How dense can we get? 

Weight of the Beltline bears down on some neighborhoods

Liz Coyle is the intown equivalent of that predominantly suburban species, the soccer mom.

She has served as vice chair of her local Neighborhood Planning Unit and president of the Atkins Park Neighborhood Association. She currently sits on the MARTA alternative analysis committee, a group that chooses which transit proposals get the green light for federal funding consideration. And every day, Coyle dutifully drops off and picks up her two sons from school in the family minivan. Her older son attends Grady High School, her younger one Inman Middle, which takes Coyle through the intersection of 10th Avenue and Monroe Drive at least twice a day.

It's a congested area, and Coyle is seriously worried that developer Wayne Mason's request that the city let him build two condo towers there, one 38 stories and the other 39, will make traffic much, much worse. The towers would fill the plot stretching from Park Tavern to the quiet neighborhood streets to the north. Currently, the area is a patch of woods with a short walking trail running alongside backyard playgrounds and well-kept gardens.

According to Coyle and an untold number of intowners like her, the proposed condo towers are "completely inappropriate" for the largely single-family neighborhood.

The funny thing is, Mason wants to build on that corner because of its proximity to the proposed Beltline -- which aspires to reduce traffic by giving Atlantans the eventual opportunity to ditch their cars altogether.

Mason, who's best known for building malls in sprawling Gwinnett County, bought the property in pursuit of a smarter kind of growth. In all, he intends to develop a five-mile section of the Beltline, a 22-mile loop of mostly unused train tracks circling the inner city that planners want to turn into a greenway and transit line.

Developers like Mason hope to construct dense development -- regardless of whether city streets currently can handle the growth -- to build ridership for a transit system that will be 25 years in the making. Conversely, the Coyles of the world want density curtailed, despite the fact that the people living in those developments would be the prime beneficiaries of the Beltline -- and would, by extension, be in a position to give up their cars and lessen congestion.

Though Mason's request at that particular street corner is a long shot (the Atlanta Development Authority and a score of other agencies consider the towers grossly out of character with the neighborhood), the density battle rages beyond the corner of 10th and Monroe. The condo tower debate is merely the first of what's sure to be many heated discussions of just how dense neighborhoods flanking the Beltline should be.

For a transit system to be economically viable, enough people must live in the area that the system serves. But how much density will it take to make the Beltling work, and how can Atlanta reach that level without sacrificing the character of its neighborhoods?

The most common criticism of the Beltline is that it doesn't link the 45 neighborhoods that line its tracks to enough destinations -- particularly to workplaces. In fact, a panel of transportation and planning experts issued a report Sept. 29, stating, "It seems likely that portions of this loop will not generate sufficient ridership to justify investment."

But Atlanta as we know it today won't be the Atlanta we'll know circa 2030, when the Beltline would be complete. If the city succeeds in attracting the right kind of development along the loop, and enough of it, then the Atlanta of 2030 will have plenty of Beltline riders.

For her part, Coyle says she loves the concept of the Beltline. She just worries about its impact if development is left unchecked. So she helped form the Beltline Neighborhood Coalition, a group of intown Atlantans who want to make sure the Beltline doesn't inadvertently wreak havoc on city living.

"There should be common sense guidelines in terms of protecting single-family neighborhoods from high-density encroachment," Coyle says. "We have to be concerned that the proposal on the table calls for density that would be auto-oriented at the outset."

Atlanta City Council will decide Nov. 7 whether to fund the Beltline, and a "nay" vote could stop the project in its tracks.

The Beltline's chances look good -- eight of the 15 Council members sponsored the legislation. But last-minute opposition, mainly from neighborhood activists leery of the accompanying development, threatens to derail the only major transit project in three decades with enough political momentum to give it a shot at success.

Transit never has been a priority in the Legislature or local government. Instead, counties, municipalities and the state have subsidized sprawl by allocating billions of dollars for highway expansions while failing to properly fund mass transit.

What's more, while nearly 80,000 people left the city in the '70s and '80s, Atlanta has grown by 25,600 in the past five years. And the trend is expected to continue. The Atlanta Regional Commission predicts that the city will add 149,700 new residents by 2030.

That equates to more cars on the road (98,000 more, according to the ARC) and 86,000 more households, which in turn means mass transit such as the Beltline could become an economic and infrastructural success for the first time in Atlanta history.

Dan Reuter, the ARC's chief of land use planning, says the exact density of people needed to make mass transit work for Atlanta is difficult to nail down. Depending on the type (whether it be heavy rail, such as MARTA; light rail, such as trolleys; or buses), transit could become widely necessary once Atlanta reaches a density of 10 to 20 residences per acre. Currently, the density of Atlanta is a little more than 5 units per acre.

But the numbers aren't the most important part of the equation, Reuter says.

"It's not a question of density so much as it's a question of location," he says. "Maybe we should try to accommodate an increasing share of growth in places that are close to jobs."

The question, therefore, is not, "If you build the Beltline, will the riders come?" but, "How do you develop the Beltlinle to get riders where they need to go -- without making Atlanta too dense for its own good?"

Atlanta City Council's Nov. 7 vote on whether to fund the Beltline is open to the public and will be held in Council chambers at City Hall, 55 Trinity Ave. Visit www.beltlinepartnership.org for a list of upcoming meetings and studies about the Beltline.

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