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!
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.
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.
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.