Can the Atlanta BeltLine find its way?
Kourtenay Roberts tries to attend Mardi Gras every year in New Orleans. But the closest such festival she can find near her home in Lithonia is the Atlanta BeltLine Lantern Parade. In early September the T-shirt designer and special effects makeup artist sits on a concrete embankment under Freedom Parkway with her grade-school-aged sons, Dillon and Kal-El, and teenage daughter, Aja. They watch as tens of thousands of revelers and a brass band march by with glowing paper lanterns of 20-foot-tall ghosts, Millennium Falcons, and even Murder Kroger. Roberts grew up in nearby Decatur and barely remembers what this area looked like 20 years ago, mostly because there wasn’t much to see.
It’s safe to say the majority of parade watchers—the graying gay couple holding hands, the young husband and wife with their baby asleep in the stroller, the pack of millennials straddling bikes and drinking beers—didn’t come anywhere near here back then either. A decade ago the spot where Roberts is sitting was a drainage ditch and a canvas for graffiti. Before Tony Hawk helped build the adjoining $5 million skate park, skateboarders brought bags of cement and poured homemade quarter pipes on a vacant concrete lot under a TV transmission tower. The multi-use path itself was a set of rusted railroad tracks covered with brush and surrounded by a miniforest that offered safe haven for homeless people, a short walk from shelters like the Open Door Community on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Before there was Krog Street Market, there was a half-empty warehouse. Before Ponce City Market, there was a 2.1 million square foot albatross of a municipal building hanging around the necks of taxpayers. Developer John Morrison bought a cluster of underused buildings backing up against an abandoned rail line in 1989 for roughly $350,000. Today the properties are home to the thriving Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall and the Virginia Cotton Dock Lofts.
Ten years on, a 14-foot-wide concrete trail, new parks, and the promise of transit—plus what the mix of the three could create—have shifted the way Atlanta thinks about Atlanta. No longer do we reflexively get in our cars to buy groceries or go out for dinner. We turn out in droves, on weekends, weekdays, and late nights, not just to get somewhere but to be there. In a metro region that’s so short on walkable neighborhoods it has to build them from scratch, the BeltLine has become a grand boulevard that—dare we say it—could rival Peachtree as our most distinguished thoroughfare.
It was an idea that was antithetical to Atlanta. Yet it was so Atlanta: audacious, huge in scope, and just enough on the right side of impossible to make it worth pursuing. Proposed in 1999 by a Georgia Tech grad student named Ryan Gravel as a transit line circling the city’s core, it found a champion in then City Councilwoman Cathy Woolard and an eager audience in neighborhoods who saw it as a way to fuel their ascent. Others seized it as a vehicle to replenish the city’s tree canopy, increase its park acreage, add public art, and address flooding. “My ulterior motive was always to make Atlanta the kind of place you want to live in,” Gravel says. “At the time I wasn’t sure I did. But now it’s pretty amazing.”
But when Nathaniel Smith first heard of the project in the early 2000s, the now leader of the Partnership for Southern Equity was skeptical. As a black man who grew up in Kirkwood, experiencing gentrification firsthand, he knew the pros and cons of progress. Yet Smith, who was tapped by an affordable housing advocacy organization to serve on a task force to ensure the BeltLine remained inclusive, was also optimistic. Plans required that 15 percent of bond issuances go toward housing for people living on low to middle incomes. There was momentum toward equity. But Smith says pursuit of profit and an increased tax base began to elbow out safeguards against social injustice. Community engagement became more about maintaining the $4.5 billion project’s public image than finding a place for everyone to live. “The lantern parades became more important, and BeltLine yoga became more important, than the affordable housing crisis,” he says. Later, as a board member of the BeltLine Partnership, whose mission is to raise cash and awareness about the project, he heard others question whether the organization should even play a role in preserving affordability.
Before the concrete had cured on the Eastside Trail, tenants were jolted by notices that their rents would be rising by hundreds of dollars per month. Apartment developers who couldn’t turn dirt during the Great Recession found they could eschew the BeltLine’s affordability incentives, construct complexes priced at market rates, and still make a tidy profit. The BeltLine was fuel on the white-hot fire of an urban in-migration greater than anyone ever expected.
And rent has become too damn high, not just along the BeltLine but also in much of Atlanta, says Dan Immergluck, a former planning professor at Georgia Tech who now teaches at Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute. While rents are increasing as much as 8 to 10 percent each year in close-in neighborhoods such as Home Park, says Immergluck, wages are not rising. In 2015 he noted that 95 percent of all new multifamily housing built in the city between 2012 and 2014 was marketed as luxury. At the same time, the city lost 5,000 affordable units. In a stunning blow the following year, Gravel and Smith both resigned from the BeltLine Partnership because project leaders were not making affordability a priority. An August report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution concluded that the BeltLine lagged behind its goals of building affordable units during the recession because there was little new development—and then failed to enforce priorities once the economy rebounded. In the wake of the bad publicity, Paul Morris, the president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. during the boom years, also resigned.
We’ve had a recent awakening, and the city now requires developers using public subsidies to include more affordable units. Under a current proposal by Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens, some developments within a half-mile of the BeltLine might even be required by the city to include the units, regardless of whether they use incentives or not. ABI and the Atlanta Housing Authority, largely missing of late, have teamed up to build new units that could spark $45 million in new investment for people living on lower incomes. The BeltLine Partnership is now vocally calling for equitable solutions, not just along the project but citywide. And Brian McGowan, ABI’s new head, says the project and all it entails must include less affluent Atlantans.
If the issue is left unaddressed, Smith says Atlanta could become another prohibitively expensive city like San Francisco or Washington, D.C. Low-income Atlantans who bought into the promise of intown renewal will have essentially subsidized their own displacement. Smith says that Atlanta “talks a lot about our legacy as . . . a beacon on the hill for all people, a mecca of opportunity for people of color, and a place where folks came together.” However, if trends don’t change, he warns, “we’re going to be talking in past tense. The folks that make this city rich, vibrant, and diverse will not be able to play a part in its future because they won’t be able to afford to live here.”
Though the BeltLine traverses nearly half the city and sends ripple effects wherever it passes, the trail alone can’t bear the burdens of solving affordability, inspiring better architecture, getting people out of cars, or curing other urban maladies. Whoever moves into Mayor Kasim Reed’s office—at a pivotal time in the city’s history, when it has added nearly 10,000 residents in the past year alone and is a contender for Amazon’s second headquarters and the nearly 50,000 high-paying jobs it would bring—must ensure the city doesn’t dismiss equity as a buzzword. Only then will a growing Atlanta retain the essence of the city it used to be. —Thomas Wheatley