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Thomas Wheatley

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Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my life

Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my life
A newfound love for bicycling helped me form deeper bonds with friends, reconnect with old pals, and sparked a desire to explore a world in limbo.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

On an overcast day in May 2020, still in the early days of the pandemic, I woke up on my back on a service road circling Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with my friend Jake dragging his knuckles along my sternum—an EMS trick he knew to rouse someone from unconsciousness. After biking to the international terminal with my friends to gawk at what the world’s busiest airport looks and sounds like during a pandemic, my bike and I rounded a hill too fast and encountered Atlanta’s official mascot: a craggy pothole so deep you could fit your foot inside it. I flipped over my handlebars, landed on my head, and knocked myself out for a few minutes. When I came to, I could remember my name, my address, and my birthdate, but I couldn’t recount the minutes leading up to the accident.

Because of the memory loss, my friends took me to the emergency room, the last place I wanted to be, even outside of a pandemic. In the CAT scan machine, I thought about two things: relief that I was wearing a helmet and how long the shop needed to repair my bicycle before I could continue exploring Atlanta.

I’ve always loved bicycling. There’s no better way to discover cities than by bike—slow enough to take everything in, fast enough not to get bored. I’d rented bikes in cities like Berlin, Austin, and Denver. I appreciate the role bicycles play in urban environments, and I’ve been an unabashed advocate for more protected bike lanes, slower speed limits, and better access to bicycles for people living on low incomes. But I’ve never considered myself a bicyclist. I had biked to Atlanta magazine’s downtown office a few times—mostly if I planned on joining Critical Mass, the leaderless group ride after work on the last Friday of every month. Most of my long-distance riding had been on the easygoing Silver Comet. I owned a sturdy hybrid bike, which was great for getting around but not built for pushing myself on gravel roads or riding long distances, especially in hilly Atlanta.

Then, the pandemic happened. Even before Covid-19 precautions forced nearly everyone to hunker down at home, 2020 was a difficult year for me. Depression and anxiety had been mounting, a relationship had ended, and work stress had taken a toll on my health—mental, emotional, physical, all of it. Covid cases and deaths began rising. Meetings started taking place on Zoom. Days spent inside by myself created a sense of loneliness that I last felt nearly 15 years ago, just before I got sober. For the first time in my life, I woke up asking myself, Another day of this?

Like so many other Atlantans, I greased my chain, put air in my tires, and started regularly riding in, ironically, the most beautiful Atlanta springtime in recent memory. I began with an eight-mile route from my house in Westview to downtown and back, on streets so empty I’d sometimes travel all of Peachtree Street and see only a few cars, most of which were police. Underneath downtown viaducts, I biked on the actual terra firma of downtown, and saw where Atlanta’s homeless people are pushed out of sight. As I got stronger, I began embracing hills.

After a few weeks, my friend Max, a fellow journalist who moved a few doors down in the middle of the pandemic, asked if I wanted to ride. We built up to 10 miles, then more. Jake and Kevin, two other neighbors and friends, and an old classmate from middle school whom I ran into while riding one day this summer, joined the group, along with other buds.

Two to three times every week, we would push off from Westview or Cabbagetown, and for three or four hours, sometimes five, we rode through intown neighborhoods we thought we knew before Covid-19 slowed our lives to a crawl. On rides through downtown, Midtown, and the west side, we watched office towers rise and debated if they would ever see workers inside. One Saturday morning, we biked to Sweetwater Creek State Park, waded in the stream, and later discovered a cuckoo clock shop on a Douglas County sideroad. Another weekend, we pedaled to Buford Highway to eat arepas at Plaza Fiesta and watch planes land at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport. Despite living in Atlanta for more than half of my life, I discovered parts of the city I’d never seen: forgotten bungalows backing up to industrial sites in neighborhoods without names; a lovingly tended forest of ferns hidden on a Georgia State University satellite campus; and an abandoned historic brickyard with tunnels and burned-out cars, plus a small subcommunity of trainspotters.

Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my lifeThere’s something about biking far from your home (and most public-transit options) and making your way back. These long rides didn’t just introduce me to new spots or bring me closer with friends; they forced me to process how I could find the spaces in hardship where I could grow, get lost in thoughts about life, and reframe my challenges. For a recent trip to California to visit my parents, I rented a specially designed bag from Earl’s Bike Shop on the Westside and checked my bike on the flight. I biked two hours to the top of a ridge with my favorite view of the Pacific Ocean, on the floor of Yosemite Valley under El Capitan, and along the Los Angeles River, where trees broke through the concrete and took over the culvert. By the end of the year, I had shed 20 pounds. I sleep deeper. I am generally happier. And I’ve graduated to a better bike. (I have also caved and bought tight shorts.) Winter reduced the number of rides, from about three a week to one, but before the end of the year, I hope to ride a century—100 miles in a single day.

