Unlocking economic growth: Atlanta’s BeltLine, corridors and public spaces are key

By Maria Saporta

On the morning of Jan. 27, Park Pride hosted a roundtable on economic development and parks.

The special guest was Candace Damon, vice chairman of HR&A, who had just finished doing a report on the “Economic Value of Parks: Dallas Case Study,” where the consultant had compared the Texas city to its peers around the country.

Candace Damon

Candace Damon of HR&A

The bottom line is that multi-use trails have a greater economic return on investments than stand-alone parks. Trails also are a way to provide greater equity by offering greater access to green space that connects diverse neighborhoods.

About 48 hours later, the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Public Schools announced that they had reached an agreement on the two-year long dispute over how much money the city should pay APS on taxes generated by the Atlanta BeltLine.

The BeltLine is envisioned to be a 22-mile multi-use corridor that encircles the central core of Atlanta. One of its selling points is that the BeltLine connects 45 neighborhoods that serve diverse populations.

By Monday afternoon, the agreement had been approved by the Atlanta City Council, the Atlanta Board of Education as well as the boards of Invest Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. All the votes were unanimous except the City Council, which approved it by a 13 to 2 vote.

APS-city-BeltLine smiles

After years of discord, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed stands in between APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and APS Chairman Courtney English on Jan. 29 announcing their deal. They are joined by public officials from the city and the school board (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Bill Rogers, the CEO of SunTrust Bank, who had been involved in an effort last year to try to negotiate an agreement, could not have been happier.

“It’s fabulous,” Rogers said. “It’s great for the city. It’s great to move forward and have this chapter over and a new chapter opening.”

Asked whether reaching an accord would translate into new economic development, Rogers said it would.

“I think there have been some developments on the sidelines,” Rogers said. “Anytime you have uncertainty off the table, people are more willing to invest.”

Atlamta Mayor Kasim Reed said it best.

“We will have a reset in the relationship and work on other things,” Reed said at the announcement of the deal. “Without this resolution, the BeltLine had a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it in every respect.”

BeltLine smiles Reed, Morris, Ceasar and Courtney

Happy days are here again. Mayor Kasim Reed makes a joke as BeltLine’s Paul Morris, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and APS Chairman Courtney English laugh. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

When combining what Damon said about the economic impact of trails and reaching the crucial APS/City agreement over the BeltLine, Atlanta could see even greater development ripples flowing to the central city.

Mayor Reed could increase the odds by reaching a “speedy” agreement with the Atlanta Board of Education over the deeds that city holds of APS property.

Currently there are four APS properties that developers want to buy and develop. Take the George Adair School in Adair Park. The historic school has been vacant since the mid-1970s, and it has experienced extensive damage from leaks and neglect. A developer would like to restore the beautiful school building for residences, a development only two blocks away from the BeltLine’s Southwest Trail, which is under construction.

If we can get the City, the BeltLine and APS all working in concert to promote quality development in marginal Atlanta neighborhoods, an economic renaissance could be in our future.

Park Pride

Park Pride hosts roundtable on economic development and parks at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (Photo by Maria Saporta)

During the Park Pride roundtable, a long table of panelists described as the “last supper,” the discussion focused on the economic return of Atlanta’s parks and trails. Then a fascinating concept emerged.

“We have to become denser, become a better place to live,” said Tim Keane, Atlanta’s commissioner for planning and community development. “The neighborhoods are great. But the stuff in between is really difficult. It’s so broken up.”

Because the city’s land is becoming more and more precious, it is hard to acquire major swaths of green space for new parks. Still, there are forgotten spaces that could be reclaimed.

A.J. Robinson said the solution is creating corridors that help  connect the city’s neighborhoods.

“Part of our problem is everybody knows what parks are. But there might be a concrete area. These are neighborhood killers,” Robinson said of unclaimed spaces that are leftover from highway projects or MARTA. “We have a number of these spaces – common public infrastructure areas.”

parks and Dallas

Recommendations to Dallas on the economic return of parks (Credit: Report by HR&A)

If those areas were reclaimed and turned into beautiful plazas, pocket parks, green boulevards and attractive urban spaces, Robinson said it “really would help change Atlanta in a dramatic way.”

Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, said it involves turning roads into streets, creating public gathering spaces and reknitting the city.
“It’s all about improving the quality of our urban experience,” Durrett said.

After listening to the brainstorming of the Atlanta panelists, Damon said that every city she goes to, everyone talks about having great neighborhoods. But the Atlanta conversation was taking it to another level.

“I’m really intrigued by the conversation about the spaces in between,” Damon said. “We can think of them as parks and public spaces.”

parks peer review

Dallas and its parks as compared to its peer cities (Credit: HR&A report)

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.

