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.”