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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Atlanta City Council OKs Decatur Belt deal — with a catch

Posted By on Tue, Mar 24, 2009 at 4:08 PM

For most of the Beltline's history, concerns about displacement have largely focused around slowly gentrifying neighborhoods in Southeast and Southwest Atlanta. The land and homes are less expensive and ripe for the picking by a developer agog at the thought of a project near the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit.

But at Monday morning's Atlanta City Council meeting, councilmembers heard from concerned residents who feared a plan to save a key part of the $2.8 billion project would potentially uproot them from their homes.

At yesterday's special-called meeting, council unanimously OK'ed a deal reached by the Georgia Department of Transportation, Amtrak and Beltline officials that saved residents near the Piedmont Park the headache of high-speed trains lumbering nearby on tracks called the "Decatur Belt." The move also saves the entire Beltline project — late last year, the city poured money into the area when it purchased the property from a Gwinnett County developer for at least $66 million.

But the vote came without some last-minute amendments thanks to Marietta Street residents who said Amtrak, GDOT and Beltline officials' plan to save the Decatur Belt merely shifted the burden of high-speed rail on to them — and placed their homes at risk. According to rough plans presented to GDOT's board last week, the alternate plans for high-speed rail serving Atlanta involve expanding the tracks and potentially seizing property. The buildings and lofts in which the residents could very well be some of those.

What piqued residents' interest in this morning's vote was this slide from last week's GDOT presentation on the progress made by a multi-agency committee tasked with finding alternate routes for high-speed rail other than the Decatur Belt.

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See that red line? The one slicing through the building? That's how wide a berth the committee estimated freight and passenger trains would need to co-exist on the Western Trunk, an extremely busy freight rail route west of the city. (It's important to note that the plan isn't set in stone and the council wasn't voting on approving the plan. The concept, however, is a possible alternative for high-speed rail into Atlanta other than the Decatur Belt that was explored by a multi-agency committee.)

Led by Marietta Street Artery Association President Suzanne Bair, the residents filled a row in an otherwise empty council chambers. The community organization, which represents residents and property owners from the CNN Center to Huff Road, only learned of the vote on Sunday.

"As a neighborhood association, we support the Beltline," Bair told councilmembers. "But we don't feel it's fair to our community and to put people out of their homes...You can't add capacity without property. [According to the GDOT sketch] one track [of added capacity] goes through my kitchen. Two tracks, it goes through my bedroom."

Marietta Street residents contacted their elected officals — Councilmembers Ivory Young and Kwanza Hall — about the issue.

"I can't support a plan that wipes out an entire community," Young told his colleagues.

He urged the city's legal staff to rework the resolution to show the city did not endorse the seizure of residents' property.

"This community deserves some level of respect and attention to their concerns," Hall said. "We moved the problem to the other side [of the city]. It's a quick fix. We pushed the problem around to cut a quick deal."

City Council President Lisa Borders said she understood the residents' concern, even looking to them to ask if the reworded resolution met their approval. She stressed the importance of passing the resolution. Yesterday was the deadline for the agencies to approve the deal and update the federal government about progress.

"We lose as a city" if the resolution didn't pass, Borders said. "It's a difficult development, it's a difficult place. We're all sensitive to this. But if we don't adopt [the resolution], the results are much worse."

Finally, after much conferring with legal staff and tinkering with language, Councilmembers Mary Norwood and Young proposed amendments which would urge any analysis of future rail plans protect Marietta Street and "any and all" neighborhoods near the project. The amendments and resolution unanimously passed.

To read the legislation and amendments, click here.

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