Inside the Beltline loop

Project officials say the transit trail is chugging along

Concrete is pouring, trees and lighting fixtures are being planted, and housing offerings are popping up all along one of Atlanta’s hottest attractions: the Beltline.Workers are chucking dirt, tearing through neighborhoods to grow what’s slated to be a 22-mile loop around the city — replete with parks, trails and transit — and neighbors are thrilled, curious and confused about what the future holds for this mammoth project.Rob Brawner, executive director of the Beltline’s fundraising arm, says he expects 2017 to be the project’s biggest year to date. Here’s a look at what’s in store in the coming months.

Eastside action - The Beltline’s popular Eastside Trail is currently awaiting a southbound extension that will link the now-active 2-mile sidewalk through Inman Park and the Old Fourth Ward down to neighborhoods Cabbagetown and Reynoldstown.

Construction is underway to connect these neighborhoods via a 1.25-mile stretch from Irwin Street, home of the bustling Krog Street Market, to Kirkwood Avenue. This part of the path, Beltline officials say, should be pedestrian-ready by this summer — weather-permitting — and once funding is secured, the path will be pulled on down to Memorial Drive.

That phase of construction will shut down a small piece of Irwin Street from March 20 to April 14. Stitching together the Eastside Trail and its southern extension also entails the build of a speed table intersection where Irwin Street meets the path, meaning the southernmost strip of the Beltline will have to close, from Irwin to the McGruder Street entrance.

Construction of the speed table — a raised plateau with a button-activated, flashing light traffic system — will require Beltline users to find new ways to get on and off the walkway, which caught some nearby business owners by surprise.

“We didn’t know that they were going to be blocking off that section of the Beltline,” says David Baker, co-owner of Atlanta Bike Barn, a bike shop at the southern end of the trail. “The parking lot is only so big, and it gets packed quickly on the weekend. That’ll definitely affect our foot traffic tremendously, having to explain to the customers another way around because they don’t have access to the Beltline from one entrance.”

But neighborhood leaders in the Old Fourth Ward aren’t too concerned with the temporary closure, so long as efforts to ensure pedestrian safety keep chugging along. A string of armed robberies in January prompted the Beltline to beef up security. Lighting fixtures are now being installed in the Krog Street Tunnel a few blocks south of Irwin Street, and the Beltline Partnership recently reeled in the cash needed to install solar-powered, self-dimming lights all along the existing Eastside Trail. Beltline officials say the same system will be installed on the Eastside extension and Westside Trail.

Flooding issues inside that tunnel, however, could be cause for some concern. Meghan Injaychock, a Beltline architect, said at a March 2 neighborhood meeting that “alleviating flooding in the tunnel is very tricky,” but Beltline Communications Director Ericka Davis said planners have accounted for the hassle: “As part of the Extension, we’ve added stormwater capacity at the DeKalb/Krog intersection (both with additional inlets and by cleaning out the existing stormwater system), which is situated downgradient of the tunnel.”

Eastside property development - To no one’s surprise, the path-to-be is still luring myriad property developers to trailside land. Famed architect Jeff Fuqua is plotting the destruction of a former mattress factory on Memorial Drive to clear space for a $250 million retail and office space development, according to Bisnow. Fuqua says the company has already “pre-leased” most of the 17-acre property, which will include a grocery store and a movie theater.

A good grocery store — Bisnow reports Fuqua’s new property will house a Publix — is just what some Old Fourth Ward residents are looking for on the Eastside Trail, according to neighborhood association presidents Linda Posner and Cashelle Rose. Other nearby development, however, could throw a wrench in construction progress.A mixed-use complex being erected by North American Properties near the intersection of DeKalb Avenue and Krog Street, for instance, could delay construction of the trail extension. Injaychock says that’s because they don’t want walkers and bikers strolling beneath cranes and other construction hardware, and they don’t want the development to mark up freshly paved path.Additionally, Georgia Power’s tentative plan to sell a 10-acre plot near Ponce City Market and Historic Fourth Ward Park has real estate speculators buzzing about the land’s development potential, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Westside wonk - The Beltline’s Westside Trail, a 3-mile path connecting Adair Park to Washington Park, is also expected to be completed by summer, despite “wild weather conditions, unexpected underground infrastructure, and a burst of other development projects demanding resources around the city,” which threatened progress, according to Beltline officials. Once it opens, Trees Atlanta will install its arboretum, and Davis asks that pedestrians be mindful of the ongoing landscaping.

The Westside Trail, much like its eastside sibling, is also attracting attention from developers. Neighborhoods in the region are expected to be the “hottest” for real estate this year, according to Curbed Atlanta. A 7-acre property once used by a trailer company recently went on the renter’s market, and the owner is seeking out a new tenant “who sees the vision of the Westside Beltline,” Curbed reported.Offshoots of the Westside Trail are also planned to connect the Beltline with the Bellwood Quarry, which could become the city’s largest park, and the Chattahoochee River.

Southside waits - On the southside of the city, the Beltline trail isn’t taking form just yet. Davis tells Creative Loafing that, although ground is not yet broken, the organization is approved to push forward with the Southside Trail’s design and will update the community with 50 percent plans in the coming months.

Trailside tourism - Posner and Rose, who each head an O4W neighborhood association, tell CL that their constituents don’t grumble much about Beltline construction anymore. During community meetings, they say, residents discuss the implications of tourism and housing affordability.There are now 1.7 million annual users of the Beltline’s Eastside Trail, and Posner says she thinks the extension will ease the congestion seen on weekends. “But if [developers] continue to develop by putting parking lots on the Beltline, you’ll just continue to encourage people to drive to the Beltline, like some kind of tourist destination, as opposed to what it was really intended to be,” she says.

The Atlanta Beltline Partnership will soon open a visitor’s center in its office on the Eastside extension, and although Brawner says “we’re not plopping down the World of Coke,” Posner just hopes the place won’t attract too much vehicular traffic like local tourist traps do.

“There’s a lot of people who come in from the suburbs, and you can see that from the tags [on their license plates] from Cobb County or Gwinnett County and so forth,” she says. “Yes, the people who live here do use it, but it seems the way it’s being developed is to encourage tourism,” which isn’t helping the affordable housing crisis.

Affordability (or the lack thereof) - When it comes to affordable housing options, the Beltline is still lagging behind its goal to yield 5,600 units for cheap living near the path, and real estate speculators are buying up trailside property faster than local politicos can pass legislation to help out.

Officials at City Hall are working on proposals to slow the displacement of less-than-affluent residents. Legislation to mandate citywide inclusionary zoning is trudging through City Council conversations, and Councilman Andre Dickens is fighting for laws which would require Beltline area development to reserve units for affordable living.

But some people dispute the city’s definition of what’s pricey and what’s cheap. Dickens hopes to earmark 10 percent or 15 percent of new homes for affordable housing — defined as less than 60 percent or 80 percent of the area median income, respectively. The city clocks the AMI at $38,000 a year. Critics of these measurements note that the tally cites statistics from not just Atlanta, but a few suburbs outside the Perimeter.