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Saving trees should be top priority in building the SW BeltLine corridor

By Maria Saporta

First of a two-part series on current plans for the Atlanta BeltLine. This week: the Southwest leg.

Just for the record, I’m a huge fan of the Atlanta BeltLine and I’m a huge fan of transit.

That said, I also become somewhat irrational when I become aware of plans to cut down a significant number of trees in our city. It goes without saying that Atlanta is a beautiful city largely because of our extensive tree cover — an asset that is threatened on a continual basis.

Map of the southwest corridor of the Atlanta BeltLine

Map of the southwest corridor of the Atlanta BeltLine

One of the reasons I have been so enamored with the Atlanta BeltLine has been because it has been presented to us as an “Emerald Necklace” encircling our inner city — a linear park connecting larger urban parks.

So imagine my surprise, and dismay, when I recently walked the southwest corridor of the Atlanta BeltLine and realized that in one of the most forested parts of the 22-mile corridor, hundreds of trees — many of them mature trees — would be cut down to make room for a proposed transit line as well as the multipurpose trail.

Here is the rationale. The Atlanta BeltLine has received an $18 million TIGER V grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a 2.5 mile portion of the BeltLine in the southwest corridor.

Beginning of southwest corridor trail where it crosses Lionel Hampton PATH (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Beginning of southwest corridor trail where it crosses Lionel Hampton PATH (Photos by Maria Saporta)

The purpose of the grant is to prepare the corridor for a future streetcar as well as to build out much of the southwest trail. Because the corridor is quite narrow in some spots, the 14-foot wide trail will veer off the existing rail bed (where the streetcar is slated to go) and travel through the woods — causing hundreds of trees to be cut in its path.

The Atlanta BeltLine representatives, who did not want to be interviewed for this column, have said they will be planting more trees than they will be cutting down.

But as someone who loves trees — especially those that have grown undisturbed for decades — I know it takes a really long time for a newly-planted tree to replace the environmental contributions of a mature tree.

Walking along narrow rail corridor. All trees on the right slated to be cut down.

Walking along narrow rail corridor. Nearly all trees on the right slated to be cut down.

Greg Levine, co-executive director and chief program officer for Trees Atlanta, defended the Atlanta BeltLine.

“They truly want to save as many trees as possible,” Levine said. “The eastside trail had fewer trees, and it had a wider girth. The westside is much more challenging. It’s narrower.”

Trees Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine have partnered to turn the entire corridor into an Arboretum that celebrates our city’s trees, which appears to be a little ironic when looking at plans to cut down hundreds of trees for the sake of the project.

Looking backwards. Trees on the left would have to be cut down.

Looking backwards. Trees on the left would have to be cut down.

“If you are going to have transit, you are going to lose a lot of trees,” Levine said. “And that’s not my issue. I have to believe that there has been some logical thought behind that.”

Several months ago, the designers of the BeltLine had presented southwest corridor plans to the community when they were at the 25 percent stage. At that point, plans showed many more trees still standing. And then, a couple of weeks ago, plans at the 60 percent stage were presented that showed many fewer trees — decisions and changes being made with little to no community input.

Levine said he had not had a chance to see the plans at 60 percent until a concerned community person — Angel Poventud — had showed them to him.

Many of the trees pictured here likely would have to be cut down.

Many of the trees pictured here likely would have to be cut down.

So if the city’s No. 1 tree advocate had not been consulted on these changes, it leads me to believe that we need to have more eyes looking at the decisions being made — especially when it comes to saving as many trees as possible.

On a project as complicated as the Atlanta BeltLine, it is all about finding a balance between the development of trails, transit, residences, retail, office, parks and community amenities. It also is about the sequencing of all those amenities and being sure that we are not making irreversible decisions today based on false assumptions.

Weather-worn sign says: "Trees of Knowledge, Trees of Life" It was put there by Trees Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine to highlight the trees on the southwest corridor and the Arboretum

Weather-worn sign says: “Trees of Knowledge, Trees of Life” It was put there by Trees Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine to highlight the trees on the southwest corridor and the Arboretum

For example, the BeltLine streetcar plan shows that the next phase would be built along the southwest and eastside corridors. Currently, there is no money in place for either. It is not known if or when that funding will be made available.

But because the Atlanta BeltLine has to plan for transit down the road, it must locate the multipurpose trail, for which it currently has money, through stretches of tree-covered land. It does not want to build a trail, even if it’s temporary, in the rail bed because if and when transit funding becomes available, it would have to be redone. Plus the federal government would frown on such a double expense.

At this point, the streetcar would go on higher ground and most of these trees likely would have to be removed.

At this point, the streetcar would go on higher ground and most of these trees likely would have to be removed.

Also, there is the valid issue of equity. Residents in the southwest corridor have not seen significant investment in their community. PATH did develop the beautiful Lionel Hampton trail, which is where the southwest corridor begins on the northern edge.

Yet there is the valid question of whether the low density population in the area could support a streetcar line. And there is also the question of whether cutting down hundreds of trees — which bring so much beauty to the area — is in the community’s best interest.

The row of trees on the right now are slated to be cut down to make more room for the urban farm.

The row of trees on the right now are slated to be cut down to make more room for the urban farm.

Lastly, there is the issue of the urban farm. One of the more exciting projects along the Atlanta BeltLine is the development of an urban farm. At least it was exciting until a decision was made that all the trees along one edge of the property would have to be cut down to make room for the trail and to make the urban farm big enough. When plans were at 25 percent, the trees were still there. But now when the plans are at 60 percent, all the trees on that side of the BeltLine are slated trees are to be cut down. Really?

Angel Poventud points to the map snowing how the trees behind his renovated house will be cut down because of the urban farm.

Angel Poventud points to the map showing how the trees behind his renovated house will be cut down because of the urban farm.

As I said earlier, I become almost irrational when I realize that hundreds of trees are about to be cut down. Always I’m told that it’s for some greater, long-term good.

Maybe, or maybe not.

In my heart of hearts, based on all my decades of living in Atlanta, I know we can and should do better.

If we make it a top priority, we CAN save more trees — and we all will be better off in the long run.

Next week: looking at the proposed phases to expand the Atlanta Streetcar.

Maria Saporta

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.



  1. Darin March 4, 2014 9:14 am

    This is an interesting issue. Do you know if there’s a rezoning effort in this corridor that allows for an increase in density? One that would give rail service here a more obvious benefit? I did a quick search on the Beltline site and couldn’t find anything about rezoning parcels on this part of the corridor.

    Because the Tiger grant money is already dedicated, I doubt there’s anything that can be done about the trees that are in the area slated for rail. But I wonder if something can be done about the trees for the urban garden.Report

  2. atlman March 4, 2014 9:49 am

    Planting new trees to replace the ones cut down should be an option. Even better, it could be mandated. Better still, make it a family activity to engage the city. “Plant a tree on the Beltline Day!” Get the kids and parents out there with shovels and buckets of dirt and everything … a lot of fun, clean (well not so clean) healthy activity, great photo op, good for the “environment” and everything. Just an idea.Report

  3. David Edwards March 4, 2014 9:52 am

    Great piece Maria.  I think you raise an important question about the decisions being made now to accommodate a street car network that may never be built.  And its not just trees:  the engineering of the corridor, the quality of bridge construction, and the location of the bike trails are all being impacted (and increasing the expense of the effort) to provide for street cars.  The business case for the street car on the Beltline was always pretty weak for the reasons you cite.  And given the fact that we are spending $100M for 2.7 miles of street car in the downtown loop, I am becoming increasing pessimistic that a city wide street car network that includes the Beltline will ever make economic sense.  I wonder whether the priority should be to build the bike path and the parkspace as cheaply as possible and then worry about the transit if and when it ever becomes economically realistic.Report

