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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

The country’s best smart growth project – the Atlanta Beltline

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 14, 2008 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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I’m a bit fickle about this.  At first I was sure the country's best example of smart growth was Atlantic Station, in Atlanta.  Then I thought it was one of the iconic transit-oriented developments in the west, The Crossings in Silicon Valley or Orenco Station outside Portland.  We featured all three of those in NRDC’s book of smart-growth successes.  Then I was really, really sure it was Highlands’ Garden Village, in Denver.  Exciting projects, each one.

 the Beltline's corridor in red  the Atlanta Beltline, before and after

But my heart has been stolen once again.  My friends, the best smart growth project I have come across yet is the Atlanta Beltline, an ambitious 22-mile proposed loop around the city’s downtown that will incorporate state-of-the-art transit, new parks and trails, workforce housing, and lots of smart, green neighborhood development, all taking place in the city rather than sprawling out on the fringe.  The project takes advantage of an abandoned rail corridor and parcels of other abandoned and/or deteriorated property ripe for redevelopment, and it enjoys the support of nearly all the city’s civic and business leaders.

The Beltline also faces some significant challenges, and I’ll get to those.  But first let me tell you about it.  In its current state, the corridor largely looks roughly, and I do mean roughly, like this:

abandoned building in the Beltline corridor the Atlanta Beltline corridor

 irrepressible kudzu the Glenwood neighborhood, along the Beltline

That’s abandoned industrial property, scrub land, a neighborhood needing a lift and, this being Georgia, lots of kudzu.

The Beltline has a short but rich history.  Amazingly, credit for the project’s inspiration is given to a master’s thesis written in 1999 by Ryan Gravel, at the time a student at Georgia Tech.  Gravel sent copies to various influential Atlantans and began to advocate the Beltline concept in earnest.  By 2003-2004, the project’s enthusiastic supporters included Mayor Shirley Franklin and former city council president Cathy Woolard, and the project was formally approved by the city council, board of education, and Fulton County Commission. 

One particularly instrumental leadership role was taken by the Trust for Public Land (my favorite conservation group), which undertook a study of existing and potential park space around the Beltline, releasing the influential report The Beltline Emerald Necklace. (Let’s forgive the mixed-metaphor title, shall we?)  A result is that the Beltline will create an interconnected system of 40 new and existing parks, adding over 1,200 acres of new green space for residents to use and enjoy.

stormwater control along the Beltline green neighborhoods, reborn along the Beltline 

The city’s detailed, comprehensive plan for the Atlanta Beltline includes the following:

  • Parks—over 1,200 acres of new or expanded parks, as well as improvements to over 700 acres of existing parks;
  • Trails—33 miles of continuous trails connecting 40 parks, including 11 miles connecting to parks not adjacent to the Beltline;
  • Transit—22-mile transit system (streetcars or light rail) connecting to the larger regional transit network, including the MARTA rail transit system;
  • Jobs—more than 30,000 permanent jobs and 48,000 year-long construction jobs;
  • Workforce housing—5,600 new workforce housing units;
  • Streets—new and renovated streets and intersections including 31 miles of new streetscapes connecting neighborhoods and parks to the Beltline;
  • Environmental remediation—cleanup of contaminated sites;
  • Neighborhood preservation—preservation of existing single-family neighborhoods;
  • Tax base—an estimated $20 billion increase in tax base over 25 years; and
  • Industrial base—preservation of viable light industry.

(More history here, and a frequently updated blog here.)

The challenge is assembling the necessary funding.  The overall budget for public investment is $2.8 billion.  But the city had been planning to raise a little less than a third of the total by issuing bonds that would be repaid from increased property tax revenue due to increased property values.  But the problem is that such revenues usually go to schools.  In this case, the school board approved the plan because they saw the investment as increasing revenues available to schools in the long run.  But last month the Georgia Supreme Court agreed with a sole taxpayer that the financing scheme was unconstitutional.  Because the implications of the court decision go beyond the Beltline and threaten many other initiatives around the state, city leaders are hopeful that a legislative remedy can be found.  In any event, they are fully committed to the project and vow that, one way or another, they will find the money.

If they do, the citizens of Atlanta will be able to enjoy the country’s best smart growth project.

 

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Comments

Kaid BenfieldMar 17 2008 10:17 AM

Dr. Catherine Ross, director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Tech, has just pointed me to an important new study documenting the health benefits of the Beltline and arguing that it needs to be established sooner rather than later. See the Center's website at http://www.cqgrd.gatech.edu/HIA/. In fact, nose around the website and you'll discover a lot of other good stuff, too, including Catherine's knowledgeable take on megaregions.

Bruce DixonMar 17 2008 03:41 PM

There is another point of view in this city you should be aware of. It holds that the BeltLine is essentially a huge greenwashed gentrifying real estate scam that seeks to drain the revenues of Atlanta's public schools and other essential services to pay back a multibillion dollar bond issue at loan-shark interest rates, all to put money in the pockets of real estate developers who were going to build housing for yuppies anyway. Beneficiaries are the connected banks who float the loan, their legal staffs, and the developers. Losers are the current, mostly black and relatively poor population of Atlanta, who will not be around to enjoy the footpaths, greenery or streetcars that are used as public selling points for the BeltLine. It's New Orleans in slow motion. Or maybe New Orleans was Atlanta, Chicago or wherever else on speed. Take your pick.

The question never asked in any of this "smart growth" nonsense is why the sum total of urban economic development is moving poorer residents out of cities and moving richer ones in. Why can't we have greenery, transit and the like for the current residents and their families?

Kaid BenfieldMar 17 2008 10:18 PM

Bruce Dixon raises some important concerns. As I said in an earlier post, smart growth isn't smart unless it is also inclusive. See http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/smart_means_inclusive.html. That will be as true for the Beltline as for any other development project.

One of the paradoxes of redevelopment of blighted areas is that property values will rise if neighborhoods are repaired and can finally enjoy reinvestment to reverse the downward spiral of decades of poverty and deterioration. Although rising values can help the 40% of residents along the Beltline who are homeowners as their assets appreciate, it can hurt the 60% who are renters.

Time will tell if the project is implemented in a way that is equitable, but the Beltline's proponents are certainly striving to make it so. The health impacts report that I cited in my last comment recommends that steps be taken to require a diversity of housing types and prices within the Beltline's boundary, establish favorable tax policies and rehab funds to prevent displacement of existing populations, create programs to improve substandard housing, ensure that transit and parks serve all affected populations, and bring food stores to currently underserved neighborhoods. The affordable housing group Georgia Stand-Up has made similar recommendations. See http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1898665/posts.

All indications are that the Beltline partnership is taking these concerns and recommendations seriously. I hope they do and are successful, so that we *can* have "greenery, transit and the like for the current residents and their families," as well as the kind of new development that can create improved, healthier, more economically viable and less isolated neighborhoods for people of mixed incomes.

Atlantans are lucky to have leaders who care about these issues involved with the Beltline. The alternative of continued detrioration and isolated pockets of poverty should be unacceptable to all of us.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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