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Historic Fourth Ward Park opens with more opportunities for the BeltLine and its parks

Few occasions are as uplifting as those when a city can dedicate a splendid new park for its residents.

That air of celebration was readily apparent at the opening of the Historic Fourth Ward Park on Saturday, June 18.

“There’s a saying among mayors,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, while dedicating the park. “Boy, when it’s good, it’s good.”

As in all successful endeavors, many people deservedly are given credit for their roles in bringing the park to life — beginning with the vision of community activist Bill Eisenhauer.

The park is an amenity with multiple functions — the 2-acre lake serves as a storm water retention basin, helping prevent flooding in a far more environmentally attractive (and cheaper) way than buried tunnels; the park becomes a focal point for the rejuvenating community; and it is one of many planned emeralds along Atlanta’s emerging BeltLine green necklace.

The Fly By Night band was on hand to open Historic Fourth Ward Park (Photos by Maria Saporta)

The opening is an opportune time to step back and reflect where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

While the city is weighed down by today’s tight budget woes, the Historic Fourth Ward Park serves as a wonderful reminder of the importance in investing in green space, trails and parks.

It is fair to say that the park would not exist today had it not been for many organizations, including the Trust for Public Land embarking on an aggressive strategy in 2004 to buy as much land along the BeltLine as possible.

In all, the TPL’s Georgia chapter acquired 83 acres in 34 parcels for $47.4 million for eight new or expanded parks along the BeltLine. TPL acquired more $13 million in land for the Historic Fourth Ward Park, securing 60 percent of its 17 acres — buying the first parcel in 2005.

Crowd gathers for the opening of Historic Fourth Ward Park

Helen Tapp, director of TPL’s Georgia chapter, said it is remarkable that the multi-million park has been developed in just six years.

“One reason is because TPL had the foresight and courage and resources to step in as a national organization,” Tapp said. “We recognized that this was a truly transformative vision. You had to have the land assembled before you could move forward. Being able to use TPL’s national line of credit was really critical in acquiring the land. We have been committed to selling the property to the city at our cost. We were basically providing bridge financing for the city.”

Dignitaries gather to cut the ribbon

But as in any massive undertaking, there are many ways to view the same project. TPL bought the land when the market was approaching its peak, stepping in before many developers and land speculators could tie up the property.

At the time, the city didn’t have a clearly-stated vision of what land it wanted for the BeltLine’s future parks, which meant that TPL was making public policy decisions by taking a pro-active role.

Tapp said that when she joined TPL, the organization was holding $25 million worth of property along the BeltLine. Now it has conveyed nearly $33 million of property to the city, sold off some other parcels, and continued to own about $9 million worth of land.

One key parcel — a three-quarter acre — lies directly between the Historic Fourth Ward Park and the BeltLine. The city has an option to buy that land for about $1.2 million. Meanwhile, TPL put up a new fence to prohibiting direct access from the BeltLine’s eastside trail (currently under construction) and the park.

Tapp said the fence was put up because of liability issues in case people were injured on the steep slope between the BeltLine and the park.

TPL property between the BeltLine and Historic Fourth Ward Park with new fence

TPL owns two other parcels around the park that the city and the BeltLine have decided not to buy. One is known as the Wilmer property — a one-acre parcel covered with trees on a ridge overlooking the park.

The BeltLine folks have decided to pass on buying that land as well as another TPL parcel next to the park because of limited resources.

The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, the private sector organization, has raised $36 million of its $60 million goal to help finance the total project — a 22-mile historic rail corridor that surrounds the central city.

John Somerhalder, chairman of the BeltLine Partnership and CEO of AGL Resources, said partnership’s fundraising efforts stalled during the economic recession.

“An important big step was deploy the dollars effectively that had been raised,” Somerhalder said at the park’s opening. “This is a great example of how those dollars were spent. Now the timing is right to re-energize the campaign.”

Tree-covered TPL property that the city does not plan to buy

As BeltLine leaders raise more money, Somerhalder said they will be able to take advantage of other opportunities.

“Ultimately, there are lots of other things we need to do,” Somerhalder said.

The Beltline has other opportunities. For example, it currently is buying the entire southwest quadrant of the BeltLine — all four miles of the corridor — for $1.6 million.

Therein lies the inherent tension that exists in the development of the project. The costs of buying land and developing the project are higher in certain parts of the city than in others.

BeltLine leaders have to balance where they spend their limited dollars. Each part of the BeltLine must enjoy their share of the project — although the dollars may not be equally matched at least the project is evenly developed.

Ideally, the city and BeltLine leaders will be able to afford to acquire every piece of property critical to the corridor’s success — including the many parks that are being expanded or developed.

Another view of tree-covered property overlooking the park that city does not plan to buy

In the case of the Wilmer property, before TPL sells it to a developer who might cut down all the trees to build a project overlooking the water features of the Historic Fourth Ward Park, it would be great if the city and the BeltLine were to be given another shot at buying the property — an option of first refusal.

