A rendition of what might possibly take place on the Atlanta Beltline appeared on a large screen facing dozens of people sitting on white folding chairs inside Uptown Towers, a mixed-use project at Lindbergh Station. The 2023 State of the Beltline took place across the street from MARTA headquarters Tuesday morning and one of the many topics of discussion during the annual meeting was titled “Enhancing Equity & Mobility with Transit” in the program, but could have been summed up in just two words: housing and transit.
To transit or not to transit
With all of the walkability that takes place on the Beltline, for many the opportunity for a transit system is the next logical step in the ongoing development process. Higgs called transit the “DNA of the Atlanta Beltline” and added that “having transit is something that is really a necessity, it’s not necessarily something nice to have.”
While Atlanta Beltline CEO Clyde Higgs was talking, photos of a transit system in France, with its inner city train running through neighborhoods and walking trails, popped up on the big screen behind him. Though there are no definitive plans for transit projects, just ideas and cool renderings at this point, there is a projected starting point. The eastside trail will be where any transit projects will begin, according to Higgs. He explained that that portion of the Atlanta Beltline is ready right now.
“It comes down to what’s ready today,” said Higgs. “When you think about it from a shovel-ready perspective the east side of the Beltline is ready to go in regards to a technical assessment of future transit. You have to think about how we constructed the Beltline, we did not do this in a clockwise perspective. We have to do segments that are ready.”
Some of the concerns about transit construction taking place on the Beltline are similar to the concerns that ultimately united many of the city’s residents and many others that do not live and work in Atlanta around the “Cop City” movement: the trees. Will there be a mass removal of trees in the area? Higgs said he hears those concerns. “We are not going to be tone deaf with regard to this conversation,” Higgs said. “The bulk of the challenge that we are having comes down to aesthetics. You can literally have grass tracks underneath streetcars. There are a number of ways to soften this, because what we mean by Beltline transit is something very green, very approachable. We are talking about a 50 mile-per-hour vehicle that will be barreling down the Beltline.”
Higgs reminisced about the State of the Beltline event that took place four years ago and how much energy was in that room inside Park Tavern. He remembered there was a lot of enthusiasm about what the Beltline could be. “This is a very reflective time for me,” he said. “I will tell you, looking forward, this is perhaps the golden year for the Beltline.”
Along with the three ribbon-cuttings that have taken place throughout the year, there is another scheduled to take place on the northeast trail on the morning of Wed., November 1, according to Higgs. The Beltline continues to grow without a clear plan of what piece of the Beltline, and subsequent neighborhood or section of town will be next.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who was the first featured speaker to take the stage, spoke of a transit system not disrupting what is currently taking place on the Beltline. “What the Beltline really is doing is connecting us and in many cases reconnecting us,” said Dickens who went on to say the 22-mile trail connects students to schools, people to work and “hopefully people to more jobs.”
The mayor said there are “high hopes” for the Beltline and the promise of transit will “serve to integrate with and not disrupt what Atantans have already fallen in love with on the Beltline.”
“Affordable” housing is part of Beltline legacy
Part of those high hopes for the Beltline are affordable housing, something that is hard to find at the moment. Nearly 90 acres along the Beltline is earmarked for the development of affordable housing, according to Higgs, who was joined by Atlanta Beltline Partnership Executive Director Rob Brawner.
The Legacy Resident Retention Program was one of the Beltline-related programs that has received funding from a number of sources. “The Beltline is this big bold vision for Atlanta and it is powered by the people of Atlanta, and that includes the corporate and philanthropic community here in the city,” Brawner said. He explained that the program is funded through the 2030 tax year and there are still efforts to drum up more funding.
There have been philanthropic efforts from major companies such as Bank of America and Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, to name a few, to help cover rising property taxes, according to Brawner. The goal being to help “protect legacy residents” that live in the neighborhoods that make up the Beltline area, Brawner said. “What’s really important is helping them hold on to that home and maintain that wealth,” he added.
“We hear that a lot of people choose Atlanta because of the Beltline,” said Brawner who along with Higgs was joined by City of Atlanta COO Lisa Benjamin, MARTA General Manager Collie Greenwood, New City Properties President Jim Irwin and Portman Holdings Chairman and CEO Ambrish Baisiwala on stage later in the morning.
Tuesday’s State of the Beltline was the ninth and final “State of” event of the year, according to Council for Quality Growth President and CEO Michale Paris.
“As we think about the legacy for the Beltline we want to make sure that all of Atlanta is enjoying the largess of the Atlanta Beltline,” Higgs said.