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Atlanta BeltLine passes milestone that marks ingenuity of funding, engineering

The Urban Land Institute cited the water feature at Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward Park cited it as, “the cornerstone for a sustainable, high-density and high-quality urban transformation” in the area. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By David Pendered

The Atlanta BeltLine is passing an historic milestone. This one has not been celebrated with a party – though in May it won national acclaim.

The Urban Land Institute cited the water feature at Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward Park cited it as, “the cornerstone for a sustainable, high-density and high-quality urban transformation” in the area. Credit: Kelly Jordan

This milestone commemorates the ingenuity of design and funding for one of the BeltLine’s popular attractions – the Old Fourth Ward Park. Specifically, the water pond inside the park.

The water pond and its environs continue to win accolades. In May, the Urban Land Institute named it a finalist in ULI’s 2020 Urban Space Award. It shared the podium with a total of eight public spaces in the U.S. and Canada commended by ULI as:

  • “[O]utstanding examples of vibrant public open spaces that have been instrumental in promoting healthy, sustainable, and equitable outcomes in communities.”

Now, the city is taking the final legal steps to declare the water pond and its surroundings as greenspace.

At its July 6 meeting, the Atlanta City Council is slated to approve the measure.

This step isn’t to have any impact at all on access to, or use of, the pond and the greenspace around it. Users won’t notice any changes.

The measure is required solely to satisfy terms of the loan Atlanta took out to pay for water pond’s construction. Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management now has sole legal responsibility for the pond and adjacent area. The change will formally designate the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation as responsible for maintaining the area as a passive greenspace.

The watershed department will continue to opeate the pond and its surroundings. The land specifically is not designated a public park, according to an agreement the council is to approve.

This transfer acknowledges the innovation exhibited by city and civic leaders in the early days of establishing at least this one amenity of the BeltLine.

Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward Park is located along the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine, south of Piedmont Park. Credit: Google Earth, David Pendered

They built consensus for a plan to build a water feature next to the Eastside Trail. They found a way to pay for it by using taxpayer dollars reserved for the purpose of improving the city’s sewer system. The blending of a vision for a park amenity with the court-ordered cleanup of the city’s sewer system was an innovation.

The water feature actually is part of Atlanta’s sewerage system. The lake is officially designated as a detention pond that has, among its purposes, the easing of flooding in a 300-acre drainage basin, plus the cleaning of stormwater runoff before it enters the city’s sewer system. The cleaner water reduces the work required of the city’s sewer treatment system.

The water feature is located in a lowland area of the Clear Creek Basin, which includes the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. For years, the area had experienced intermittent flooding and sewer overflows of the type not uncommon in some Atlanta neighborhoods before the city agreed to begin an upgrade that has blossomed into a $4 billion sewerage project.

The citywide sewer project is the one funded with proceeds of the sales tax Atlanta voters approved this month, the referendum that provided for an extension of the 1 percent municipal option sales tax.

In addition to mitigating persistent flooding, the detention pond is to help reduce flooding during a 100-year storm event. The pond is designed to accept water from an overall 800-acre watershed and reduce the rate of water flowing into the Highland Avenue Combined Sewer Trunk, according to a report by the Historic Fourth Ward Park Conservancy.

The water pond at the Old Fourth Ward Park will be managed by Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, though the area will be maintained by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The alternative to developing such a detention pond had been the tried and true urban solution to managing stormwater runoff: Laying more sewer pipe and connecting to a treatment system. Debate over this proposal had roiled for years.

The following is the thumbnail description of the project by the engineering company that developed the plan, HDR, Inc., The firm says it practices, “engineering, architecture, environment and construction services:”

  • “Located in a lowland area, the urban watershed of the Clear Creek Basin that sits at the heart of Atlanta’s historic Fourth Ward was subject to intermittent flooding and sewer overflows during storm events. To address this problem, the City initially planned to fix the sewer overflow problem by laying more pipe via a tunnel extension of the sewer system. But then came the idea to transform a blighted industrial lowland into urban greenspace with stormwater control features and green infrastructure designed as a beautiful public park.
  • “We were hired to plan and execute the design for the first 5 acres of the Historic Fourth Ward Park, which included the stormwater detention pond and surrounding aesthetic features. With stormwater flowing into the pond from its four sides, we designed distinct artistic features for each side, including a step down channel, a water wall with sculptural elements, a tunnel to bring water into the pond, and subsurface water discharges into a dry stream bed.
  • “The park was the first component of what will be a 22-mile BeltLine Greenway, described as the most comprehensive economic development effort ever undertaken in Atlanta.”



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. David Edwards June 24, 2020 9:54 pm

    David, thanks for the piece. You may have wanted to mention that this innovative approach to funding the park would not have been possible without the leadership of Rob Hunter and Joe Basista, who were leading the Department of Watershed Management at the time. The city needed a solution to the flooding problem at City Hall East in order to close on the sale of the building to Jamestown, and Rob and Joe agreed to advance the water/sewer infrastructure work scheduled for this basin by more than five years, and to adopt an entirely different solution than what was originally planned. This award-winning park/water feature was the result. Without their leadership (and believe me, it would have been a lot easier on them to stick with the original plan) not only would this park not be in place, but in all likelihood Ponce City Market would not exist. Important to give credit where credit is due.Report

    1. Robert Hunter June 25, 2020 3:44 pm

      And while you are acknowledging individuals, first and foremost should be Mayor Shirley Franklin. Without her leadership and dedication there would be no beltline and this greenspace would still be a parking lot or would be completely developed.Report

  2. Charles Reid June 25, 2020 6:49 pm

    That part really is amazingReport

  3. Tonya Arnold September 9, 2020 10:40 pm

    Isn’t New City Development going to undo all this?Report


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