Many people don’t typically think of the Atlanta Beltline as more than a trail for biking, walking, and enjoying Metro Atlanta’s great outdoors.
However, according to Atlanta Beltline CEO Clyde Higgs, the Beltline has been a catalyst for so much more, including improving affordable housing, diversifying neighborhoods along the trail, and generally advancing the quality of life for all Atlantans.
As such, Higgs and his team have taken strategic action to position the organization to be intentional about how it combats a slew of inequities, including “infrastructural racism,” and, more recently, the ways the Beltline has coped with the impact of COVID-19.
“The economic development impact of COVID-19, while not solidified by a definitive set of numbers, has been extraordinary,” Higgs said. “COVID-19 has introduced an enormous amount of uncertainty for both employers and employees along the Beltline.
“As people work to balance and prioritize their health against the need for financial viability, we know it has been tough,” he added. “Individuals in some instances have concerns about re-engaging in the economy because of ongoing concerns for their health and that of others.
“As businesses were forced to close and furlough employees back in March, they are now managing customer demand, against financial viability, human safety and potential liability. We remain optimistic that the majority of businesses will ultimately prove to be resilient.”
Recently, the popular New Realm Brewing company on the eastside trail of the Beltline temporarily closed its doors on June 26 after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.
Next door, The Brasserie and Estrella at Bazati — one being a trendy French restaurant and the other a rooftop bar — both closed after employees contracted COVID-19 at their establishments.
All three restaurants will now test their employees and thoroughly sanitize their dining rooms before reopening for service at a later date.
“On the more positive side, businesses have been encouraged to re-evaluate business strategies and consider product and service options that would not have been on the table before COVID-19,” Higgs explained. “And with the ongoing pandemic, we are even more excited about our newest healthcare facility on the trail, Wellstar’s primary care office run by Dr. Randolph Taylor and Terrica Rumph as his nurse practitioner.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, the Atlanta Beltline has become a place for Atlantans who are sick of ‘being stuck at home’ to a place where many have ventured for their mental and emotional well-being, as well as for a quick outdoor walk, run, stroll or ride.
At varying degrees, Higgs accepts that this flexibility has been abused by some, but many users are compliant and adhere to CDC social distancing recommendations.
According to the Atlanta Beltline’s website, its COVID-19 Safety and Etiquette campaign implores users to wear masks, practice social distancing, and practice other etiquettes.
Moreover, the Beltline encourages the usage of the trail for older adults, people with disabilities, and those with compromised health conditions — asthma, respiratory conditions, etc. — between 6 a.m.-10 a.m.
From 10 a.m.-2 p.m., the Beltline is for individuals who don’t have any underlying health conditions, and from 2 p.m. -10 p.m., the Beltline is intended for individuals who are traveling to and from work.
“For the Beltline, COVID-19 allowed us to serve more as a utility tool (transit corridor) for everyday necessities instead of just a recreational or leisurely amenity; we’ve also seen fluctuating traffic volume from our users because of the current environment.”
One of the benefits touted by the Atlanta Beltline is its ability to connect job centers and residential areas without the need for a car, thus cutting down on expenses and actually elevating the quality of life for residents who utilize the trail.
Density and transit are intrinsically tied together and are key pillars of affordability. Higgs said he’s looking to complete the 22-mile loop of transit and multi-use trails, which ultimately will create and preserve thousands of units of affordable housing, support the creation of tens of thousands of jobs, fuel economic growth for the City and region, create new parks and grow the largest public temporary outdoor art exhibition.
Higgs said the Beltline is also involved in several redevelopment projects, including Pittsburgh Yards, 760 Ralph McGill (the former Georgia Power Site), Cut Rate Box in Southwest Atlanta, several West Midtown & Southside developments, and hopefully Ponce City Market’s next phase in the near term.
He also said any new developments will create jobs and multi-family housing will also do the same.
“There are eight multi-family developments we are currently following, which when completed will bring 1,406 units, of which 886 units will be affordable,” Higgs explained.
These developments include residences in Old Fourth Ward, Mechanicsville, Summerhill and the West End.
“The Beltline is anxious for each of these developments to have appropriate financial closings and timely completion of the construction of the units,” Higgs said.
For 2019, the Beltline and its housing partners (City of Atlanta, Atlanta Housing, Invest Atlanta, Fulton County and the Department of Community Affairs) exceeded the annual housing unit production number of 250 by closing on 367 affordable housing units in the tax allocation district.
Higgs said he would like to see even more mixed-use developments that bring attainable jobs for legacy and neighborhood residents of Atlanta Beltline communities.
Further, Higgs said he understands that the Beltline has an important role to play in socio-economic advancement and the unification of Atlanta neighborhoods.
“The Beltline stands with advocates who are calling for an end to structural inequities and the creation of more equitable conditions in communities, Higgs explained. “We will be intentional, work to build trust, and operate with empathy and concern for residents and businesses along the Beltline who have felt isolated and marginalized.”
“Our only option is to come together as one, respect each other, and reimagine a new reality where all lives are valued, and everyone thrives,” Higgs said. “Our future and our city depend on us coming together as One Atlanta.”
Higgs made it clear that the Atlanta Beltline is available to all and really is known as the “People’s Project.”
During this time where society so badly needs connectivity and unity, Higgs said the Beltline will connect 45 different neighborhoods in Atlanta. And even those neighborhoods not directly adjacent to or touching the Beltline will still be positively impacted by its programs and infrastructure.