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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”