With our group, on your birthday ride, you get to pick the route. Last August, on mine, I guided us to South-View Cemetery near Lakewood Heights to pay our respects at John Lewis’s grave. We headed to Hapeville to buy tacos from Don Chon, my favorite taqueria. I considered suggesting we return back to the spot where I crashed. I told my friends I loved them and our adventures. They nodded in agreement, and accepted my corniness. We rode to my house and drank kombucha in my front yard in the sun. And I couldn’t wait until we rode again.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

For local bike shops, the pandemic was a lesson in supply and demand

For local bike shops, the pandemic was a lesson in supply and demand
Outback Bikes in Little Five Points set up shop outside to keep employees and customers safe.

Photograph by Growl

Early last March, Earl Serafica was rearranging his store for the busiest period of the year. Earl’s Bike Shop, his three-year-old bicycle store on the Westside, typically sees its inventory fly off the shelves in the spring. But when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Georgia, Serafica entered the most hectic time of his career. First, customers came for the entry-level bicycles, priced around $500. Then, they scooped up the middle-market models, running up to $2,000. For every bike Earl’s had on the floor, roughly three customers were competing to buy it, compared to just one in 2019. “The only thing left [from the distributor] were the higher-end models,” says Serafica about models that run into several thousands of dollars.

In just a few weeks, the Covid-19 pandemic created a new cityscape as businesses shut down and roads emptied. Atlanta’s springtime weather, homebound remote workers, and bicycle shops made bicycling more attractive than ever before for newcomers and experienced cyclists alike.

Bike shops did their best to keep up. At Outback Bikes, mechanics tuned up bikes outside under rain canopies while masked staff fetched equipment and the few remaining bikes inside for test rides. Loose Nuts Cycles created a running spreadsheet on its website of road, gravel, and mountain bikes in stock to save people time searching—and in the process, give staff time to catch up on servicing bikes.

Not only could the bike shops not keep models in stock, but the bicycle companies couldn’t acquire parts to make them. Shop owners jockeyed for inventory from their distributors, and bike companies competed for brakes and tires. Brake and tire manufacturers were competing for raw materials on a global market. “We had a four-week backup on fixing tubes and tires,” says Mike Goodman, the owner of Intown Bicycles, where, by the end of May, customers had bought out the inventory of bikes to last until the end of August. “Then, we couldn’t get tubes and tires.”

As the weather cooled and people rode less, shops caught up with repairs, although it’s still unclear whether supply will keep up with demand this spring and whether people new to bicycling will continue riding. Regardless, the shop owners say they’re glad to serve—and to see the bicycling community grow. “This January, our service department was busy,” says Goodman. “So far, it’s sticking.”

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

Great Georgia routes and rides for beginner, mountain, gravel, and road cyclists

Where to bike in Atlanta and in Georgia
Jekyll Island

Photograph by ExploreGeorgia.org

Beginner

You enjoy the occasional bike ride on off-street paved paths, but you aren’t pedaling long distances.

Mellow: The PATH Foundation has you covered, but check out Alpharetta Greenway and the Carrollton GreenBelt for some longer flat rides. If you’re debating whether to buy a bike at all, do a test ride using a bike-share program offered by the Town Center and Cumberland CIDs.

Workout: The 34-mile Arabia Mountain PATH follows the hilly terrain of the 40,000-acre national heritage area. Expect plenty of climbing. For more ideas, consult the Atlanta Cycling Festival’s website.

Getaway: St. Simons’s and Jekyll Island’s more than 40 miles of paved trails allow you to see more of the barrier islands’ beauty—and work off that extra serving of crab legs.

Wild Card: Take a history tour. Civil Bikes offers scheduled private and corporate tours of historic civil rights spots in Atlanta. For a longer experience, Bike Race Across Georgia hosts supported tours.

Mountain

You enjoy riding on dirt trails through the woods and the thrill of hopping over roots and carving curves.

Mellow: Sope Creek in Cobb County, Cochran Mill Park near Serenbe, and Olde Rope Mill Park in Woodstock offer an excellent variety of beginner and intermediate trails, plus some more advanced options that don’t require driving to North Georgia.

Workout: A joint effort by the mountain biking advocacy group SORBA, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, and other groups, Southside Park is the city’s first designated mountain-biking trail and offers several miles of trails for all skill levels, including kids.

Where to bike in Atlanta and in Georgia
Mulberry Gap

Anthony Smith

Getaway: Craft beer, hot tubs, and shuttles transporting you, your bike, and gear to North Georgia’s ridge trails and challenging climbs await at Mulberry Gap, a no-frills and no-nonsense mountain hostel for mountain bikers.