8 replies
  1. Guest says:

    An interesting discussion that reveals as much about the panel as it does the topic. While there appears to be a variety of interests around the table, the make up of the panel does not appear to be inclusive. The choice of speaker and her point of reference-Dallas- also reflect a certain point of view that,again, may not be reflective of the city of Atlanta. Dallas , and its metropolitan area, represent a significant gross domestic product and ,since the 1980’s has occupied a prominent place in American popular culture. However, it would be a mistake to construe much of what a narrow segment of Atlanta’s population projects onto their view of Dallas as an aspirational goal, economically or culturally. Atlanta’s future growth and development are tied directly to its unique brand of innovation and entrepreneurship crafted from its history of inclusion and diversity. Not the hallmarks of the city of Dallas. Hartsfield-Jackson International; the centennial Olympic Games and the Atlanta BeltLine are all examples of the public/private/ community partnerships that are the essence of Atlanta’s brand and its history. Perhaps that history will be included as Atlanta moves intrepidly into its future growth and developmentReport

    Reply
  2. MelaniePollard says:

    There is another element missing in this discussion that is also revealing. Something intrinsically tied to a healthy, vibrant, “walkable” city and also a part of Atlanta’s brand and history. That is our trees. The “City in a Forest” has not been a part of the discussion for some time and that is evidenced by Tim Keane’s zoning presentation hosted by Mary Norwood last month and by the accelerated destruction of our tree canopy. No mention of the trees and how they intend to incorporate them into the urban landscape for a healthy future. It takes 2 trees for one person to breathe healthy air. Trees will absorb 40% of water in the natural forest. The total runoff volume for a one-acre parking lot
    is about 16 times that produced by an
    undeveloped one-acre meadow. Trees will feed the wildlife & pollinators too- something that is also not a part of the discussion. The Great White Oaks and golden rod meadow destroyed in Kirkwood for 11 homes would have fed 1,000’s of species for 100’s of years to come. They were replaced with a retention pond with a shelf life of 50 years and 99% failure rate. Is this Atlanta’s vision? While the Beltline, our Olympic History, and the great leadership in diversity are definitely a part of Atlanta’s culture, the trees are something that will evoke passion in almost any conversation. Let’s face it. We’re not sure what Atlanta’s vision is for our trees since no one is really talking about it. One thing is for sure- they will not be here in 50 years with the current building pattern. Look to Charlotte, North Carolina as the next “City in a Forest”.Report

    Reply
  3. BradWhitcomb says:

    I moved from Dallas to Atlanta 15 years ago.I used the Katy trail in Dallas and I use the
    beltline here in Atlanta.To my eye both
    projects are first class.What concerns
    me is cost.As I understand it the
    southwest corridor of the beltline is going to cost $43MM for 2.5 miles or
    $17.2MM per mile.By contrast the Katy
    trail cost $23MM for 3.5 miles or $6.6MM per mile.I don’t understand the cost
    differential.Can someone explain it to
    me?Report

    Reply
  4. Cityzen says:

    BradWhitcomb You raise the key issue – cost – that sadly our local reporters treat like the 3rd rail. ABI would explain the exorbitant cost per mile – the Eastside Trail also came in at construction cost of about $20mm per mile iirc – by claiming that they are prepping it for transit.  The reality is probably that that they are spending other people’s money and feel no compulsion to look at economical alternatives that deliver the goods.    Given the massive shortfall in the Beltline TAD’s revenues, there won’t be funding for much transit, anyway. And transit will be too expensive and insufficiently beneficial to most residents to be viable on most of the loop. So a trail-only option should be on the agenda – but it’s not.Report

    Reply
  5. SteveHagen says:

    Call me old, but In 1963 I had the good fortune to attend a brand new 30 room high school in Michigan at a total cost of one million dollars!!!! Gee, how can the Beltline cost so much???   All this swaping of funds between the APS and the City…….Do not incremental tax dollars collected along the Beltline stay in some Development District to pay for the beltline expansion…..Curios as I just moved here from Miami…..    Report

    Reply
  6. Cityzen says:

    SteveHagen Yes, incremental property tax dollars do stay in the TAD, but APS drove a tough bargain for letting their taxes stay there.  And the real estate crash messed up the rosy scenario on which the Beltline budget was based.  So the city has finally bailed out the Beltline’s current debt to APS to the tune of $25mm. 
    It would obviously help a lot if the trails were built at sensible cost.  And if a certain politically-connected developer had not pocketed a $40mm profit on the key stretch of Beltline (not included in the cosntruction costs discussed above).Report

    Reply
  7. SteveHagen says:

    Cityzen SteveHagen   Thanks for the info on how the APS dollars got loaned….In Florida the education dollars are not part of the incremental equation.  They must go off to the schools, but I guess maybe they could get loaned back with creative accounting.Report

    Reply

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