Connecting Communities: The Atlanta BeltLine
New Funding and Continued Economic Investment Set a Clear Path Forward for One of the City’s Most Valuable Assets
By Lori Johnston
The Atlanta BeltLine’s path to completion became much clearer after two critical funding bills – Atlanta’s T-SPLOST and the MARTA expansion – were approved by voters in November 2016.
Already, the partially completed loop through intown neighborhoods has become a hot spot for locals and is quickly attracting companies and national media attention. More than $3 billion in economic development has been generated within a half-mile of the planned 22-mile BeltLine, which city leaders say is important to Atlanta’s economic future and is expected to be complete by 2030.
“The Atlanta BeltLine is by far the most transformative urban revitalization project in Atlanta’s history. It brings together connectivity through transit and trails, as well as the creation of public gathering space through new parks. It’s also shaping both economic and equitable development,” says Rob Brawner, Executive Director of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership (ABP), which raises money for the project.
The 25-year, $4.8 billion BeltLine project is also an opportunity for engineering, architectural and construction firms to play crucial roles in its design, construction and other elements. About $450 million in public and private contributions have been put to work since 2006, says Paul Morris, President and Chief Executive Officer of Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI), which constructs and maintains the trails and parks.
In 2017, a capital campaign will be launched to support the next phase of development, Brawner says. The amount of the capital campaign had not been announced, as of early November. “As implementation progresses, we will continue to have capital campaigns for the next wave of projects between now and completion,” he adds.
WHAT’S NEW AND WHAT’S NEXT
The BeltLine, still in its infancy, has proven it can promote economic and community development opportunities. “A lot of great new and rehabilitated buildings have emerged, creating lots of jobs and residential opportunities,” Morris says. “It just keeps growing faster and faster.”
Since 2006, the BeltLine has added 8.7 miles of new permanent trails and 412 acres of new and renewed parks and greenspaces, according to ABI. The BeltLine project has resulted in more than 274 acres of remediated brownfields, as well as new housing and business opportunities.
Since the opening of Ponce City Market in September 2015 on the Eastside Trail, intown neighborhoods, such as Historic Fourth Ward and Inman Park, have seen new residential and commercial development. In addition, home prices are increasing and both residential and mixed-use development is now heading south into Grant Park and along corridors, such as Memorial Drive, which are often on neglected industrial sites. “It’s just become kind of a domino effect – they see where we’re going, and the market is following us,” Morris says.
In 2016, work began on another significant project – Westside Quarry Park and Preserve. It is expected to be the city’s largest park, on more than 350 acres. Construction of a $280 million water reservoir for the city is under way and expected to be finished by 2018. After completion, recreational space is planned for around the lake over the next 15 years.
On the northeast quadrant of the future corridor, “BeltLine-ready” developments include Armour Yards, Morris says. Developer Third & Urban has assembled and is refurbishing seven buildings near the intersection of Monroe Drive and Armour Drive that will have more than 275,000 square feet of loft office space, restaurants and meeting areas.
On the city’s southside, Morris and Brawner say excitement grows for plans like Monday Night Brewing, a craft brewery that expects to open its second location along the BeltLine in 2017, and future development of the former State Farmers Market.
The BeltLine also connects to multi-use trails throughout the city and beyond. Recent new efforts by the PATH Foundation include a trail that opened in August to link Centennial Park to the Eastside BeltLine, providing access to Atlantans and visitors staying in downtown hotels. PATH is in the process of building the same type of connection going west.
GROWING SENSE OF PLACE
As the metro region is expected to grow by 2.5 million people by 2040, the city of Atlanta is in position to consume or capture a large amount of that growth, says Planning and Community Development Commissioner Tim Keane. The Atlanta Regional Commission forecasts almost an additional 200,000 residents in the city of Atlanta (assuming no changes such as annexations) by 2040. The population will grow from roughly 432,000 in 2015 to 622,000 in 2040, according to ARC data.
The BeltLine and expansion of transit could help attract more residents, while providing alternatives to clogged roadways. It has also helped give an identity to a city that has historically been difficult to describe, and it’s framing the city and expectations for design and development. “The BeltLine is where a lot of that is happening. It needs to extend to more of the city, and it will along the BeltLine,” Keane says.
Plus, it’s authentic to Georgia, says Doug Young, the city’s Assistant Director of Historic Preservation. “There is only one BeltLine, and it’s in the City of Atlanta,” Young says.
BELTLINE BUSINESS BOOM
“The BeltLine is quite literally a common thread tying together different areas of the city,” says Hala Moddelmog, President and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. As people move into areas along and near the BeltLine, businesses are already taking advantage of increased visibility and ease of access, she adds. Increased foot traffic provides more customers for retail and restaurants – and, by locating near the BeltLine, companies can attract talent, particularly millennials, seeking walkable lifestyles.
The biggest and most compelling example is Ponce City Market, an adaptive reuse of the former Sears, Roebuck & Co. building that fronts the BeltLine and now includes restaurants, shops, apartments and the offices for MailChimp, athenahealth, Cardlytics, Twitter and Google, along with other Atlanta companies, in its 2.1 million square feet. “What it says to the rest of the community and the rest of the developers, architects and engineers is that if you embrace the BeltLine, you will be successful,” Keane says.
The BeltLine may also bring a more positive image and more traffic to certain areas of the city that have previously fought negative perceptions, Moddelmog says. Property owners that constructed fences between their businesses, apartments and homes and the BeltLine now have openings to access the trail, and some are reorienting themselves to face the BeltLine, which has impacted everything from construction to new restaurants, coffeehouses, bike shops and other businesses.