Wild Card: Trans North Georgia, a 300-mile ride through the North Georgia mountains over three days (and a climb of 55,000 feet). Not everyone makes it to the finish line. Plus, there are plenty of quasiofficial and hush-hush trails throughout the city. Link up with SORBA to meet fellow riders for more.

Gravel

Want to ride longer distances and have the freedom to tackle country backroads and not-too-wild off-road trails? Here you go.

Mellow: Dirty Sheets in South Fulton doesn’t involve much climbing and offers a rural escape closer to the city. Cabbagetown through Kirkwood to Legacy Park (or Seminary Woods) in Decatur features a pleasant mix of neighborhood streets and gravel. Or make your own route; that’s the beauty of a gravel bike.

Workout: The BeltGrind is an unsanctioned and informal ride around the entire BeltLine, unfinished muddy segments and all. Spin the District is a multiday cycling event centered around Hapeville, East Point, College Park, and Union City that includes gravel options. If both are postponed because of the pandemic, consider their routes and events for inspiration.

Getaway: Get a hotel room at Valhalla or the Amicalola Lodge and find a Forest Services Road for hard climbs and hair-raising downhills, or wildlife-management area roads for straightaways stretching deep into the woods. Murder Creek Road in Jasper, Pine Log in White, or check out other North Georgia routes at gravelhappens.com.

Where to bike in Atlanta and in Georgia
Looking Glass Mountain

Photograph by ExploreAsheville.com

Wild Card: Use Asheville, North Carolina as a base to enjoy some of the South’s best gravel biking. Another fun weekend trip: plan a 70-mile figure-8 loop from Tellico Plains, Tennessee and into North Carolina to the Smoky Mountains.

Road

Your bike weighs less than a feather and is designed for speed and distance. You don’t fear riding in traffic, and you likely own tights—and that’s okay.

Mellow: Much like gravel bikes, you can build your own route. If you want to go ride today, head to Silk Sheets near Serenbe. Like the name implies, the on-road route is a smooth and enjoyable ride that’s a favorite of intermediate and experienced riders.

Workout: Sign up for the Three Gaps Fifty, an organized 50-mile race in Lumpkin County weaving through mountain valleys. Or pedal for 50 miles on the Silver Comet—and then 50 miles back.

Where to bike in Atlanta and in Georgia
Hotel Domestique

Photograph courtesy of Hotel Domestique

Getaway: Hotel Domestique in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, is a luxury boutique resort co-owned by a former professional cyclist and designed by cyclists. Show us another hotel with a cycling director.

Wild Card: Link up with Audux Atlanta Randonneuring, an Atlanta group that organizes
200-, 400-, and 800-kilometer marathon rides.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

Where are we pedaling next? The new bicycling projects coming soon to metro Altanta

Westside Connector Trail
The recently opened Westside Connector Trail will link downtown to the BeltLine and eventually the Silver Comet.

Courtesy of Path Foundation and Kaizen Collaborative

What’s the best way to get more people on bikes? Make it easier and safer to bike by building world-class bike lanes, off-road paths, and mountain-biking trails. Here’s what to expect in the coming year.

In the City
In late 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a $5 million plan to triple the city’s number of protected bike lanes that separate automobiles and bicycles. Examples of recent bike projects include Cherokee and Spring streets, where crews are resizing automobile traffic lanes to create bike lanes. Portable barriers on 10th Street fronting Piedmont Park serve a similar purpose and send a message to motorists to stop using the bike lanes as “pop-up parking,” says Josh Rowan, the city’s commissioner of transportation. Rowan’s department this year will start construction on “Complete Street” overhauls—think wider sidewalks, roomy bike lanes, and narrower space for automobiles—on high-traffic and dangerous corridors like Cascade Road, Juniper Street, and Piedmont Avenue; safety improvements along DeKalb Avenue, one of the city’s notoriously pothole-ridden thoroughfares; and smaller projects. Next year crews will start Complete Streets work on Monroe Drive, Fairburn Road, and Howell Mill Road. Finally, Rowan wants to study whether some city traffic lights—on busy bicycling routes or at hills—can be programmed to give priority to bicyclists. “If we can move the fire trucks through, we can certainly move a group of bicyclists through,” he says. The projects are all an effort, Rowan says, to create a network of bike lanes, not just a project here and a project there, for a safe and seamless cycling experience in a hilly and hectic city. atlantaga.gov