Mayor Reed, who has become a champion of the BeltLine in his own right, is fond of saying (as he did Saturday): “The Atlanta BeltLine is going to be built. It’s going to be finished. And it’s not going to be in 20 years.”

Although the mayor’s desire to “complete” the BeltLine is commendable, the truth is that the project — just like the City of Atlanta — will continue to evolve.

Cities are living entities — rising and falling with the tides of time.

And some days are special — especially when we give ourselves the ultimate gift — a new park that will be enjoyed for generations after we’re gone.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. Burroughston Broch June 20, 2011 12:58 am

    Unfortunately, the thugs, vandals and graffiti sprayers will trash all of these parks unless the City provides fulltime police coverage for each. It’s happened already (see David Pendered’s post on the subject) and will continue because the community won’t police the parks. Either the community doesn’t care, is afraid of the perpetrators, or thinks that it’s someone else’s job.Report

  2. Paul June 20, 2011 9:45 am

    ^Burroughston Broch, the O4W park has been “unofficially” open since February, and as far as I’ve seen, there have been zero acts of vandalism and zero crimes committed in the park.Report

  3. Cityzen June 20, 2011 9:49 am

    If the Beltline had not been so anxious to pay Wayne Mason’s extortion – $65MM for land he’d bought 2 years prior for $25MM – they’d have had plenty of money to buy the Wilmer property and get much more done besides. Far better to have let Mason cool his heels, since the city controlled zoning and could prevent Mason from erecting his hideous towers over Piedmont Park.
    Also, TPL was accountable to nobody for the prices they paid for land. Opportunities for land speculators to front-run were rife. How much of a windfall did the Bellwood Quarry owners pocket? Other lucky owners of wasteland?
    Meantime, the city’s tax base has been stunted. Most new development will be in the Beltline TAD or other TADs so property taxes will go to pay off Beltline bonds, not to contribute to the cost of running the city.
    Thee is an alternative narrative to be told here, where Ryan Gravel is not a cross between a boy scout and a saint. Who wins, who loses?Report

  4. Adam June 20, 2011 3:32 pm

    I NEVER see any graffiti in these parks.

    All I see is posts about how there’s going to be graffiti everywhere.

    Also, can somebody show me on a map where the Wilmer property is. Thanks.Report

  5. MGS June 21, 2011 9:36 am

    Perhaps the Wilmer property could best serve the city by being privately developed with high end, high density residential uses over looking the park. That would provide the city taxes over the long term to help pay for needed public facilities and police protection, while helping TPL recoup some of the donation it has provided Atlanta so those non-profit funds can be invested elsewhere along the BeltLine.Report

  6. Jack Hardin June 21, 2011 9:39 am

    I applaud the vision and determination to build the Beltline. I just was in New York City and walked the High Line Park, including the newly opened Section 2. This public space has turned an eyesore into a vibrant public asset that attracts thousands of local residents daily. The Beltline and its string of parks promises to be a similarly farsighted public asset that will come to exemplify the best of livable urban space. Its pathways will draw runners, walkers and others into healthy communal activities. Fifthy years from now, the Beltline will continue to serve the community and, if there were any misteps along the path of creation, they will pale beside the positive contribution this project will make. I offer my thanks to all who have worked so hard to get us to this point and to those who will take us to fruition of the dream.Report

  7. shirley June 21, 2011 11:07 am

    The Park is a tribute to the vision of Ryan Gravel, tenacity of Cathy Woolard, the expertise of Terri Montague, Helen Tapp, Joe Basista, Jim Langford and others, the leadership of Cal Darden and Ray Weeks and others, the wisdom of the City Council to start the Beltline process a full decade ago as well as the participation of dozens of neighborhood and civic leaders and big bucks from Atlanta’s philantropists and business community. It proves plans well made are possbile to implement and the projects are sustainable even in tough economic times and times of change. Cheers to Atlanta for beating the odds on this one!Report

  8. Maria Saporta June 21, 2011 11:28 am

    And Shirley, you can’ overlook all that you did. In fact, Mayor Kasim Reed said so himself in his comments to the crowd: “I want to give a special thanks to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin who did so much.” It’s a shame you weren’t there to hear his comments and to witness the outcome of your efforts. As you said so well, many people do deserve credit for this one.Report

  9. Question Man June 24, 2011 10:32 pm

    The OFW park is sort of consistent with Bill Eisenhauer’s original vision, but why is the park so terribly over-engineered? As a result, didn’t it cost far more than necessary to build it, and won’t it cost far more than necessary to operate it? Is the City learning from its mistakes, or will the City continue to replicate its many fundamental errors in executing the BeltLine vision?Report

  10. Cityzen June 27, 2011 10:04 am

    Why does almost everybody on here rave about the leisure value of the Beltline without any consideration of what it is costing residents? How many multi-billion dollar capital programs do folks think a 450,000 population city can carry? If public comment isn’t serious, politicians will continue to pile on unaffordable programs until we crash into the financial wall.Report


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