Atlanta prides itself on being known as the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1996 Olympic Games and the world’s busiest airport. But the metro area also faces challenges common to many major cities, namely transportation, sprawl and redevelopment.
Now, a new project is emerging that could rank among Atlanta’s proudest while also leading to new transportation and cultural directions, linking the city as never before.
The Atlanta BeltLine is a proposed 22-mile ring of walking and biking trails built on long-abandoned railroad tracks around Atlanta’s core. The ambitious project has 17 years to go before its proposed finish. But it already is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy and connecting neighborhoods previously separated by a culture built almost entirely for automobiles.
Indeed, the BeltLine is unique in the country and, as far as anyone can tell, in the world. The project is drawing accolades for its innovative approach to transit, community redevelopment, environmentalism, healthy lifestyles and more from the likes of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In May 2014, the International Real Estate Federation called it the best environmental rehabilitation project in the world.
Its closest cousin seems to be New York’s High Line, a 1.7-mile stretch of elevated walkway in Manhattan. And it’s being used as a model for smaller projects around the country, where changing demographics and lifestyle preferences are calling for smarter, greener ways of urban living – and for celebrating unique cultural heritage.
A Student’s BrainstormThe Atlanta BeltLine is the brainchild of urban planner Ryan Gravel. He’s 42 now, but was just a graduate student at Georgia Tech when he conceived the idea and wrote about it for his thesis.
Gravel grew up in Atlanta’s suburbs, where he and his friends drove to the mall rather than walk or bike around town. But then he spent a year studying in Paris, walking and riding trains to school, losing weight and feeling connected to the people and community.
“My morning commute took 45 minutes,” Gravel recalls. “I’d walk down the street, see the baker, see the same old man walking his dog every day, the women at the ticket counter, the same people on the train... You’re participating in the life of a city, you look people in the eye, you acknowledge people that you know.”
It was all a nice idea but nothing more – until later when Gravel started working on a local project and casually mentioned his old idea to colleagues. They loved it so much that they sent letters to 50 government and community leaders, netting the attention of Atlanta City Councilmember Cathy Woolard, who became the BeltLine’s earliest champion.
Woolard said the earliest BeltLine proposal spoke directly to several issues she was dealing with in her district and as chairperson of the city’s Transportation Committee. She began sharing it with community groups and embedding necessary language within city regulations to ensure the project could get going.
Coca-Cola was an early BeltLine supporter, contributing $2.1 million since 2005.
“Certainly the BeltLine benefits the community at large, so you’ve got business, government and civil society working together for the good of everyone. At Coke, we call that the 'Golden Triangle,' so it worked very nicely for us,” says Lisa Borders, who succeeded Woolard as City Council president and is now chair of The
Borders calls the project “iconic, impactful and inspiring” and says it aligns with Coke's core values, including promoting healthy, active lifestyles.
‘An Interesting Conversation’With grassroots and political support growing, the BeltLine also enjoyed contributions from other top corporations in Atlanta, including Delta Air Lines and The Home Depot.
Still, even Gravel didn’t realize its full potential at that point. “For the first year and a half, I didn’t really think we were going to build it,” he recalls. “I just thought we were having an interesting conversation.”
The tipping point for him came at a public hearing, when Gravel overheard strangers drumming up support for “our BeltLine.”
For many in the community, the point came when the first portion of the trail opened in 2012. Suddenly, the grad student’s romantic notion was tangible. Real. And really cool. The 2-mile stretch connected several prosperous neighborhoods starting at the tony, but hip, Inman Park and going to Piedmont Park, the city’s crown jewel of open space and site of most of its largest community festivals.
- More than 2,700 apartments and residences, appealing to two key markets: young professionals and “empty nesters,” or older couples who want to live in the city now that their children have left home.
- The Ponce City Market, a separate huge redevelopment of a 2 million-square-foot department store built a century ago. It’s being shepherded by Jamestown Properties in the manner of its Chelsea Market in New York.
- Trendy restaurants and shops with bike racks and patios overlooking the trail, and marketing that highlights the connection.
“It’s genuinely bringing people together,” Morris says.
If You GoThe two-mile stretch of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail offers a great way to spend a few hours, whether you’re visiting Atlanta for business or pleasure. Here are a few highlights along the way, starting at the southern end at Irwin Street.
- Krog Street Market just opened, with a variety of restaurants and a few shops. It’s one of several redevelopments of old commercial space in the area.
- Start your walk or ride with an ice cream cone from Jeni’s there or at the Jake’s at the trailhead. It’s in a funky little collective of shops worthy of a stroll.
- Or, for finer dining before or after, try Kevin Rathbun Steak, from the celebrity chef and BeltLine supporter.
- At Inman Park, wander off for a frozen treat from The King of Pops (as in popsicles) or a margarita at Pure Taqueria.
- Adventurous kids (and kids at heart) might want to try the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark just past the Freedom Parkway overpass.
- Next stop: The grocery store formerly known as “Murder Kroger” recently gave itself a fab makeover worth seeing when you stop at the nearby...
- Ponce City Market, a stunning redevelopment project of a massive old Sears store that’s now home to apartments, businesses and restaurants.
- You’ll pass more places for a drink or a bite on your way to Piedmont Park, a high point of any visit to Atlanta and itself worthy of a leisurely stroll or bike ride.
Part Two: Next week, we'll explore how the Atlanta BeltLine is part of a bigger idea.