On the PATH
Thirty years and 300 miles of paved trail later, the PATH Foundation continues its work building a network of greenways connecting bicyclists from one end of the metro region to the other—and even to Alabama. Greta deMayo, who took over as executive director last year after founder Ed McBrayer transitioned to executive adviser, says the nonprofit is stepping up its construction projects in cities outside Atlanta, including Covington, where PATH is helping extend the city’s Cricket Frog trail. In Newnan, PATH has started the third phase of the city’s LINC trail network. Closer to home, PATH is continuing work on the PATH 400 trail in Buckhead and extending the Silver Comet from the East-West Connector to Plant Atkinson Road and into downtown Atlanta. It expects to start work on a greenway trail in Sandy Springs close to Morgan Falls Overlook Park. Finally, it is also working to create the Westside Park Connector, a greenway trail connection between the Westside BeltLine Trail and Westside Park, the 280-acre greenspace in northwest Atlanta that’s set to open this year. That project will also provide a link to the Proctor Creek Greenway, which advocates want to see stretch all the way to the Chattahoochee River. pathfoundation.org

In the Woods
Thanks to MTB Atlanta, the local chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, metro Atlanta has gone from being practically devoid of options for mountain bikers to a decent place to enjoy a more rugged ride without straying too far from home. The group’s work on Southside Park in the early 2010s gave the city its first official mountain-biking trail. Starting last year, MTB Atlanta kicked off a $30,000 fundraising mission to expand the trails in five parks around the metro region, including Brown’s Mill Battlefield Park, Jones Mill Park, and Cannongate Nature Preserve, a recently protected 20-acre hardwood forest. In early 2021, the group won a grant to study building a 20-mile mountain-biking network in Chattahoochee Bend State Park, near Palmetto. Around the same time, MTB Atlanta crews started working on the River Bluff Trail in Carrollton’s Moore’s Bridge Park, expected to be complete in March. If you’re a frequent user and want to give back, or want to meet more people in the mountain-biking community, look on the group’s website for volunteer opportunities like the nonprofit’s regular (and socially distanced) maintenance meetups at Sope Creek or other trails. mtbatlanta.org

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

The joy of pedaling cross-country—even in your 80s

Irv Hoffman
Irv Hoffman in his Smyrna garage

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is 82-year-old Smyrna cyclist Irving Hoffman, as told to Thomas Wheatley.

In 1991, my wife and I heard from a family friend about the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia, or BRAG, and signed up. We didn’t have fancy bikes—my 10-year-old son had a little beat-up bike from Toys R Us—but that August, we made the 400-mile ride from Rossville to Augusta. My son did very well. We weren’t the fastest, but we completed it. Every year after that, we did a BRAG ride.

I kept riding. I’d do segments of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail stretching across North Carolina. On those rides, a team hauls your luggage and backs you up along the way. I was pretty fast then. I’m 82 now. When I look in the mirror, I see that I am 82. But I don’t feel 82.

In 2007, at the age of 69, I decided one day I was going to ride from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. I thought it would be an adventure. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the unknowns, and there were a lot. But I would handle them as they came. A companion and I rode 3,100 miles in 58 days.

In 2017, I talked my son, who at the time was getting his PhD in New Mexico, into shipping our bikes to Seattle. We rode along the coast of Oregon and California to Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Since then, I’ve biked 14,500 miles on nine or so long-distance trips, mostly by myself.

I don’t get lonely on the road. I don’t have to worry about anyone, I can go at my own pace, see what I want to see. My total bike weight is about 85 pounds when you include gear—a tent, tools, and the like. That’s not including water and food.

During one of my early cross-country trips, my kids bought me a Garmin, which sends a GPS signal to a satellite, and you could see where I was on a map on a website. My daughter thought I’d go off a cliff and never be seen again. Biking during the pandemic hasn’t been difficult; I rode to Key West this past October and social distanced and stayed in motels.

I have memories I will never forget. One of the campsites where my son and I stayed on our first journey together was called Elk Prairie, in the redwoods. We woke up around dawn, and in the fog, we saw an elk silhouetted against the sun. I was in awe of the beauty of the Oregon coast. The big waves, the rocks, the view. Every curve is another postcard picture. I’ve slept in hostels and in public parks in small Kansas towns where there are no hotels.

I’ve always been active. I bike about 50 or 60 miles a week—less in the winter—and play tennis three days a week at Bitsy Grant Tennis Center in Buckhead. I’ve seen so many beautiful places, places you can enjoy in a special way on a bicycle. I stop at almost all the historical road signs to see what’s been going on. When I’m riding, I think about what I’m going to eat and where I’m going to sleep. I am thankful. I know people my age who are using a walker. The reason I’m still able to do this is because I still do this.

