Bye bye, bad development along the Beltline?

You don't get that real estate back. You gotta do it right when you're doing it'


With the Westside Trail now under construction, no one doubts that this latest segment of the Beltline will spur a development boom. The question is, what kind of development? To have a say in the answer, the city and Atlanta Beltline Inc. are creating an expert panel that will review all adjacent real estate projects on the entire Beltline loop, from South Buckhead to Peoplestown and West End to Inman Park.

The Atlanta Beltline Design Review Committee won’t be able to approve - or veto - anything on its own. But its review and advice will be a required step in getting needed approvals from the city’s planning department.

“I think it gives more input so we can have iconic design along the Beltline,” says Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens, who is sponsoring a pending ordinance to create the committee. “We don’t want suburban-style development along the Beltline. We want thoughtful development that leads to thoughtful structures.”

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“It’s intended to create a front-end process…and give good input to planners ahead of time,” ABI President and CEO Paul Morris tells CL. He likens it to the Midtown Development Review Committee.

Development within a half-mile of the Beltline - even its yet-to-be-built segments - is already controlled by a zoning overlay district. It’s intended to nudge projects toward walkable, green, pedestrian- and bike-friendly designs. But the overlay district has drawn some confusion and controversy from developers and residents alike.

Some developers are already asking ABI for informal technical advice on interpreting the overlay district’s rules and creating projects that match its vision, Morris says.

On the other hand, some projects get approvals despite apparent defiance of the overlay district, residents say. A giant gas station planned for Howell Mill Road within the Beltline overlay district is a case in point, approved by the planning department this year despite outraged residents saying it flies in the face of Beltline principles. The Board of Zoning Adjustment had a tie vote this month on residents’ appeal of its approval; a rehearing is slated for January.

Mayor Kasim Reed asked ABI to form a design review committee earlier this year to formalize the input to avoid such conflicts and ensure quality design along the Beltline. ABI Board members including Cathy Woolard, the former City Council President who helped Ryan Gravel's visionary plan for Atlanta gain traction at City Hall, have also pushed for more consideration about design. During the Nov. 12 groundbreaking for the Westside Trail, Reed discussed the importance of quality design along the Beltline.

“Because of the significant public investment, we have to ensure that the Beltline doesn’t get ‘junked up,’ for lack of a better word," the mayor said. "Meaning, anything isn't just going to be able to come here.

And the city's going to look for better quality when it comes to developments near the project.

"Where the city can be helpful is to withhold our incentives and cooperation, unless you see quality," he said. "We’re more concerned with quality than just being able to announce activity.”

The Dickens-sponsored ordinance, expected to gain council approval by year’s end, will make the committee an official step in the Beltline planning process.

Funded by ABI, the committee will have seven members: ABI’s design director, program manager and community outreach director; the city’s planning director; an architect; an urban planner; and a design professor from a local university. It will review public as well as private developments.

The committee’s meetings will be open to the public, and they’re intended to move quickly, advising both the developers and the planning department within three weeks.

Dickens describes the design review as a carrot-and-stick approach.

“The carrot is, before you go too far and overthink this, maybe you should get some technical advice. If you’re Company X, you’re going to have a committee who can give you free advice on what’s going to be inspiring and acceptable to the city,” Dickens says. “The stick is simple: you can’t get it done without committee review... It’s a blockade. It’s not going to whoop you. You’re just not going to go anywhere.”

In addition to forming the committee, Morris says, ABI has been working with the city on tweaking the language of the overlay district code to get “greater clarity and better predictability.” That process is ongoing.

If the timing works out, the design review committee will be well-established in time to shape the Westside Trail development boom.

“The Beltline, it’s an opportunity for Atlanta to do a whole lot of place-making,” Dickens says. “You don’t get that real estate back. You gotta do it right when you’re doing it, and you want it to be remarkable.”