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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Beltline board OKs 17-year plan outlining what gets built and when - and it's worth a read

What is that mysterious metal monster sitting silently on the hill?
When will the Atlanta Beltline start construction on the massive Westside park and lake centered around an abandoned quarry? Will the smart-growth project's southeast trail linking Glenwood Park to Adair Park be built in our lifetime? And what about the transit component circling the city's core, potentially connecting more than 45 neighborhoods?

You now have an easy place to find the answers to these questions. And see how it's envisioned to evolve over the next 17 years.

Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit tasked with planning and developing the 22-mile loop of parks, trails, and transit, has officially released its "strategic implementation plan," or SIP, a 140-page document that outlines how the project will progress from now until 2030. ABI's board of directors unanimously approved the plan this morning.

If you follow the $4.8 billion project closely, you'll want to give it a read. (Yes, the Beltline's grand total now over the 30-year construction period is $2 billion higher than originally estimated in 2005. A spokesman says that figure was based on the cost of Beltline projects in 2005 dollars. This plan's cost estimate is more realistic, he says, as it's based on an actual schedule of projects stretching over 17 years, anticipated inflation, and future construction costs).

The plan took approximately one year to complete and included public input from nearly 800 people. It's different from previous efforts, such as the five-year work plan ABI produced at the project's onset, ABI CEO Paul Morris told CL in an interview yesterday. He says it's the first time officials have laid out exactly what they want to build - and when - on paper and for the public.

"It's a little like growing up," Morris says. "Creating the plan, establishing the district, forming ABI was all about starting something. That period, probably the first three to five years, was all about the first stages of development. The last three years or so have been about adolescence, figuring who we are and being a mature business enterprise. And now we are staking our commitment and developing the maturity to be an adult, grown-up organization who, as a team, understands how, and is committed to, fulfilling the objectives."

Over the last few months, Morris and the ABI team have prepared for what's going to be an extremely busy 2014. Staffers will be juggling multiple projects at once, rather than piecemeal, and working on an aggressive schedule that Morris has planned.

The plan, which will be revisited and revised as needed each year, calls for ABI to tackle an estimated $926 million worth of projects in the next five years. The biggest lifts will be:

- Acquiring the necessary rights of way to build out the trail. Officials now are focused on snagging the CSX-owned rail segment that snakes from Glenwood Park, past Grant Park, and to Adair Park. Once secured, ABI also wants to start construction on the trail along the segment, which would give bicyclists or pedestrians easy access between southwest Atlanta and Piedmont Park.

- Tapping an $18 million federal grant that will fund the construction of the Westside Trail, which is in the final design stages. ABI expects to be given the OK to start work next summer. Beltline officials plan to take the lessons learned from building the wildly popular Eastside Trail and apply them to this project, which will snake between Adair Park and Washington Park. They could discover additional challenges, as well. "This is bigger, one mile longer, and has 16 connections, some of which are a 20- or 30-foot grade change," Morris says. "And the number of property owners along the project is greater."

- Finishing building out Boulevard Crossing Park in Chosewood Park, Enota Park in Westview, and proposed Murphy Crossing Park that would be located near Capitol View Manor and Adair Park.

- Starting construction on Westside Reservoir Park, the former quarry now owned by the city's Watershed Department that played a prominent role in the first season of "The Walking Dead." It will be a massive and expensive lift carried out in multiple phases, the first of which would be more passive use with meadows. The approximately 350-acre park, once built, will be bring much-needed public space to northwest Atlanta and trump Piedmont Park as the city's largest greenspace.

- Beginning construction on the long-awaited transit component on the Beltline's east and west sides, including spurs that would zip into Midtown and the Old Fourth Ward, connecting with MARTA rail and the city's nascent streetcar network.

There are other efforts, including the urban farm initiative along the Beltline's southwest segment, public art, and more. In addition to the above projects, which are things people can see and experience, ABI plans to focus on the Beltline's equally important initiatives of economic development and affordable housing.

Regarding the latter, Morris told me that ABI plans to take a more proactive role in ensuring that men, women, and families can have housing options along the project, which is expected (and indeed, already has) triggered property value increases. ABI's committed to creating 5,600 affordable units along and near the Beltline over the life of the project. Over the next decade, he says 10,000 units are estimated to potentially fall out of affordability over the next decade.

"That's not acceptable to us," he says. "We very much care about displacement and wanting to do everything we can to keep people being able to stay in the community."

He wants the project to be more proactive - sometimes being the "first money in" - rather than just dangling financial incentives to developers at the tail-end of the deal. That could mean partnering with the private-sector on projects or acquiring land themselves. In rare cases, it might mean taking on a developer role, similar to what ABI did when it acquired the Lofts at Reynoldstown.

"We'd do them generally small," he says. "But we'd do them where others wouldn't, or couldn't, or where we want to demonstrate a new approach to workforce housing."

First, however, ABI is stepping back and, for the first time, taking all the plans residents drew up for each of the project's "subareas" in the project's early years and stitching them together. Morris doesn't expect any drastic changes to what residents and businesses helped craft over countless (and sometimes contentious) gatherings, but expects outreach if that happens.

And this is the point in a post where we look at the word count and say, "Maybe the other news tidbits we learned should be discussed in a later post." In the meantime, scan the document, let us know what you find, and come back for more.

Atlanta Beltline Strategic Implementation by thomaswheatley

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