Sometimes, I don’t bike and camp. In 2019, I packed my fold-up bicycle in my car trunk and toured the country, stopping to ride my bike on rails-to-trails projects and staying when possible at spots where Lewis and Clark camped. I went through South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest, where I rode around Portland and met up with a friend. I went down to Tucson, then Austin. I had a goal to visit a brewery every night. I visited the Abita brewery in Covington, Louisiana. I went everywhere for seven weeks.

A few years ago, when I was 79, I biked from my son’s house in Silicon Valley to Atlanta. When I got home, I said, I’m not going to do it anymore. Lo and behold, I woke up and said, I’m going to ride to Key West. I wanted to do it before I got too old to do it. When I finish, I feel like I’ve accomplished something that not many people my age get to do.

I studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech for undergrad. In 1997, I sold my photogrammetry company—we made maps using aerial photography for the fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, road projects, and developments—and retired. The one thing I learned at Georgia Tech: Persevere. I guess that translates to life. Look at me—I’m just an old man. You just have to want to do it, and you can do it, anyone can do it. You just decide, that’s what I’m going to do.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

Underground Atlanta will try, try again

Underground Atlanta redevelopment
The new owner of the shopping and nightlife center wants to bring people back to downtown.

Photograph by Martha Williams

In the middle of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic put a question mark on the future of both downtown Atlanta and real-estate development, Shaneel Lalani got a phone call. WRS, the South Carolina–based developer that bought Underground Atlanta in 2017, wanted a loan. Lalani, the founder and CEO of the development firm Billionaires Funding Group, had been looking for a supersized project closer to his home in Decatur, but the call gave him a better idea: He bought the subterranean retail, restaurant, and nightlife district from WRS.

Now, the 31-year-old businessman who’s a newcomer to downtown’s development scene—and to projects the size and scale of Underground—will lead the overhaul of the 400,000-square-foot property located next to the region’s busiest rail station, in the city’s densest neighborhood, and near to billion-dollar redevelopment plans from both CIM Group and the German firm Newport, which owns nearly 50 historic properties on eight city blocks nearby.

Centered on the original city streets before viaducts were constructed over downtown’s railroad tracks, Underground in the late 1960s and 1970s drew thousands of people from across the Southeast to party at Dante’s Down the Hatch, Mine Shaft, and other nightlife spots. After the party moved uptown in the 1980s, the city mothballed the complex. A renovation later in the decade brought crowds back for a spell, but Underground has struggled to remain relevant ever since. Wanting to boost reserves and shed the more than $9 million upkeep and debt payments every budget cycle, then Mayor Kasim Reed sold Underground in 2017 to WRS for $35 million. Experienced mostly in developing Walmart and Verizon stores, the firm pitched a $450 million mixed-use hub with office towers, apartments, a budget hotel for millennial travelers, and shops. But despite moving some lower-level tenants up to the street and wooing the Masquerade music venue, not much changed. Enter BFG and Lalani, who says his firm is well financed to see the project through.

In 1999, Lalani immigrated to the United States with his family from Mumbai when he was nine years old, settling in Tucker. (One of the first places his parents looked for a job after arriving in metro Atlanta, he says, was Underground.) The Lalanis worked retail and laundry jobs to build savings, which they then spent buying gas stations. Shaneel worked after school and in the evenings at the businesses and, after graduating high school, took over one of the gas stations in Gwinnett County. In 2012, he started buying, developing, and leasing gas stations, medical offices, and retail locations throughout Georgia. A few years later, he doubled down on risk by leasing coin-operated amusement machines in gas stations, which benefit the Georgia Lottery. “I would say we are one of the largest operators in the state, in the coin space,” Lalani says.

To bring Underground back to life, first the developer has to bring life back to Underground. On the day BFG started marketing its leasing availabilities, the company received more than 50 inquiries. The indoor food court, which, like the old storefronts, sits vacant, could be the first to open. Lalani wants to keep some aspects of WRS’s plan—such as building a podium for a midrise building over the MARTA and freight-rail tracks bisecting the property—while refining his own vision for the property. BFG has hired Kimley-Horn, the transportation planning consultants that helped make sure a heavy-rail line running under Mercedes-Benz Stadium didn’t disrupt Atlanta United games, and HGOR, a placemaking and landscape architecture firm that worked on the Battery at Truist Park, to create a master plan.

Around the beginning of the year, BFG moved its offices from Norcross to Underground to join the community. That same month, the company bought a 33-story Peachtree Street tower one block north of Underground overlooking Woodruff Park. This month, Lalani and his team plan to start a series of multiday meetings with more downtown residents and stakeholders, including Georgia State University, Central Atlanta Progress, Newport, MARTA, and more. “We don’t want to do something where only we are going to benefit from this property,” he says. “We want to basically make sure that the city, the county, and the state—everybody—benefits from this.”

