The Atlanta BeltLine: Then and Now

Beltline ad - 360 px newsletterThe Atlanta BeltLine is well underway, and in some neighborhoods, particularly those along the Eastside Trail, it has transformed local perspectives on alternative transportation.

On Friday, September 5, Southface will be hosting an “on-the-road” Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable – a walking tour of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail.

In anticipation of this event, as we reflect on the BeltLine’s early years, we are republishing an article that originally appeared in the spring 2002 edition of the Southface Journal. Read on to see how then Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard envisioned the BeltLine over 12 years ago.


Southface Journal of Sustainable Building • Spring 2002

Transportation Alternatives for a Sustainable City

By Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, with Ryan Gravel, Architect

tram

Is “light rail” in Atlanta’s future? The “Beltline” proposal would incorporate the use of light rail such as this tramway car in Portland and Tacoma.

Over the last half century, metropolitan Atlanta overlooked neglected but valuable urban land in search of easy development in surrounding forests and farmland.  More recently, the negative effects of urban sprawl have led to new development in intown Atlanta.  But without providing an adequate public transportation system for the increasing intown population, the resulting congestion and pollution are diminishing Atlanta’s cherished quality of life.  As local governments, companies and families begin to look toward Atlanta’s future, a healthy regional discussion has emerged that examines how we can restructure the city so that it will continue to thrive in the twenty-first century.  Much the same way as an infrastructure of highways led to suburban expansion and urban depopulation in the last forty years, an expansion of mass transit infrastructure will lead to both the revival of the inner city and the protection of our natural ecology and resources.

If the Atlanta region is going to experiment with transit-oriented development, there is no better place to begin than in the city’s intown neighborhoods.  These areas were built before the rise of automobiles by the extension of streetcars from the central city.  That means they are well suited to transit because they were built at densities that support it.  While the streetcars are gone, these historic communities are our model for smart growth, offering a mix of land uses, building types and family incomes, as well as schools, sidewalks and public parks.  They also offer a sizable amount of underutilized urban land, which, because of its high dollar value will develop at greater densities than the single-family neighborhoods around them, making them particularly good locations for rail transit.

In fact, intown Atlanta has a tremendous amount of neglected urban land ready for reinvestment particularly on the city’s south and west.  Abandoned industrial land and obsolete commercial corridors dominate the public view, hiding attractive bungalow neighborhoods.  The city also has a tremendous amount of urban redevelopment underway, increasing density and straining traffic, particularly on the city’s north and east.  On reclaimed industrial land and along renewed commercial corridors now stand tall condominiums, restaurants and grocery stores with limited transportation options in an auto-dominated landscape.

Perhaps too conveniently, many of these redevelopment sites (those under construction as well as those still in waiting) are strung together by several old “belt line” railroads.  After the Civil War, these minor freight lines developed to serve the city’s expanding industrial base, forming a rough six-mile loop around downtown.  Since they preceded urban expansion, bungalow streetcar suburbs were nestled up against them.  The railroads, therefore, tend not to cut through historic neighborhoods, but instead lie at the seam between them, making these in-between spaces ideal sites for urban redevelopment.  Furthermore, the belt lines are associated with a considerable amount of industrial land and most of the industries that remain have abandoned the rail lines, shifting to truck-based freight.  As industry has grown in scale, many companies have moved to bigger sites outside of town, leaving behind beautiful old buildings and large chunks of land.

All of these factors lead what is known as the “Cultural Loop” or “BeltLine” proposal, that envisions new light rail or bus transit lines woven through the city on these existing belt line railroad rights-of-way and connected to five MARTA stations – Lindbergh, Inman Park/Reynoldstown, West End, Ashby and Bankhead.  At a length of 22 miles with 45 stations, the Belt Line loops around downtown and midtown Atlanta on an hour and a half journey through over 4,000 acres of redevelopment sites.  With over half of that land suitable for residential and mixed-use development, between 60,000 to 100,000 future residents can be accommodated in new mixed-use, brownfield, transit-oriented districts.  Furthermore, the Belt Line slides between 40 historic intown neighborhoods, which would be protected from high-density development through zoning, but reinvigorated with infill housing on vacant land and commercial and cultural districts in appropriate areas.

Belt line map, from a summary of the thesis Belt Line - Atlanta, Design of Infrastructure as a Reflection of Public Policy by Ryan Gravel.

Belt line map, from a summary of the thesis Belt Line – Atlanta, Design of Infrastructure as a Reflection of Public Policy by Ryan Gravel.

More than just an improved network of public transportation, however, the Belt Line is a transportation greenway, circling the central city as a linear park, connecting big city parks like Piedmont, Freedom, Grant, Perkerson and Maddox Parks and little neighborhood parks like Stanton, Adair, Washington and Tanyard Creek Parks.  Bicycle and pedestrian paths join light rail or bus transit, engaging parts of Atlanta as different as Brookwood Hills and Pittsburgh, Piedmont Hospital and Zoo Atlanta.  It connects Ansley Mall to the King Plow Arts Center and City Hall East to the Wren’s Nest in West End.  Furthermore, with an influx of new residents moving closer into the city, the Belt Line accesses developable land and re-uses historic urban fabric in ways that contribute to the health of urban neighborhoods.  In conjunction with other public policies, it provides transit-oriented sites for mixed land uses, multiple housing types and a broad range of family incomes.  Stations would be designed for neighbors and would more resemble bus stops than MARTA stations, eliminating elevated platforms,  turnstiles, escalators and parking lots.

The Belt Line proposal was presented at a community town hall that I held last year as the District Six Council member, and I was greatly encouraged by the public interest in this transportation alternative.  As Chair of the City Council Transportation Committee last year, I presented this proposal to the committee members, and this year, the City Council passed a resolution in support of having MARTA conduct a feasibility study for the belt line. Funding for that study, in conjunction with a study of a light rail line to connect downtown Atlanta with South Dekalb, was included in the 2003-2005 Transportation Improvement Program by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

This project is not the only answer to Atlanta’s problems.  It lays out a strategy for building infrastructure in ways that accomplish public goals – such as renewed neighborhoods, clean air and multiple means of transportation.  It envisions a complex network of infrastructure, connecting all parts of the region including new rail service to South DeKalb and Emory, not to mention possible further destinations.  In order for Atlanta to grow sustainably and thrive in the twenty-first century, we must find better ways to grow.  Growth is spurred in part by public policy and public investment in infrastructure.  The kind of infrastructure we invest in is critical to the health of our economy, our communities and our families.

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