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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Lessons learned — and observations — from the Atlanta Beltline's Eastside Trail

Mayor Kasim Reed and other officials unveiled the $12 million trail on Monday
  • Joeff Davis
  • Mayor Kasim Reed and other officials unveiled the $12 million trail on Monday
On Monday, about 200 civic leaders, politicians, and residents gathered under gray skies to officially dedicate the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail, the 2.25-mile path that snakes between Piedmont Park and Inman Park and stitches together some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

The late morning ceremony was more of a formality — the $12 million project has been under heavy use for several months now, a sign that Atlantans were ready for a new way to move around northeast Atlanta, which is close to cementing its reputation as one of the city’s most bustling areas. Since 2005, Beltline officials say, more than $775 million in private investment has been pumped into the area within one-half mile of the trail.

The path is arguably the most tangible part of the $2.8 billion project that proposes encircling Atlanta’s urban core with a loop of parks, trails, and transit. Yes, Beltline trail segments can be found in southwest Atlanta and northwest Atlanta, but those paths flirt with the project, running along its edges and occasionally above the former railroad corridor that forms the Beltline’s 22-mile spine.

When you ride a bike on the Eastside Trail, you're practically covering the same ground where trains used to transport goods and even circus elephants. More importantly, the project provides the greatest example of what the Beltline will look like — which will become only more clear once more than 600 trees are planted and bloom next to the trail.

As Beltline officials look forward to the project’s next phase — first on the list is building a new Edgewood Avenue bridge that will help the trail and future transit lines link to the street — we look back and offer some pointers for the next segments.

* About face. Property owners along the trail are already starting to make tweaks to their buidlings' backsides so they "face" the trail. For example, the strip mall along Monroe Drive near Piedmont Park that includes Arden's Garden has replaced some of the steel doors in the rear of the building with glass entrances. The big question: When will the owners of Ansley Mall and the Midtown Place Shopping Center follow suit?

* Delays, delays, delays. While the trail’s opening is wonderful news, it’s worth noting the project was delivered more than one year behind schedule. Some of the hurdles faced by the construction firm in charge of building the trail — which submitted the lowest bid — were impossible to predict. Workers encountered slope failures, high watertables, bad weather, and other obstacles that surveys might not see coming. On several occasions, workers tore up poured concrete and knocked down retaining walls to fix screw-ups. These foul-ups didn't cost taxpayers any money (the firm covered 'em), but they did delay residents from enjoying the full use of the trail.

* Residents — and Mayor Kasim Reed — want the Beltline built yesterday. The mayor at Monday's ceremony doubled down on his strong support for the project. He even rode a bike to celebrate.

* So about that affordable housing... Look around the Eastside Trail, particularly near Ponce City Market, and you’ll see lofts, sleek condos, and a few vacant parcels that, rest assured, will soon become new residential developments. But the amount of affordable housing in this area is limited. In late 2010, the city allowed Jamestown Properties, the developer that’s transforming City Hall East into the mixed-use megaplex known as Ponce City Market, to follow more relaxed affordable housing requirements. Last May, the Telephone Factory Lofts stopped subsidizing its affordable units. As the years pass, more investment comes to the area, and property values rise, it’s likely that cops, firefighters, teachers, starving artists, and people living on very low incomes will have difficulty finding a place to live in northeast Atlanta along the Beltline. Yes, 15 percent of all bond issuances is set aside to incentivize developers along the Beltline to build affordable housing. After 25 years, however, those affordable units "expire" and are priced at market rates.

* And let’s talk transportation. The trail, which in the past had been pitched as both a recreational path and a transportation solution, has park hours. Bicyclists and joggers found on the path after 11 p.m. will face the same consequences they would if they were discovered in Piedmont Park. North Highland Avenue doesn’t close at 11 p.m. to cars. Why should the Beltline? The topic's been discussed in the past and will continue to be debated in the future.

* So what's next? So far, Beltline officials have invested at least — at least — $78 million in the northeast segment. More than $66 million of that was to purchase the right-of-way and adjacent parcels. Officials are now looking to make a mark elsewhere along the project’s 22-mile footprint. But first, as an Atlanta Beltline Inc. spokesman tells us, the team will start immediately south of the trail at the Edgewood Avenue bridge, which will be rebuilt to accommodate the trail and a future transit component. Plans have been drafted, though not finalized, for the portion of the trail cutting through Reynoldstown and Cabbagetown and south to Glenwood Park, where it dead ends in an active freight rail line that stretches to roughly Adair Park in southwest Atlanta. The city’s apparently no closer to acquiring that segment, which when merged with other Beltline arcs would form a nearly continuous, backward c-shape, than it was years ago. The mayor says the city’s in “active negotiations” with private partners about building the transit line.

* How about southwest Atlanta? The portion of the Beltline in southwest Atlanta could use some more attention. The project corridor — leased from the Georgia Department of Transportation — boasts public art, a rough hiking trail, and an accompanying bike path that winds nearby. But it lacks the vibrancy that you find on the Eastside Trail. That's partly because the area isn't as dense as northeast Atlanta. Focusing more investment on the rail corridor where trains once chugged along could help. And the potential sale of the old Atlanta Farmers Market near the Beltline might generate some additional interest.

* But maybe Beltline officials should first build ANOTHER Eastside Trail, hmmmm? Yep, it's apparently already crowded.

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