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.

Can guaranteed income combat inequality and poverty in Atlanta?

Can guaranteed income combat inequality and poverty in Atlanta?This year, more than 10 cities across the country will experiment with a policy called guaranteed income. The gist: Cities can help their poorest residents by giving them no-strings-attached cash every month to meet basic needs, pay medical bills, and feed their children. In the coming months, Atlanta, home to some of the country’s most severe income inequalities, might follow suit.

Why are we talking about this here?
In 2018, Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi took office and started representing a diverse and growing district that includes Old Fourth Ward, home to both the largest concentration of Section 8 housing in the Southeast and the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail and its adjacent luxury apartments. Wanting to learn more about ways to reduce poverty and create opportunities, Farokhi partnered with the Economic Security Project—a New York–based advocacy group cofounded by early Facebook employee Chris Hughes, Natalie Foster, and Dorian Warren—to create a task force to study guaranteed income. Farokhi learned that what he once thought was a radical idea could simply be a way to bypass bureaucracy and confusing safety-net programs, he says, giving people “the autonomy to make decisions for themselves in ways that promote dignity and allow people to live better lives.”

Where else has this been tried?
Giving out cash with no questions asked has been debated for centuries and been practiced for decades in the United States. Alaska sends residents a check every year from its oil investment fund (the amount varies based on state budgeting and gas prices), and some Native American reservations offer payments to citizens from gambling revenues. Progressive cities across the country are exploring such programs. In addition, Finland, Mongolia and Iran have also used forms of guaranteed income.

Won’t this discourage people from working?
First, this isn’t universal basic income, which calls for giving cash to everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Guaranteed income programs like the one Atlanta is considering are more targeted; one proposal Farokhi’s task force studied would give cash to single mothers living below the poverty line. A study of Finland’s two-year basic-income experiment—the country sent 2,000 randomly selected (and initially unemployed) citizens roughly $600 a month—found people who received the aid were more likely to find and keep a job and feel happier overall. When a person does quit their job while receiving the benefit, Farokhi says, it’s often to work as a caretaker for a loved one. In Jackson, Mississippi, a program called Magnolia Mother’s Trust gave 20 Black women living in extreme poverty $1,000 every month for a year, allowing them to pay off existing debts, save money for emergencies, or pay to go on a weekend trip with their children. The number of women increased to 110 in March.

When will this program launch?
Farokhi says he and the task force—other members include Dena Kimball, the executive director of the Kendeda Fund—are in talks with private philanthropists to bankroll a nonprofit that would operate the pilot program and the recurring payments. (Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is supportive.) How much they raise from donors will help determine how much the initiative can give and for how long. One model to help stabilize income calls for a group of 200 participants to receive either $800 or $200 a month for three years and would cost $5.1 million to operate, according to the task force’s report released in January. But the program could operate with even $1 million, Farokhi says. It might not solve Atlanta’s income inequality, but it could provide for a “floor of decency.”

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

Elections, online betting, citizen’s arrest: Georgia’s General Assembly enters the final stretch for 2021

Georgia Crossover Day 2021
The Georgia Capitol

Photograph by Rob Hainer via iStock/Getty Images Plus

Voting
More than 10 bills affecting voting laws made it past both chambers of Georgia’s legislature before the 30-day cut-off, keeping alive what’s become this year’s most closely watched issue under the Gold Dome. Lawmakers in both chambers will consider bills that propose doing away with no-excuse absentee voting, prohibiting mobile voting options like the buses used in 2020 by Fulton County elections officials, and giving poll watchers more oversight, among many other proposals.

Public Official Pay Raises
State senators on Monday rejected the hottest of political hot potatoes: upping the salaries for the first time in more than 20 years for themselves and other statewide constitutional officers. The measure sponsored by state Senator Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, would have increased state lawmakers’ pay 70 percent, from $17,342 to $29,908 (the lieutenant governor’s and House Speaker’s salaries would both top out at $135,000, up from roughly $90,000 now.) House leaders did not bring up a similar bill in the House, sponsored by state Representative Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock.

Citizen’s Arrest
In a rare show of unanimous bipartisanship, House lawmakers approved 173-0 a bill that would roll back the state’s citizen’s arrest law. Codified during the Civil War and rooted in racism, the antiquated measure came under a new round of scrutiny after a prosecutor argued it cleared the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery.

Criminal Justice
State Representative Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, continues his multi-year effort to reform and streamline how the state collects, analyzes, and stores evidence of alleged sexual assaults. His latest piece of legislation, House Bill 255, would create a system that allows sexual assault and rape victims to track the progress of their evidence, all the way to prosecution. Another Democrat-sponsored bill that passed the cut-off line would allow people who filed temporary restraining orders to opt in to receiving security checks from law enforcement.