While every project won’t be as big as Ponce City Market, developments are providing an opportunity to preserve historic character within the communities. Brawner says one of the exciting pieces of the BeltLine is a commitment to restoring and repurposing historic architecture, especially given the city’s history of tearing down older buildings. “How you do that architecturally is very important. It’s a tremendous opportunity to do something that is unique and memorable – and valued by the community,” Brawner adds.
Much of the billions in private development has occurred in old, abandoned industrial areas, where contaminated properties are cleaned up and put back into productive use and then new jobs and a variety of mixed-income housing opportunities follow.
But the BeltLine’s success contributes to a growing concern over affordability along the trails, particularly related to housing. In September 2016, BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel resigned from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership over such factors as affordability. Morris hesitates to call affordable housing a crisis, but admits it’s at a point where all must work together to “ensure that we both create and maintain affordability going forward.”
“We can build housing that’s more affordable, so we’re working with developers to do that and we’re also partnering on our own projects,” he says. “Over the next three years, between direct budget allocations and bond sales, we’re going to be putting somewhere between $15 and $20 million to work just through the BeltLine to help create more affordable housing. We’re working with the city to ensure that where possible we create inclusionary zoning so that anybody who builds housing in the planning area of the BeltLine does so in a way that’s supportive of affordability … That creates a level playing field for everybody.”
The city is rewriting its zoning code, which could affect BeltLine properties, particularly related to parking requirements. The code would require less parking or in some cases cap parking to encourage transit use, Keane says. Future changes to the BeltLine’s design overlay may also focus on parking and density frame.
FINDING THE FUNDING
November’s T-SPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) referendum, which expects to raise approximately $300 million over five years for non-transit projects, will include $65.9 million for the BeltLine. Of that, about $56 million will be used to acquire the remaining right of way and easements along the corridor. Once they control the corridor, the build-out of the BeltLine will accelerate, Brawner says.
The additional $9 million will fund lighting along the entire BeltLine, which Morris says has become a crucial need. Other projects could improve sidewalks and streetscapes that Atlantans use to access the BeltLine.
“When the original BeltLine was envisioned, people didn’t think anyone would be there at night because Atlanta wasn’t a walking, biking city,” Morris says. “But, it gets a lot of traffic at night and being unlit is not ideal. We had a lot of generous support from businesses along the corridor who were willing to turn their lighting on to help – but, it’s inadequate in order to create the safety and security that everybody really deserves,” he says.
T-SPLOST funding will build about 11 miles of connector trails in the BeltLine plan and 46 miles of Complete Streets projects ($75 million for 15 projects), which will need designers, engineers and construction assistance. “Voters see the value in trails and in the trail environment. They see the mental and physical health benefits. They see the quality of life benefit,” says Ed McBrayer, Executive Director of PATH Foundation.
PATH plans to build $18 million worth of other trail projects in the city, which provide a conduit for people to travel as pedestrians or cyclists, he says. “Atlanta is not only building the BeltLine, but we’re also building a trail network that ties into the BeltLine,” McBrayer adds. “I anticipate we’ll be the most trail-connected city before the BeltLine is finished.”
In addition, sales tax revenue from the separate MARTA referendum could intersect with the BeltLine project. Expected to generate about $2.5 billion to enhance transit for 40 years (with potential for matching federal dollars), the MARTA referendum could fund up to four new rail stations along the BeltLine (Armour Yard, Boone Boulevard, Murphy Crossing and Krog Street), and streetcar/light rail could be built along the corridor and routes that intersect the BeltLine.
“We can’t build a whole lot of new capacity in our transportation in the city. So, we have to find ways to enhance the capacity of what’s there. High-capacity transit is the most effective means to do that,” Morris says.
PROVIDING THE EXPERTISE
The BeltLine wouldn’t be what it is without the work of engineering, architecture and planning consultants.
“It really does take that kind of breadth of capability and knowledge to pull something this big off,” Morris says. “Not only do we have the issue of what appears to be a relatively straightforward, simple trail, but what many people don’t know is there’s huge engineering infrastructure underneath and alongside it for utilities, as well as for stormwater management. Having to figure out a way to solve for those challenges, while not giving up access and green space, required some pretty sophisticated, non-traditional engineering approaches.”
Those approaches required bio-filtration and green infrastructure as opposed to gray infrastructure, for example. Plus, trail design has come a long way in the past two decades, McBrayer says. Trails are wider (although on pretty days, the BeltLine appears to be too small for the crowds), drainage infrastructure has improved and natural features, like trees, are being protected. “We’re getting better and better at building them,” McBrayer says.
Kimley-Horn, an engineering and planning consultant firm with offices in metro Atlanta, has been involved in BeltLine projects for five years, and was a partner on the $43 million, three-mile Westside Trail project currently under construction, which qualified for an $18 million federal grant. The project, which involved the consultant team, the BeltLine, the Georgia Department of Transportation and City of Atlanta, had to come together in a short time frame – eight months – in order to take advantage of the grant funding, says Sean Johnston, P.E., Vice President for Kimley-Horn. “We did it through collaboration. Failure was not an option, and everybody knew that,” he adds.
Kimley-Horn, which is also leading the design effort for the Southside Trail and involved in other aspects of the BeltLine, is working with large multidisciplinary teams and subcontractors ranging from geotechnical experts and structural engineers to landscape architects and public art consultants.
Johnston is benefitting professionally and personally from the BeltLine. He lives in Decatur and uses the Eastside Trail to commute to work via bike. “It’s really changed the way I experience the city and the way I get around the city. It’s done the same for my family,” says Johnston, who has a wife and son. “We can ride our bikes from our home in Decatur all the way to Piedmont Park, and we can use the BeltLine to do that – which is why I’m excited to be involved.”