Atlanta BeltLine off track, but City Hall has time to define, enforce high expectations

By Guest Columnist CATHY WOOLARD, a candidate for Atlanta mayor who was an early advocate of the Atlanta BeltLine when she served as president of the Atlanta City Council

It’s been more than 15 years since the proposal for what is now known as the Atlanta BeltLine landed on my desk at Atlanta City Hall. What made that idea so appealing then is still relevant today – orienting density around a transportation corridor that runs on a track separate from automobile traffic and connects 45 neighborhoods through all quadrants of the city. Over the course of several years, my office held over 90 community meetings across Atlanta to get vital input into what the final project could yield. And the results of that community collaboration are spectacular!

cathy woolard

Cathy Woolard

The proof of concept is undeniable. The Atlanta BeltLine is redefining what we know is possible and reshaping how we want to live, work and play all across the city. It’s a project that has received international attention and has captivated nearly everyone who has experienced the fun of a walkable, bike-able urban environment. But like the straight line that gets a little out of plumb and soon leads to a different destination; if we aren’t careful, the Atlanta BeltLine risks getting off track.

Some early missteps have been made, like not creating and enforcing aggressive high-quality design standards for new development; not ensuring strong implementation of a real mix of housing choices along every part of the Atlanta BeltLine; unnecessarily removing trees and sidewalks on perfectly functional connections (like on Wylie Street in Cabbagetown) while not providing for sidewalks and pedestrian safety in high-use areas (for example at Krog and Irwin streets). In a single instance, the slippage might be inconvenient or overlooked, but in aggregate, these small decisions can contribute to bigger problems.

The good news is that it is not too late to change. We must quickly learn from mistakes and work hard to avoid them in the future. The Atlanta BeltLine can help shape how we live along the corridor, but perhaps more important is how it contributes to a vision about what life can be like off the corridor too. Everyone can play a role in ensuring that exciting things continue to happen in Atlanta as we grow.

BeltlLine Westside Trail

Undeveloped segments of the Atlanta BeltLine could benefit from lessons learned from poor developments in BeltLine neighborhoods that have seen growth. Credit: David Pendered

Developers play an important role in the economy of our region. But with that comes the responsibility to bring the very best product to the table. Buildings and grounds should contribute something to the BeltLine experience and to the built environment that is Atlanta. It’s not only about better architecture and construction quality, although that’s part of it. Developers should be creating places that engage and sustain people. They should be thoughtful about the experience of moving along the Beltline and making sure that it is a welcoming and beautiful place for people of all ages and ability. Jamming private swimming pools, big fences and back doors along the BeltLine is not good enough. Instead, let’s replace those designs with places for civic interaction, pocket parks and trees, terraces for sitting, public art and connections into communities.

City Hall can lead by being very clear about expectations for design, density and diversity. Our city government must ask more from developers – including preserving safe and passageways to accommodate traffic flow, pedestrians and bikes during the construction process – while clearing out the bureaucracy that makes doing business and bringing innovation something only those with very deep pockets can endure. Reinvigorating the NPU system in a way that supports neighborhoods as well as growth is achievable and constructive. And when parcels owned by the city get sold, those contracts should contain strong provisions for designs that meet our goals for housing choices, public spaces, connectivity and preservation of historic buildings and corridors.

BeltLine tunnels, westside trail

This tunnel along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Westside Trail has the potential to become a catalyst for conversation, much like the Krog Street tunnel is for its neighborhood. Credit: David Pendered

Citizens can help by re-engaging with the Atlanta BeltLine and other important projects just as neighbors in the Turner Field area have organized around a redevelopment plan there. When opportunities arise to provide input into projects, everyone can help solve problems and offer ideas on how to make our city a better place for all. Let’s not settle for second best when we can envision and demand a world class city. Keep up the public discussion and, as Congressman John Lewis often reminds us, get into “good trouble” in defense of a great city.

It’s almost unheard of that an infrastructure project of the magnitude of the BeltLine has such strong community support, but straying too far from the vision and effort that brought us here together runs the risk of derailing the project and disappointing our community. The Atlanta BeltLine has become a national model for creating a new urban infrastructure from something old and neglected. The world is watching to see if Atlanta can sustain the vision and get it right. I believe we can do it. And future generations of Atlantans are depending on us to do so.

 

17 replies
  1. Chad Carlson says:

    Preservation of our authentic historic built environment along the BeltLine makes sense aesthethically and environmentally, and tells the story of this former railroad corridor which defines the history of our city.Report

    Reply
  2. L says:

    Thank you, Cathy, for valuing what’s best for the neighborhoods and citizens over the wants of developers. Unfortunately, in some currently proposed projects, all the citizen input offered is still ignored by the Beltline and City. This is what really needs to change.Report

    Reply
  3. Harvey Davis says:

    Chad Carlson You may be correct, but do you have examples of items on the historic preservation list that have not been preserved? Have you raised the issue anywhere else than on Facebook like a formal complaint?Report

    Reply
  4. Chad Carlson says:

    Oh, yes. And here are the items that I know of :1919 steel truss bridge over MLK, granite Western and Atlantic whistle marker in Adair Park, historic Westview gas station, building 11 of the Old State Farmers Market, and Trust Company Bank on Monroe (recommended for demo but on temp. reprieve thanks to a large turnout by citizens at the last Design Review meeting). All were brought up at numerous public outreach meetings. We even presented professional architectural plans showing how the Westview gas station could be repurposed, but they didn’t listen.Report

    Reply
  5. Dave Cartwright says:

    Hopefully the city makes a quality hire for director of their new Office of Design. That position has a mandate that covers a lot of this stuff.Report

    Reply
  6. Mark B Rinder says:

    The biggest issue I see here is that we aren’t building out the rail along the Beltline! I know it takes money but, sheesh, the city managed to help the Falcons come up with $1,000,000,000 to build the Mercedez-Benz stadium so that they can play games together there while we can’t get around our city!!! We have the plat of land – let’s build it, people!!!Report

    Reply

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