ATL BeltLine: Third rail of Atlanta’s 2021 elections, the dream too big to fail
By David Pendered
The Atlanta BeltLine may be the third rail in this year’s city politics, as well as a near mystical vision so deep in the city’s psyche that failure to fulfill could be disastrous – the very definition of “too big to fail.”
This situation creates dangerous politics for future office holders who are to be elected in a few weeks. A key task of the next four years will be to downsize public expectations, and redefine success, for a project that isn’t close to raising enough tax revenues to create all the public amenities that were promised for substantial completion by 2030.
The BeltLine’s total cost was projected in 2005 at $4.8 billion. About $500 million had been spent through 2017, according to the latest available report from the Federal Highway Administration. This needle has moved some since 2017, with new public and private developments and two new taxes imposed since 2016 – a sales tax of 0.5 percent through 2040 approved in 2016 by Atlanta voters; and a property tax hike imposed this year by Atlanta on commercial and multifamily residences within a half-mile of the BeltLine. The new taxes were presented as a way to address shortfalls in the BeltLine’s 2005 self-funded revenue plan, a tax increment financing plan that uses taxes on new development to pay for public amenities.
These realities of delays and tax hikes have contributed to the BeltLine becoming a third rail, an issue so controversial that any answer but the most banal can polarize voters. The BeltLine means so many different things, to so many different constituencies.
BeltLine Rail Now is a nonprofit with an agenda that matches its name. BRN conducted a survey of candidates for Atlanta City Hall. Last week it announced results of what it calls a scorecard. Questions covered the waterfront. BRN did not conceal from candidates its focus, which on the scorecard is so defined:
- “Construction of rail transit on the BeltLine must be implemented faster than MARTA’s current 30-year timeline to support affordability, improve mobility, and prepare for anticipated growth in metro Atlanta. Who is ready and willing to do the job?”
Not one of the three mayoral candidates who reported more than $400,000 cash on hand, as of the Sept. 30 campaign disclosure report, responded to the survey – Kasim Reed ($912,587), Sharon Gay ($470,339) and Felicia Moore ($460,294).
Mayoral candidate Andre Dickens ($199,072) did respond and said he thinks transit trips should be free, including on the future BeltLine system:
- ”If elected, I’ll be the biggest advocate in City Hall for BeltLine rail now. I will also chart a path to offer free transit for all, including BeltLine rail.”
In another response, Dickens does not appear to indicate the source of money to build a BeltLine transit system. City Hall corruption from “the previous administration” is to blame for reasons that do not appear to be explained, nor does the comment address the fact that MARTA, not the city, oversees the BeltLine transit project:
- “If elected, I vow to finish what we started by overcoming corruption in contracting left from the previous administration….”
Equity is another flashpoint. Residents in predominately Black neighborhoods, particularly west of Mercedes Benz Stadium, were saying well before 2005 the BeltLine would benefit the city’s mostly white communities and never be built in predominately Black neighborhoods. This view was compounded when the city purchased the Northeast section of the BeltLine corridor, from investor Wayne Mason, and developed the BeltLine’s first trail segment in a predominately white part of town as developers flanked it with projects.
Last week’s ribbon cutting ceremony for a portion of the Southside Trail did its part to dispel concerns that the BeltLine trail be built in both Black and white areas. The segment opened almost nine years to the day after the Eastside Trail, the first in the BeltLine system. The Southside Trail is 0.8 mile long, a third of the Eastside Trail. The Southside Trail connects the BeltLine’s Westside Trail with the someday-in-the-future Pittsburgh Yards mixed use development. Development is not on par with that along the Eastside Trail.
Some dreams of the BeltLine woven for the public in 2005 and 2006 are long forgotten. Funding for new high school stadiums, for instance, was part of the original funding concept. The idea was for students to use the BeltLine path and transit to travel to various facilities to be built with the fountain of property taxes to be generated by new development along the Beltline. Those plans were halted. On Nov. 2, voters can authorize some improvements for sports facilities, about $30 million, by extending the 1 percent sales tax for education, which aims to raise in five years a projected total of $650.8 million.
Other dreams remain alive, and these present political dangers because constituencies do remember and advocate for promises to be fulfilled. These dreams have lifted the city through the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the dreams that are too big to fail.
In the late autumn month of November 2005, the first full redevelopment plan for the Atlanta BeltLine was unveiled. It presented a comfortable lifestyle in a forested city filled with greenspace. Live-work-play destinations would be just a transit ride away on vehicles that weren’t selected, but presumed to be streetcars operating on tracks. Traffic congestion and parking woes would become less troublesome, because cars would become more an option than necessity and more people would walk between homes, shops and workplaces. Almost everyone would be able to find an affordable place to rent and call home. And jobs, thousands and thousands of jobs along the BeltLine – “more than 30,000 permanent jobs and 48,000 year-long construction jobs,” according to the redevelopment plan (page 1).
This dream was to come true within 25 years, by 2030.
All these appendages have accumulated to create the BeltLine of today: A linear path with new parks and greenspaces, flanked by some affordable housing and also by some of the more expensive residential and commercial real estate in the city. And many promises, as yet unfulfilled.
This is not the Xanadu sketched in the halcyon days of the Atlanta BeltLine. The real BeltLine has morphed into something different from Ryan Gravel’s masters thesis, of 1999. Different from the vision of New York planner Alex Garvin, who was retained by the Trust for Public Land to expound on Gravel’s concepts and in 2004 came up with the “Emerald Necklace” idea of nodes of parks strung on a transit loop. Nor is this BeltLine close to the vision forecast in the redevelopment plan led by the former EDAW, Inc. which among a litany of projects around the world designed Atlanta icons including the parkland along Freedom Parkway, and Centennial Olympic Park and its famed fountain.
Take away the new buildings along its borders and the BeltLine path is akin to the 1993 vision of Alycen Whiddon, a former Atlanta staff planner, and Ed McBrayer, of the PATH Foundation. Whiddon worked for Leon Eplan when he was Atlanta’s planning commissioner. In 1993, Whiddon convinced city leadership to include in “The Parks, Trails and Greenway Plan,” which became an element of the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan, the rails-to-trails concept she and McBrayer had devised for the out-of-use railroad tracks that circle the inner city. This story, long an urban legend, was documented (page 132) in the “BeltLine Precursors” section of “Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence,” by planners Mike Dobbins, Eplan, and Randall Roark.
Whiddon died Aug. 16, and among the tributes on her legacy page is this:
- “Lori Leland-Kirk [former city planner], Aug. 21 –
- “I was one of the many lucky people who counted Alycen as their mentor and friend. Alycen was a creative visionary who understood great cities have public spaces that draw people together. She advocated for innovative pedestrian improvements in Atlanta. She designed and championed a loop rail trail that was adopted as part of a 1993 open space plan by the City of Atlanta and later became the BeltLine. She was a great friend who had a twinkle in her eye and good mischief in her grin.”