Atlanta’s Beltline seeking delicate balance between smart design and quicker progress

By Maria Saporta

The magic number on Saturday was 2.5.

Jim and Sarah Kennedy donated $2.5 million to the Atlanta Beltline.

Kaiser-Permanente also donated $2.5 million to the Atlanta Beltline.

And their combined $5 million gift will build 2.5 miles of a multi-purpose trail stretching from Monroe Drive at Piedmont Park to DeKalb Avenue.

On Saturday, there was a celebration to announce both gifts and the latest development plans for the Beltline — a 22-mile corridor that will lasso intown Atlanta.

The long term vision for the Beltline calls for green space with miles of bicycle and pedestrian trails, a transit line and new multi-use development along the mostly-unused rail corridor.

The announcement of the “East Side” trail gave the couple hundred people present (a large portion of which were Kaiser-Permanente employees) a reason to celebrate.

“We can’t miss moments like this,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said while thanking all the donors to the Beltline. “This is the beginning of another exciting project — the East Side trail.”

The trail should be completed a year from now. It is a joint project of Atlanta Beltline Inc. and the PATH Foundation, which in 2011 will celebrate 20 years of building multiple bicycle and pedestrian corridors throughout the region.

“None of them are more important than the trail we’re standing on,” said Ed McBrayer, PATH’s executive director. “We are going to help build 33 miles of trails around Atlanta. It will be a way for Atlantans to get around the city. I think this is about as important event we can have in Atlanta, and I’m proud to be part of it.”

For many in town, it’s been a long time coming.

The Kennedys had put a deadline on their gift to guarantee that the trail project moved ahead after years of plans and discussion. And yet among some Beltline advocates, there was concern that the project was being rushed.

In many ways, both views are true.

The Beltline project was first proposed in 2002 by then Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard and Georgia Tech graduate student Ryan Gravel. The idea gained momentum in 2005 when consultants determined the 22-mile project could be built out in 25 years and could generate $1.4 billion in property taxes during that period.

Since then, portions of the Atlanta Beltline has been planned and re-planned multiple times.

First, the Northeast corridor of the Beltline (where the new trail is being built) was first bought by Gwinnett developer Wayne Mason from Norfolk Southern railroad. Mason, and his politically well-connected team, completed fairly detailed plans of how the corridor could accommodate trails, transit and new development.

But his development plans also included two residential towers — up to 40 stories — right at the corner of 10th and Monroe streets adjacent to Piedmont Park. His plans were passionately opposed by surrounding neighborhoods, and Mason ended up selling the property making a significant profit. The land eventually was acquired by the city.

Since the Mason plans, there have been a series of other planning efforts for the northeast corridor.

The city’s planning department had completed fairly extensive plans for most of the Beltline corridor. Then those plans were put on the back-burner when Atlanta Beltline Inc. was established, creating a whole new bureaucracy. The ABI also hired a host of consultants to design plans in different sections of the corridor.

The most recent development was in February when the official team was selected — Perkins+Will, including Leo Alvarez, John Threadgill and Gravel; and the firm of James Corner Field Operations, which recently completed the design of the High Line in New York City.

Members of the design team have not yet completed the plans on how the corridor could best accommodate the alignment of the proposed transit line with the PATH trail.

The thought among some is that it’s better to wait until those plans are finalized before building out the trail. The hope has been to avoid having to rip out and rebuild parts of the trail when the transit portion is built out — which could happen in another five to 10 years.

While there is merit to that argument, there also is merit to those who believe there’s been enough planning and talking, and that now it’s time to start building out parts of the Beltline.

Mayor Reed, who inherited the project from former Mayor Shirley Franklin, has been quite vocal in his interest in accelerating the Beltline project. Without a doubt, there is pent up demand to actually see projects built along the corridor after years of discussion and debate.

In this case, there has been added pressure from the private donors who have been waiting for years for the development of a trail that connecting Piedmont Park with Freedom Park with plans to extend the trail to Grant Park.

The Beltline Partnership, which is the private sector group raising non-government money for the project, has raised $35.2 million towards its $60 million fundraising goal.

The two most recent gifts are viewed as a catalyst for getting the project moving.

Peter Andruszkiewicz, president of Kaiser Permanente of Georgia Inc., said the gift for the trail is being made to “help Atlantans live well and thrive” by providing more opportunities for exercise.

“It fits our mission perfectly in giving back to the community,” Andruszkiewicz said. “It’s the confluence of all those things — connecting communities with healthy living.”

As the City of Atlanta progresses in the planning and implementation of the Beltline, it must strike a delicate balance between moving forward and developing the best design possible and moving forward in a reasonable timeframe.

As Mayor Reed said, the Beltline has captured the attention of top federal officials, including Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Reed said that on a recent trip to Atlanta, Donovan toured the Beltline and thought it was “one of the most comprehensive developments” in the country. Certainly the Beltline project fits in well with the priorities of the Obama administration — to combine land-use, transportation and environmental policies in a way that promotes vibrant cities and communities.

During his talk along the Beltline this past Saturday, Mayor Reed told the dozens gathered in the hot sun: “I thank you so much for believing in the Atlanta Beltline and making Atlanta a truly world-class city.”

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.

11 replies
  1. Yr1215 says:

    The Kennedys and Reed have the right plan. Its time to build. People need to see significant progress and the designers will plan until we’re all 100. If the rail gets built in 10 or 20 years, the cost to adjust the route of the PATH will be a pittance compared to the infrastructure cost of the Beltline rail.

