In the last year, the Atlanta Beltline has opened a breathtaking $12 million trail, lost its CEO, watched its best bet at securing funding for transit go down in flames, and ended up back in court over its main funding source. CL takes stock of how far the $2.8 billion project has come - and what might come next.
In early November, a team of planners and urban designers from Perkins + Will, the firm that will decide how the 22-mile project looks and feels, hiked parts of a Beltline segment between Adair Park in southwest Atlanta and Washington Park, west of Vine City. This portion of the Beltline, commonly referred to as the "southwest segment," is expected to be the next area to receive spending on paths similar to what can be found on the Eastside Trail.
Thanks to federal money that flows through the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Atlanta Regional Commission, a large chunk of the 3.4-mile southwest trail will become a reality. Unlike the Eastside Trail, however, which was funded primarily with private cash, there are loops one must jump through with state funding. The process could take two more years to complete. But it's better than no funding.
The construction of the trail, which winds behind backyards and old warehouses, poses interesting challenges. Long ago, construction crews blasted to build the railroad that once occupied the route. Now, a hefty portion of the southwest segment is below street level, making access points to the trail a tricky issue. The segment will probably require additional environmental work.
Designers are also currently envisioning an extension of the Eastside Trail from Irwin Street down across I-20 to Glenwood Park. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation recently awarded the project $3 million to complete that segment and build a much-needed link from the trail by the Masquerade to Historic Fourth Ward Park. That grant won't completely fund both projects and officials will have to wait to extend the trail until the new Edgewood Avenue bridge is constructed.
EDGEWOOD AVENUE BRIDGE
Yes, the Edgewood Avenue bridge is going bye-bye. The 106-year-old span that features some of the Beltline's coolest graffiti is reportedly one of the two "lowest performing" — think on the verge of being very unsafe — bridges in the city. The project, which could take up to 18 months, will include links between the busy street and the Beltline, which is one-half mile from the soon-to-be-built downtown streetcar.
ART ON THE ATLANTA BELTLINE
Art on the Atlanta Beltline began three years ago as an experiment. The hypothesis: that a temporary public art exhibition would drum up support for the project and draw Atlantans out into the undeveloped space. In a way, it would help make tangible the idea of the Beltline, still decades from completion.
Billed as the city's largest temporary public art exhibition, Art on the Atlanta Beltline has ballooned over the last three years, its number of participating artists increasing by more than 30 percent in 2011 and more than 40 percent to 70-plus artists in 2012. Atlantans have responded enthusiastically to the art programming, which has arguably become the Beltline's most effective PR machine.
"Three years ago when we started talking about [Art on the Atlanta Beltline], if you walked anywhere on the Beltline you were the only person there. Today, you go down to the Eastside Trail and you're one of 5,000 people," says ABI Design Director Fred Yalouris.
But some critics say that the increase in quantity of works has occurred at the expense of their quality. Indeed, finding the right balance between saturating the trails with enough art to have an impact without spreading funds too thin is a challenge. (In 2012, the program's budget was about $150,000 and commissions ranged from $500 to $4,000.) One gets the impression while walking the Beltline's eastside and southwest trails where the art is located that, in some cases, money might have been better spent by providing the resources to make some works more substantive and eliminating others altogether.
Yalouris is adamant that Art on the Atlanta Beltline be a platform for emerging artists. He also emphasizes the fact that the public art project is a temporary exhibit and views the space along the 22-mile loop like a gallery wall where work is regularly switched out.
"There are only so many walls left along the Beltline," Yalouris says. "Basically, those walls represent exhibit space for us and because of that it must allow for changing exhibits."
Moving forward, Yalouris is open to the idea of allowing certain pieces to become permanent fixtures on the paths. In fact, works by Lonnie Holley, BORN, HENSE, Loss Prevention Collective, Kyle Brooks, and others have already been added to a Beltline art permanent collection, although the program does not currently have any kind of budget to provide maintenance or upkeep. For future exhibit installments, Yalouris recognizes the importance of effectively siting works as the corridor continues to be built out, and wants to increase outreach to local educational institutions for participation in the project. Additionally, tightening the focus to include fewer, higher-quality (and possibly some permanent) artworks rather than trying to get the most bang for its buck could also serve Art on the Atlanta Beltline well down the road. — Debbie Michaud
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