Drag Racing
Both the House and Senate passed legislation to crack down on street racing—more often doughnuts in intersections and, occasionally, I-285 under the Atlanta airport. Supported by Governor Brian Kemp, the House’s version that passed on Crossover Day mandates fines and jail time for people who participate in or promote street racing events.

School Vouchers
Every year, Georgians can be eligible for a state tax credit if they contribute up to nonprofits that provide scholarships to students to private schools. Critics have likened the program to a school voucher—using public dollars to fund private education, though a legal challenge that made it to the Georgia Supreme Court was unsuccessful. Under the legislation passed 98-71 by the House on Monday, individuals would be able to contribute up to $2,500, and households up to $5,000. The sponsor, state Representative John Carson, R-Marietta, says his bill would also increase oversight of the program.

Wildcards
Other pieces of legislation of note, some of which passed in the days leading up to Crossover Day:

  • A bill to make permanent daylight savings time
  • A state constitutional amendment legalizing online sports betting (and dedicating some of the revenue raised to needs-based scholarships)
  • Legislation making the theft of packages from someone’s porch a felony
  • A proposal to cut state income taxes by an estimated $140 million
  • A push for additional paid parental leave for more than 250,000 employees of Georgia’s public higher education system
  • A measure that would prohibit cities and counties from cutting their public safety budgets by more than 5 percent each year—a GOP response to calls to “defund the police”

BeltLine officials need cash to finish the trail network. What will it cost Atlanta?

BeltLine officials need cash to finish the trail network. What will it cost Atlanta?
The Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail (before the pandemic)

Photograph by John Becker

When the Atlanta BeltLine was proposed in the mid-2000s, the year 2030, the date the project was scheduled to be completed, seemed far off. But as trail pavement was poured and dirt moved for new parks, the Great Recession walloped the project’s main funding source, known as a tax allocation district. In short, a TAD is a financing program that uses increases in property values to pay for infrastructure like paths, parks, and rail. But lawsuits over whether the BeltLine’s TAD should even exist, tax breaks for developers, and other legal battles also sapped the project’s funding.

Those blasts to the budget left Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit tasked with building the BeltLine, $1 billion short of the cash it needs to complete the loop. And though nearly a decade remains until that 2032 end date, BeltLine officials now say they need $350 million to complete the wildly popular trail network—and time to raise that cash is running out.

“The bottom line of this is, we will not finish the BeltLine trail in the next 10 years if we don’t do something different than just waiting on the TAD as our go-to resource,” says Clyde Higgs, the CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc. “The math doesn’t work out in our favor if we do not do something literally now. This is a significant opportunity in front of us.”

The solution, according to the BeltLine: draw a line around commercial properties and multi-family apartments near the project and levy what they consider a slight tax increase. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms supports the measure, known as a Special Services District, and the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, the project’s fundraising arm, is also on board, along with BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel. If the Atlanta City Council agrees, the so-called Special Services District could start hitting tax bills later this year.

Under the proposal, owners of commercial properties and multi-family apartments will pay slightly more in taxes for 10 years. Project officials would use that revenue to issue bonds that will raise an estimated $100 million toward completing the BeltLine trails. Higgs says the philanthropic community—both he and Rob Brawner, the executive director of the partnership, declined to name exactly who—has pledged to give $100 million. The TAD would contribute $100 million to the effort. BeltLine officials expect to receive the remaining $50 million in grants.

Starting next year, officials say, crews could start building out the remaining roughly 14 miles of the original 22-mile loop trail. Design-ready projects like the Southside Trail segment that will connect Adair Park and Grant Park could also start soliciting bids and starting construction. Once complete, the trail network will total roughly 33 miles, stretching not only around the city but also spurring off into neighborhoods such as English Avenue, Blandtown, and Buckhead.

Juan Calle, the owner of Buena Vida Tapas along the Eastside Trail in Old Fourth Ward, says he’s supportive of the proposal; he became familiar with the concept of self-taxing to pay for improvements when Big Sky, a restaurant he owns in Buckhead, became part of the neighborhood’s community improvement district. “If the BeltLine continues to increase its footprint, it’s going to benefit every single neighborhood, as well as the neighborhoods connected to it,” he says.

According to their estimates, BeltLine officials say, the tax hike on approximately 95 percent of the affected properties in nearly all the segments will come out to less than $1,000 a year until the district collects $100 million, for up to 30 years. (In the northside and northeast study areas, those percentages are 65 and 79 percent, respectively.) But the size of the property, its location, the year it was bought, and many other factors mean the tax will hit property owners differently. Landlords will likely pass that cost to their tenants. And while some businesses or property owners who can afford to set up shop (and stay in business) on the BeltLine might have the cash to soften the blow, others might not, putting them more at risk for potential displacement.

