Friday, February 25, 2011

Tour the Atlanta Beltine

 The old Bellwood Quarry: home to Atlanta's soon-to-be largest park

Every Friday and Saturday morning the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, the non-profit and educational arm of the Atlanta Beltline, gives free bus tours circumnavigating the city, exploring the ongoing progress of one of the country's largest and multifaceted development projects. I just got off the bus, and the tour absolutely gets the seal of approval.

Although lengthy (3 hours, with two opportunities to de-board), the bus led by a seasoned volunteer performs switchbacks across the 22-mile loop of underutilized rail line and surrounding neighborhoods that were once at the heart of Atlanta's industrial lifeblood. Ever since tractor trailers replaced locomotives as the primary means of industrial transport, the Beltline rail has been in decline. The Atlanta Beltline project was initially conceived by a Georgia Tech student endeavoring to bring life back to underperforming regions.

So what's the plan? The loop is located entirely in the city of Atlanta and Fulton County lining Piedmont and Inman Park to the east, the Capitol View and Pittsburgh neighborhoods south of Turner Field, near Westview Cemetery and the new Westside Park to the West, and connecting to the Lindburgh Marta station on the northern end. This massive loop will boast streetcar transit and pedestrian trails throughout, with additional spur trails covering 33 miles of 45 Atlanta neighborhoods. The project will add 1300 acres of new green space, while connecting new and old parks in an "emerald necklace".

The benefits of the plan are plentiful. As one of the nation's most congested cities, the Beltline will add a public transportation infrastructure that should reduce the burden of Atlanta's street traffic. Additional public transportation systems, such as MARTA, Atlanta Streetcar and regional bus systems, will intersect the Beltline, further promoting public transportation usage.

Economic reinvestment in Atlanta's neighborhoods is one of the great boons of the project. In its current form, the Beltline traverses countless brownfield, eye-sore, contaminated and vacant industrial sites. In addition to cleaning and beautifying these locations, the Beltline will attract new residential and commercial growth. As a matter of fact, this development has already begun in neighborhoods like the Old Fourth Ward and West Midtown to name a few. Because the project builds upon preexisting railway infrastructure, the Beltline largely avoids issues such as immanent domain.  The Atlanta Beltline Inc. promises to avoid gentrification by including in its financing Atlanta's largest investment in affordable housing to date. As such, the goal of the project is not to reinvent established and historic neighborhoods forcing residents away from their communities, but to develop the properties for the benefit of all residents, old and new. The Beltline predicts 30,000 new jobs resulting from its projects and subsequent private development. And if art is your thing, well, the Beltline features outdoor paintings and sculptures, which are already popping up around the city.

Even if you're a native Atlantan, this tour will take you to areas you've most likely never been. It is wonderful to envision how this project will shape our interconnected communities in the years to come. The highlight of the trip for me was undoubtedly the old granite Bellwood Quarry on the west side, descending 600 feet below the natural tree line. When completed, it will be Atlanta's largest public park, Westside Park, and will double as a reservoir holding a 30-day supply of water. Just to see the quarry before it's filled is worth the price of admission...oh wait, tour admission is free. The potential of this project for the city and its inhabitants is immense, and it's up to Atlantans to support it--with our votes, our dollars and our voices. See how: