Trail to the Chattahoochee leads through Atlanta City Council, public, and planners

By Maggie Lee

On the northwest edge of Atlanta, a fine green-shaded paved trail runs along the Chattahoochee; ducking into it is a relief from the May sun. The segment of trail isn’t long, and it’s behind locked gates. But Keith Sharp says it nonetheless gives an an impression of what his part of town could look like if Atlanta embraced its river.

Atlanta City Councilman Dustin Hillis (l) and Keith Sharp of Riverwalk Atlanta on a bit of riverside trail that's been closed for years. Credit: Maggie Lee

Atlanta City Councilman Dustin Hillis (l) and Keith Sharp of Riverwalk Atlanta on a bit of riverside trail that’s been closed for years. Credit: Maggie Lee

Back indoors, on a map labeled “Riverwalk Atlanta Park,” he traces a roughly five-mile line along the river with his finger, from Standing Peachtree Park in the north to Charlie Brown Airport in the south.

“It’s the whole idea that … we have this border with the river and no access. We should have access,” he said.

Want to hike, bike, boat or chill at the river? You pretty much have to go north or south of Atlanta. His concept is to fix that with a trail and other amenities, like places to put in a canoe or lay on the beach.

Tours of that Bolton-area path are part of how Sharp spreads his idea. He’s got permission to go in, but the path is behind the water treatment plant, and so it got caught behind an Olympics-era security fence, he said. Also within the fence and along the path are two long-disused trolley facilities more than 100 years old.

Sharp’s map is laid out on the dining room table of new city Councilman Dustin Hillis, who’s supporting river access via legislation.

“Just because we don’t have a river running through downtown like Chattanooga or Nashville or wherever else, that doesn’t mean we can’t take full advantage of it,” said Hillis.

Riverwalk map

A map depicting the vision for Riverwalk Atlanta Park as well as the proposed parks and greenway along the Chattahoochee River (Special: Riverwalk Atlanta Park)

They’re far from being the first or only two folks who have dreamed of Atlanta or the whole metro, becoming a riparian place. Talk of it goes back decades and probably dozens of organizations have worked to get it done.

But advocates hope the days of Atlanta being a stranger to its river may be coming to an end.

The Atlanta City Design Project, the official vision of what the city could look like, declares that there will be created “a wild, adventurous riverfront that provides a welcome change of pace in the city.” Their map highlights the corridor and green trees on both sides.

And the nonprofit Trust for Public Land is scheduled to spend some planning cash with Atlanta, Cobb and the federal government.

The question the partners want want planners to answer is how one might put together a 100-mile Chattahoochee River greenway. The border between Atlanta and Cobb would be only part of a path from Lake Lanier to Chattahoochee Bend State Park.

George Dusenbury, the Georgia State Director at the Trust for Public Land, said that his group has been working along the Chattahoochee for more than 25 years. He said that a few years ago, his board began to ask itself where they had opportunities to activate metro Atlanta river land they’d acquired. The answer?

“Our desire basically is, to make the Chattahoochee River akin to the Atlanta BeltLine in terms of … as a defining geographic feature for metro Atlanta,” he said.

It would be an outdoor recreation destination. Walking, jogging, or relaxing yes. But even including things that might seem seem exotic or rugged to city folks, like kayaking and mountain biking.

The old Chattahoochee Trail and PATH Foundation sign are getting a bit overgrown. Though the city has done basic maintenance and upkeep on the trail. Credit: Maggie Lee

A Chattahoochee Trail and PATH Foundation sign along the locked-down trail are getting a bit overgrown. However, the city has done basic maintenance and upkeep on the trail; it’s easily passable. Credit: Maggie Lee

Back on the road, Sharp drives up toward Standing Peachtree Park, about the only place where the river is accessible. Along the way he points out landmarks: the fine brick house that used to be a school, an old masonic hall. A ship anchor set in front of the riverside water treatment plant — dating from a time decades ago when folks talked about making Atlanta a port.

He attributes that knowledge to his wife Kathy Hearn — who chronicles “upper west side” Atlanta history online as “Riverside Kate.” She’s also the mapmaker in the family, he said. Their official vehicle is Riverwalk Atlanta, a nonprofit.

For years, Riverwalk has been a labor of love. Fund-raising, publicizing the idea, rounding up Boy Scouts to help clear brush and debris. Even grubbing privet and old tires out of the mud with other friends at what they’ve dubbed Riverside Park, a little tiny piece of public land that they want to see as a hub of the future trail.

On Monday, Atlanta City Council put a down payment on river access. They acted on Hillis’ legislation, unanimously voting to pay $100,000 toward a plan for the whole 100-mile corridor.

The city’s money would be added to a $1.2 million federal grant, plus $100,000 each from Cobb County and from the Trust for Public Land. Those organizations would contract with the Atlanta Regional Commission to do the plan.

What would come out of the ARC would be a 100-mile vision, taking into account what residents want and pieces and parts of plans and ideas that have existed before. It could get as granular as suggesting where, say, parks and kayak launches are feasible.

Dusenbury said City Council legislation is the beginning of a process that will take a bit.

Standing Peachtree Park, at Atlanta's public water intake, is one of the few places in Atlanta where it's possible to get a look at the Chattahoochee River. Credit: Maggie Lee

Standing Peachtree Park, at Atlanta’s public water intake, is one of the few places in the city where it’s possible to get a good look at the Chattahoochee River. But even so, space is very limited and the park amenities aren’t nearby.  Credit: Maggie Lee

“It’s going to be a 12-plus-month process,” he said.

“There’s going to be heavy community engagement. At the end of the day, we need the nonprofits, we need the government entities, we even need some of the corporate entities onboard working in the same direction to make it happen.”

Once the plan is done, then the city and its people can decide what they want to spend, if they want to step up and do the project.

“You know the key to making this happen is the political will, having that at all levels of government, from the executive branch to the legislative branch. And then certainly the staff … of all of the departments,” said Sharp.

So once the plan gets done, is there the political will?

There’s a thought out there that Atlanta has the civic capacity to take on a new marquee project in parks just now. The Beltline, the Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry and the Proctor Creek Greenway are underway, they have momentum, they’re not going anywhere. Maybe the Chattahoochee is the next thing.

If, say, a new Council or mayor wanted to take on a transformational green project, some folks on the northwest side have an idea of what they might do.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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