Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | September 28, 2016
The Atlanta BeltLine, which transformed 22 miles of old railroad tracks into trails that connect dozens of different neighborhoods and parks in a loop around downtown, has been hailed as “one of the boldest sustainability projects in urban America.” It’s been compared to New York City’s much-praised High Line. CityLab calls it the “largest redevelopment project in Atlanta’s history.”
But it’s also been plagued by questions of gentrification and affordability as new townhouses and apartments have sprung up along the popular trail. Now, the BeltLine board members Nathaniel Smith and Ryan Gravel — the project’s creator — have resigned, citing equity issues, according to Atlanta journalist Maria Saporta.
In its latest budget approved in September, the Atlanta BeltLine organization said it planned to set aside $7.5 million for affordable housing, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported that only 560 units inside the BeltLine Tax Allocation District are affordable. But officials have said they plan to increase that amount ten-fold by 2030.
Questions of affordability are not new to the project, and Gravel spoke with urbanist Richard Florida about the threat of gentrification that sometimes accompanies big projects like the BeltLine in March.
“That’s why the ownership of the Atlanta BeltLine by the people of Atlanta is so critical — the role of the public is to keep the implementers in line,” Gravel said in the interview. “The problems aren’t transit, parks and grocery stores. They are rising taxes and rents, and there are many proven tools to tackle these issues if we summon the collective will to do so.”
The idea for the BeltLine came from Gravel’s 1999 master’s thesis at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This metropolitan area, with both uncontrollable suburban growth and extensive inner city gentrification,” he wrote, “suffers most of all from traffic congestion and the ecological consequences of unmitigated sprawl.”
Recognizing the transformative power of infrastructure and its stamp on Atlanta’s development to date, he proposed a 22-mile line of light-rail that would repurpose historic, underutilized rail lines circling the urban core. “Railroads defined Atlanta’s origins and continue to influence spatial relationships,” noted Gravel.
Though Atlanta’s downtown had suffered from decades of white flight and suburban sprawl, Gravel noted, that worsening traffic helped renew interest in the city’s core. A light-rail loop could help spur transit-oriented development. “Metro Atlanta must recognize that the kinds of environments that an automobile-dominated infrastructure creates are becoming less desirable,” he concluded. “The Belt Line light-rail transit line has the potential to not only offer a new layer of public transportation, but also change the way we experience and understand the city.”
Over time, that vision transformed instead into a ring of trails and parks around the downtown that would transform the city, “with a combination of rail, trail, greenspace, housing and art,” according to the Atlanta BeltLine organization.
After gaining traction with city officials, the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership was formed in 2005. A year later, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. formed to manage the project as a public-private partnership with funding from federal, state and local governments as well as private sources. Via a tax allocation district, the project receives diverted tax revenue from the city, county and public schools among other sources of revenue. The first section of trail opened in 2008. Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. also hopes to eventually run streetcar lines along all or part of the converted corridor. The full 22-mile loop will be completed by 2030 but the existing trail segments have already drawn crowds and large events.
But what started as a grassroots effort, wrote Gravel and Smith in their resignation letters Monday, had transformed into an operation increasingly focused on funding. The two said they were still optimistic about the project’s future and “committed to remain active in its implementation for the people of this city,” but that they felt “compelled to concentrate our efforts more directly on making sure that the Atlanta BeltLine lives up to its promise and potential, and specifically, that its investments and supporting policies become more intentional about who they will benefit.”
In the letters, the board members said the promise of $7.5 million in bonds in the latest budget “will likely support fewer than 200 affordable units,” calling it “a drop in the bucket when compared to the need.” The partnership responded in a statement saying it was committed to working with Gravel and Smith in the future.
The project has long been tied to affordable housing. In its comprehensive plan for The Trust for Public Land prepared by urban planner Alex Garvin and his team in 2004, the state director for the Trust argued that not only could the BeltLine contribute green space in a car-centric city but that it could also spur economic development, including affordable housing specifically. The project also sought to connect a segregated city with one of the highest rates of income inequality.
In some ways, the project has been a success. “The tracks used to divide us, and the BeltLine now brings us together,” city council member Kwanza Hall told CityLab’s Rebecca Burns. “The BeltLine surely has been the biggest driver for bringing us together as a city. That’s a beautiful thing.”
And Rebecca Serna, executive director of the city’s bicycle coalition told the Atlantic that she saw many more people embracing bicycling along the trail in a city long ruled by cars but that some hope can turn to alternative modes of transportation. “Trails don’t have to be just for recreation,” she said. “This is a trail that goes somewhere.”
But Gravel and Smith said they hoped their resignations would be “the beginning of a more robust and effective coalition of voices that can ensure that the project’s full, inclusive vision is realized. Only then can we call it a success.”