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Big Beltline decisions on the way

MARTA expected to make critical vote in upcoming months

This fall, the Beltline — a proposed 22-mile loop of transit, parks and new development circling intown Atlanta — will begin to take shape.

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But what, exactly, should that shape be? The question has brought neighborhood groups, transit advocates, city officials and real estate developers to a serious crossroads.

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Should the Beltline, which is anticipated to take at least 15 years to build, be an eco-conscious and user-friendly light-rail or streetcar line — or a less sexy but more affordable bus rapid transit system? Should it be a continuous loop — or a reverse "G"-shaped route that would require a transfer to the north-south MARTA rail line? And should development along the Beltline be high and dense — or more in keeping with the current size and scale of the neighborhoods along the Beltline's path?

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MARTA's board is in the midst of applying for federal grants to help build the Beltline. (City and county agencies already have approved a tax-allocation district to raise much of the money.) Before MARTA finalizes its application, the transit agency must vote on the Beltline's preferred mode of transit — light rail, streetcar or bus rapid transit — as well as its route. The vote is expected in the next few months.

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Neighbors and transit advocacy groups, who came out in droves to attend public hearings last month, have strongly lobbied for light rail or streetcars. Lee Biola, president of advocacy group Citizens for Progressive Transit, points out that while bus rapid transit might be as much as $270 million cheaper initially, the rising cost of gas and the expense of maintaining and expanding the system could negate those early savings.

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Biola and other transit and environmental advocates also are concerned that if the Beltline, a loop of mostly abandoned railroad tracks, is paved to accommodate bus rapid transit, the road eventually could be expanded to serve cars, too. He says a rail line, on the other hand, signifies permanence — and a commitment to public transit and cleaner air.

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"Rails will have a bigger effect on people's willingness to leave their cars behind," says Biola, whose group held a Sept. 5 rally outside MARTA headquarters.

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Johnny Dunning, MARTA's manager of regional planning and analysis, says it would be "highly and extremely unlikely" that cars would ever be allowed to travel the Beltline. "Putting another road within this already concentrated area of roads would be very counterproductive," Dunning says. "We're trying to get people to use other modes of transportation."

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Although a recent MARTA study ranked bus rapid transit as the favored transit for the Beltline, Dunning says MARTA's board could feel differently.

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"Bus rapid transit was a viable option," Dunning says. "Does it mean it's the best option? You have to weigh in public input for that. Community support is so key, and I think our board is definitely going to consider that."

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Dunning also says the board is likely to approve the continuous route for the Beltline — which neighbors overwhelmingly supported.

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Over the next two months, two City Council committees also will hear from residents — this time about a developer's requests for rezoning and land-use changes at two controversial sites along the Beltline.

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Suburban mega-developer Wayne Mason, who owns five miles of the Beltline, wants to develop a pair of condo towers rising nearly 40 stories each on 7.5 acres at the corner of Monroe Drive and 10th Street. He's also hoping to redevelop 12 acres — including the Amsterdam Walk shopping center near the northeast end of Piedmont Park — as a mixed-use complex that could be built as tall as 15 stories. Together, the two developments would contain nearly 1,700 residential units.

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For the development to go forward, Mason and his partners must get approval from the city both to rezone the properties and to change a 15-year community development plan that says the land should be maintained as open space.

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The majority of the properties' neighbors — including Liz Coyle, vice chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit-F — are strongly opposed to the developments.

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"There's nothing wrong with 80 units per acre in a high-rise on Peachtree Street," Coyle says. "But allowing this dense development forever compromises the vision of the Beltline as a linear park."

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GET INVOLVED A hearing on changing the city's land-use plan to accommodate the high-rise condo towers overlooking Piedmont Park will be held Mon., Sept. 11, 6 p.m. in Atlanta City Hall Council Chambers, 55 Trinity Ave. For more info on the towers, visit www.neatlantabeltline.com and www.bncatlanta.org. For more info on the Beltline, visit www.cfpt.org and www.itsmarta.com.



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