The Beltline isn't what people think it is. It's less. And it's more.
People think it's a solution to Atlanta's transportation woes -- a transit system that will allow us to get around the city without cars.
But, at least in the early stages, transit is the weakest argument for the Beltline. For one thing, it doesn't go where today's Atlantans need to go. It won't, for instance, get you downtown, to Midtown or to Buckhead. It's not even clear that the Beltline can effectively connect to MARTA.
But, as we said, the Beltline also is more than what people think it is.
In the midst of a region out of control with sprawl, intown residents have been tantalizing themselves with a city on the verge of greatness. Hip villages like East Atlanta and the West End, and new projects with an urban feel like Atlantic Station and Glenwood Park are sprouting up close to downtown because people believe the inner city has more to offer than do soul-less suburbs.
At the same time, urban life in Atlanta falls short of urban life in other cities our size. In great cities, downtown doesn't shut down at 6 o'clock. In great cities, you can walk all you want in any direction and never tire of street life along the way. In great cities, you don't have to wait 40 minutes for a bus and 20 minutes for the subway.
In great cities, desolate legions of vacant lots, strip malls, kudzu and gated developments don't lay siege -- right smack in the city center! -- against isolated outposts of commerce, culture and community.
Great cities have a critical mass. They build on the great places they have to make themselves even better. The street life, the shops, restaurants and bars, galleries and spectacular public spaces -- the intricate interactions of all kinds between people -- fuel more of the same. It's the kind of thing that's been happening in cities since Abraham was hanging out in the metropolis of Ur about 4,000 years ago.
But, in Atlanta, there's a sense that we need a leap forward -- a way to catch up with the vibrant urban culture in great cities like Boston, Portland, Toronto or even San Diego.
Ryan Gravel spotted a potential leap forward when he discovered the Beltline. A city planning student at Georgia Tech, Gravel saw what now looks obvious: that a swath of under-used land along a ring of rail rights-of-way around downtown amounted to a huge palate upon which to redraw the city.
If the Beltline lives up to its potential, thousands of acres will fill with parks, trails and transit. And those amenities will become magnets for shops, apartments, restaurants, clubs, schools and offices.
By encircling downtown, the Beltline could throw its benefits in all directions -- from the mainly white and upscale northeast to the largely black and poor southwest. So that families with modest means wouldn't be squeezed out of the city, the project would steer incentives toward developers to build 5,600 units of "work force housing."
Better yet, the Beltline might create a sort of frame for Atlanta's urban core. If planners did it right, the loop would lay rough boundaries between traditional neighborhoods outside and a dense "big city" center inside. Imagine the kind of vertical growth we're now getting in Midtown and around Centennial Olympic Park spread across the center city -- nightlife, cultural institutions, midrises and high-rises from Huff Road to Ralph David Abernathy Avenue. Leafy neighborhoods like Grant Park and the West End need not feel threatened; they'd just have more exciting things around them.
And the density would spur more transit projects. Pretty soon, trolleys might be crisscrossing the Beltline, and each other, to carry people into and around the city center. Over time, the Beltline's weakest link, transit, might become its greatest benefit.
Don't sell your car tomorrow, though. An endless number of practical questions remain.
Some have to do with how the Beltline will be managed. Do we really expect a city so inept at the simple stuff to handle a $2 billion project over 25 years? Won't that money just end up a cash cow for developers?
The toughest questions are about transit. Would it include buses, trolleys or speedy (but expensive) light rail? If some parts of the loop won't draw passengers, would it really make sense to spend millions trying to close the transit line into a neat circle?
Some worry that the Beltline's being rushed through City Council without enough public meetings. Beltline advocates such as former Council President Cathy Woolard and Beltline Partnership chief Ray Weeks argue that land along the loop isn't getting any cheaper. It'd be foolish, they say, not to buy it as soon as possible.
Weeks and Woolard insist that before all the questions are answered, the city, Fulton County and the Atlanta School Board must approve a key part of the project's financing. If the financing scheme, which is based on creating a 6,109-acre "tax allocation district" along the loop, isn't OK'd quickly, they argue, momentum will be lost and a once-in-a-city's-lifetime project might die.
That argument is both maddening and compelling -- maddening because it seems we really ought to have a better sense of what we're getting before we buy it, and compelling because now really does seem to be the Beltline's moment.
Bottom line, though, the stars are aligned for a visionary project. Anyone who knows Atlanta politics understands that such constellations are fleeting and unpredictable.
There will be many difficult decisions in the Beltline's future. But a "yes" vote on the tax allocation district should be an easy one.
Reason one is that it's not a tax increase. The TAD would require that the portion of property tax revenue coming from the increasing value of property within the district goes toward Beltline projects. The idea is that the tax revenue can be used to pay back bonds issued to buy land or build parks or create a transit line.
Reason two is that it leaves an easy escape route. City Council still would be able to block spending on specific Beltline projects by rejecting bond issues that would pay for those projects. And, should City Council desire it, there can be plenty of room for more public input at that stage in the process.
Reason three is that it keeps the project alive. And, surely, this project is promising enough to meet that standard.
Approve the TAD. This is the easy part.
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