  4. Davidolansky March 4, 2014 11:17 am

    Dead on, absolutely right
    David OlanskyReport

  5. UncoolJohn March 4, 2014 2:47 pm

    Transit has been a part of the BeltLine plan from the beginning. We have to move forward with that in mind. The west side corridor is smaller because it ran mostly one set of tracks, whereas the east side ran two. It is a shame to lose mature trees, and I have walked through this area with Angel and it is beautiful, but I see that there have to be some trade-offs. Hopefully the community and Trees Atlanta can work with the BeltLine to save some of the trees.Report

  6. David Edwards March 4, 2014 4:39 pm

    I understand that transit has always been envisioned as an element of the Beltline, but I am not sure why that means the issue can’t be revisited.  Conditions have changed dramatically since the original Beltline was proposed.  It would be a mistake not to adjust to those changes, the biggest being that the recession has seriously impacted the revenue generation potential of the Beltline TAD district.  Having worked on the original five year economic plan for the Beltline, I know how hard it is to make the transit capital and operating subsidy economically viable.  Transit capital now is estimated to be over half of the total $4.3B cost of the project.  Just seems to me that it would be interesting to see how the costs, revenues, and schedule would play out if you took transit out of the equation.Report

  7. jamalA March 4, 2014 4:45 pm

    None of this came up at the last packed room of the Westside Trail meetup & I haven’t fully walked all of the trail, but there isn’t a lot of wiggle room you’re literally in peoples back yards.Report

  8. Keith Willey March 5, 2014 6:55 am

    Ms. Saporta,  I love trees too, but after having lived in an 80-year-old house for nine years, I understand how caring for the trees can be expensive and counter to caring for the house.  The trees can threaten the house with falling branches, leaf and acorn debris, mold, and destructive root growth.  I’ve also noticed how destructive our beloved trees can be to our streets and sidewalks.  Beautiful old trees create trip hazards or impassable sidewalks in many of our neigborhoods.  I think of older, less-agile Atlantans, or the young man with cerebral palsy who is on crutches and walks through my neighborhood.  Also, the accessible curb cuts are meant to allow people in wheelchairs to have the independence to travel our streets.  How good is the tree that stops a wheelchair-bound Atlantan from using the sidewalk because the tree has lifted and broken the sidewalk?  I believe that density that supports pedestrian vitality necessitates a different approach to keeping our city green.  I think Atlanta needs to look to older cities to see that neighborhood parks, boulevards, and urban forests/parks are the best community and structural use of green space to support urban vitality.  I believe that the Beltline will enhance utilization of our green space in a way that supports people first and trees second–as it should be.
    I’m a big fan of Trees Atlanta and Mr. Levine.
    Keith WilleyReport

  9. Buckhead Neighbor March 20, 2014 1:56 am

    Not surprised. The BeltLine and PATH had initially planned to cut down
    many trees in Tanyard Creek Park (NW Atlanta)  a few years ago. Fortunately the the
    neighborhood and park volunteers called them on the BS and pushed back. We got a
    professional tree Arborist, Spence Rosenfield, an Arborguard arborist,and David Deschamps,and
    literally walked through their plan tree
    by tree. With the help of the Arborists we were able to identify trees
    that did not have to be removed and could remain with additional root
    mitigation. It was so worth the effort!!  The trail was built and many
    trees were saved!  Food for thought for the folks in the Southwest.
    Speak up, stand up and do some research. It doesn’t have to be all or
    nothing there are options! 

  10. chad April 15, 2014 1:31 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I am a resident and active volunteer in the Westview neighborhood. You are absolutely right about the impact of the beautiful trees along the SW section of the Beltline.Report

  11. chad April 15, 2014 1:35 pm

    Buckhead Neighbor  Thank you. I am a resident and active volunteer in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood of Westview, as well as a 17 year volunteer with Trees Atlanta. I will be sure that people are made aware of this.Report


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