, and new parks — including a new urban farm near its southern area, in Adair Park.

"ABI coming back and making this investment is significant for the west side of town," says Sweatman, who helps promote the Beltline at festivals. "It says, 'We haven't forgotten about you.' I welcome a new injection of life and diversity into the neighborhoods."

Other residents are concerned about losing some neighborhoods' history and that communities could be hurt by real estate speculators snatching up affordable homes. That could mean property values rise so high that some residents, including renters and seniors, get displaced. NPU K officials have been trying to help some seniors find property tax relief. In addition, argues Christi Jackson of the Conservancy at Historic Washington Park, city and ABI officials have not provided enough details about how the project can help fill vacant storefronts and ensure housing remains affordable. Meanwhile, she says, local rents are already rising in anticipation of the Beltline.

The "tone" of the Westside Trail is another concern, says James Harris, president of the Capitol View Neighborhood Association. While such programs as the Lantern Parade have been a hit for the Eastside Trail, they shouldn't be blindly duplicated on the Westside, he says.

Jackson agrees, saying Washington Park's unique history as Atlanta's first planned black suburb should be respected. And, she notes, in a community with many residents struggling for basic necessities, the programming needs might be different. "It's not, 'When is the parade coming?' It's not, 'What's the next art exhibit?'" She also worries about top-down programming decisions, describing a recent situation where a Coca-Cola-sponsored exercise class was held in Washington Park without first notifying the Conservancy.

Morris says ABI is aware of these community concerns. Giving each Beltline section a "unique character" that reflects the myriad neighborhoods is a core goal, he says. Pop-up businesses are possible in some storefronts, he says. On the Westside Trail, ABI is even thinking in fine-grained terms of a "tale of two corridors" — more residential to the north, more industrial to the south. "We're treating these communities as our neighbors, and what we do needs to support and respect them," Morris says.

On affordability, ABI is working on more practical solutions to prevent displacement. ABI's housing trust fund already helped develop some affordable properties on the west side in recent years — though subsidies will eventually expire. And it may purchase properties for ABI partners to redevelop as more affordable housing before the trail even opens in a few years.

But more needs to be done, says Dan Immergluck, a Georgia Tech planning professor whose research found that the announcement of the Beltline a decade ago spurred rising property values and taxes and displacement. He told Creative Loafing that a property tax refund program — known in some places as a "circuit breaker" — should be instituted to protect current homeowners from potential steep rises in property taxes.

ABI is also working with the city to update zoning that guides development along the Beltline and wants to play a more formal role in reviewing nearby redevelopment plans. However, ABI controls only a sliver of the area, and as Harris says, "everything else is left up to chance, left up to developers."

The Westside Trail is also partly dependent on more redevelopment for its own completion. A half-mile stretch along White Street will use the existing West End Trail instead of stretching behind a long, uninterrupted block of warehouses. When properties along that stretch redevelop more, Morris said, ABI will finish that trail segment.

Meanwhile, neighborhood leaders say, there are many opportunities for residents to have meaningful input. The NPUs are tweaking their neighborhood plans. Washington Park is working on a plan to help prepare for transit- and pedestrian-oriented development. Five "sister communities" — Adair Park, Capitol View, Capitol View Manor, Sylvan Hills, and Pittsburgh — recently crafted their own vision for Westside Trail programs and its adjacent urban farm.

"It's a great opportunity," Sweatman says, "to show the rest of the world that you can make progress without tearing everything down and starting all over."

NOTE: This article has been altered to correct an error. James Harris is president of the Capitol View Neighborhood Association.