    Kudos to this great progress.Report

  2. ATL says:

    While it is important to get this project started– it is just as important to get it RIGHT– We have the right design team… lets make sure thay have the resources and the time to come up with the best possible plan–
    All too often– the ‘Atlanta Way’ means valuing accomplishment over final product… In the end, what matters is not just that we do something– its that we do something right…Report

  3. Michelle says:

    It’s great that projects are actually underway. But anyone who is familiar with other PATH projects has reason to be concerned. Their narrow facilities do not allow bicycles and pedestrians to share the route safely, they often lack shade or a direct route for utilitarian (non-recreational) users, and their driveway and intersection crossings are confusing and unsafe. I would feel better if PATH waited to get guidance from the ongoing Corridor Design and the imminent Environmental Impact Report, both of which will address these issues.Report

  4. Yr1215 says:

    ATL – you’re correct that the project in its entirety be done correct. However, you’re incredibly wrong about the “Atlanta Way.”

    Let me sum up the “Atlanta Way”. Plan, plan, plan, done. The number of plans for this city would fill the library of congress. Atlanta is not short of planning, it fails in execution. (If you want me to reference the absurd list of “plans” I will.) This project is, and needs to continue to be, all about execution. To that end, thank heavens for the Kennedys.Report

  5. BPJ says:

    I agree that Atlanta has shelves full of good plans, waiting for funding and execution: on commuter rail, MARTA expansion, parks, arts facilities, etc.

    I’m not too worried about the work proceeding too quickly. From what I’ve read, by the time any work actually starts, the designers will have done much of their work. Also, I think it is possible to commence removing debris & vines, start grading, etc., without knowing every detail of the final design.Report

  6. Mason Hicks says:

    It is also paramount that we understand that this is not a project about walking and biking trails. They are an indispensible part of the overall vision of what this project is all about. The transit element is every bit as important; as is the public space element, as the walking and biking trails. The important idea is how all of the components work together. Obviously, it is impossible for all of the elements to arrive simultaneously. Transit projects, by their very nature take significantly more time because the Federal transit Administration is inherently involved, and is a significant source of project funding.
    One earlier commenter referred to the many projects that are collecting dust in the vast archives of GDOT. I completely agree that there are some great projects on those shelves I would cite the example of a comprehensive commuter and intercity rail plan which was conducted by GDOT in the mid 1990s. Much of this plan ultimately reemerged in the 2007 Concept3 transit master plan, which is now the approved plan for the Atlanta Regional Commission. But there are other designs for just as vital projects that weren’t so well envisioned or thought-out.
    Having Perkins + Will, and by default, Ryan Gravel as the principle force on the design team gives me great confidence that the issue I’ve laid out above will be carefully considered in the final design. I do have some measure of concern about the Path Foundation’s involvement. I believe they provide a vital service to the community. My concern is that they are all about building paths as a singular dimension to the concept, and I must agree the issues raised by another of the earlier commenters about safety and configuration concerns with some of the Path Foundation’s previous projects. Path is now a huge contributor, to this project but Beltline is ultimately a project for the city. The imposed deadline is a positive, but it can, end the end work against us as well. I hope we allow ourselves to take a breath, allow an excellent design team to do their work, and we should enjoy a result, fitting with the vision of Ryan Gravel.Report

  7. shirley says:

    Thanks to the donors,the Beltline team, Path Foundation and all teh Beltline partners another trail is underway. I took the tour on Saturday and to my delight I saw the West End trail with completted art (both a Malika Favors mural and a beaufitul stainless steel sculpture), the trail near Washington Park along Langhorn and the Boulevard Crossing park under construction. Cheers to Mayor and all for pushing forward.Report

  8. Quentin says:

    This is great news. This will make commuting from SE Atlanta to Midtown much safer and more efficient than it currently is. I’ll use it from day one.

    But I do need to add another note of caution about the PATH foundation. They are clearly incapable of designing facilities for safe and efficient transportation. Look no further than their recent reconfiguration of Baker St/Highland Ave between Jackson and Piedmont. Where there was once a relatively safe set of bike lanes, there is now a single side-path on the south side of the road with an extremely dangerous crossing of the freeway onramp and no connectivity at the ends. Try taking it west toward downtown: it’ll dump you onto the intersection of Baker and Piedmont on the wrong side of the road with no way to reintegrate into traffic. Scary, even for experienced riders. And clearly the result of inept designers.

    This new Beltline path will have two crucial endpoints at Dekalb on the south and Monroe on the north. To make this a truly viable transportation link, some serious thought needs to be given on how to make those endpoints accessible, safe, and efficient. I don’t think the PATH foundation is capable of that.Report

  9. Yr1215 says:

    Quentin, you may be correct about the intersections. Just in defense of PATH, on balance I think they are a huge benefit to the city and state.

    I might add, there may be a day when the PATH component of the Beltline gets so much traffic, they will need to add lanes. I hope they’re thinking about this.

    I recently used some popular PATH like trails in San Francisco, Seattle, and Redding, CA. Assuming Beltline-PATH becomes as popular as one might anticipate when completed, there will probably be a need for both lane designation (walking versus bicycling) and additional lanes. While this would be a problem, it would be a good problem to have. I hope PATH and the Beltline people are taking this into consideration.Report

  10. Yr1215 says:

    If I may add a note on what appears to be a big failure so far. The public art looks like a disaster. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen it in person. But I’ve seen enough photos of the various projects to come to the conclusion that they really are just junk. And I don’t think it is junk in the sense that dadaism was perceived as junk when it first came out.

    These are third rate artists, doing third rate projects, at third rate quality. I’m sorry, but they need to scrap (no pun intended) the art program and restart. Unless the art is meant to be only temporary anyway.

    If nothing else, I refer everyone to this WABE report:


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