The boundaries of SSD roughly follow the path of the BeltLine loop and its planning area, but also veer into and away from the city in some areas to capture more commercial properties. Helping the proposal’s political chances, it excludes single-family homes, condos, and townhomes. In a commercial district like Little Five Points, some parcels fall just outside the proposed self-taxing district; Beltline officials say commercial properties along Moreland Avenue like Junkman’s Daughter, the Vortex Bar and Grill, and shops along Euclid Avenue fall outside the planning area. Sections of the Westside, where the trail has logistical and financial hurdles to overcome, appear to make up the largest chunk of the taxable properties.

Johnny Martinez and Brandon Ley, the owners of the Georgia Beer Garden and Joystick Gamebar, located half a mile from the BeltLine on Edgewood Avenue, question why their and their neighbors’ businesses are included. He says they see zero traffic or revenue from the BeltLine, and think the self-taxing measure will make it more difficult to rally fellow businesses and property owners to create a community improvement district for Old Fourth Ward, which could pay for public safety and infrastructure improvements specifically for the popular nightlife area.

“City Hall tends to have a preference for figuring out ways to make improvements to the city that encourages people to move to the city, then we’re not really doing the things we need to do for the people who already live in the city,” Martinez says “The reality is, the better you make things for the people who live in the city, the more people are going to want [to live here].”

The SSD proposal has also drawn criticism from BeltLine Rail Now, an advocacy group pushing project officials to build out the BeltLine’s transit program. They argue that a pot of funding like the Special Services District could also help raise the cash for rail alongside the trail—the foundation of Gravel’s graduate student thesis that started the entire BeltLine project—and affordable housing. During a recent virtual town hall meeting hosted by Atlanta Beltline Inc., attendees pressed the issue, and even asked why BeltLine officials were aiming so small with the amount of money that could be collected.

BeltLine officials say that finding a new source of funding for the trail network would free up tens of millions of dollars in TAD funding for affordable housing, and they have plans for Atlanta Beltline Inc.-owned property to include affordable space for small businesses. And with more trails comes more development, which builds density and thus support for transit along the BeltLine. The question for property owners and the public is whether the project deserves the financial pinch, as small as it might be.

Why a diverse coalition wants to repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law

Georgia Citizen's Arrest LawAfter three private citizens were charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a diverse coalition of activists, politicians, and even some police want to modify Georgia’s Civil War–era citizen’s arrest law.

What is a citizen’s arrest law?
Versions of the law vary in the roughly 40 states where it is on the books. Basically, in Georgia, if private citizens witness or suspect another person of committing a felony, they can detain him or her until law enforcement arrives to make a formal arrest. The roots of Georgia’s statute date to 13th-century England, when King Edward I encouraged townspeople to chase down and detain ne’er-do-wells until guards could arrive. The law has been used to justify lynchings, such as the 1946 murder of two Black couples on Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County.

Why are people talking about citizen’s arrest?
In February 2020, three white men chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black jogger they suspected was responsible for a series of burglaries in Brunswick, Georgia. George Barnhill, the Waycross Circuit district attorney who advised the Brunswick police, cited the citizen’s arrest law to justify not charging the killers because Arbery fought back. The previous year, Hannah Payne claimed it excused her for pursuing and fatally shooting Kenneth Herring, a 62-year-old Black man who drove away from a car accident while experiencing possible diabetic shock. Both cases are still in Georgia courts. Outrage over the killings, plus renewed awareness about racial injustice after the killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor, spurred calls to overhaul—or outright repeal—Georgia’s law.

Who’s on board with changing the law?
Nearly everyone. Marissa McCall Dodson of the Southern Center for Human Rights says it’s an antiquated law when police are rarely more than a few minutes away. The Georgia NAACP agrees. Addressing Arbery’s killing during this year’s State of the State address, Governor Brian Kemp said, “The deranged behavior that led to this tragedy was excused away because of an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.” In mid-February, floor leader state Representative Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, introduced legislation that would carve exemptions for business owners to hold shoplifters and for police officers working private jobs. On March 8, the Georgia House unanimously passed this legislation, House Bill 479.

What’s the sticking point?
Some groups, like the SCHR, want the law repealed outright. Business groups want the law’s overhaul to include legal protections for shops and restaurants to detain shoplifters and dine-and-dashers. In addition, some Second Amendment groups like Georgia Carry don’t want a repeal to modify so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which allow the use of lethal force in public when someone feels threatened, but which critics say encourages vigilantism.

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.

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