Sunday, November 23, 2014

Atlanta’s Beltline and Uncertain Futures for an Inclusive City

Photo Credit: Atlanta Beltline Inc.

Posted by Jonathan Coe, ATLANTA, GA -- The Atlanta Beltline began as a Master Thesis by Ryan Gravel a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology and gained momentum as a grassroots effort well over a decade ago. The Beltline is one of the largest urban redevelopment projects going on in the country with new trails, art, retail and housing along a 22-mile loop of historic and mostly unused rail that surround the city. Sections of the Beltline have already been completed and the final project will connect 45 in-town neighborhoods – neighborhoods that vary greatly in terms of racial and socioeconomic composition.

                                                          Photo Credit: Atlanta Beltline Inc.

Public transportation in Atlanta is furnished by MARTA, a rail and bus system notorious for its lack of coverage in the sprawling “Capital of the South.” MARTA was one of the Beltline’s first supporters, endorsing it as a future transportation option in Atlanta. Consultants were hired, land was purchased, and Atlanta Beltline Inc. (ABI) was formed to oversee the development and garnering federal and private funds. By 2010, the Beltline began unveiling new phases for redevelopment, hosting 5k races and art exhibitions, and holding public forums on plans for future amenities. 

By 2011, the Beltline acquired land for affordable housing development for those making under the median city income. That same year, a developer purchased the long-abandoned City Hall East building with plans to redevelop the space into a high-end, mixed-use behemoth – Ponce City Market. The proposed site is advantageously located directly on the Beltline in the trendy Ponce-Highland retail area.

At the same time, the Beltline’s Equitable Development Plan emphasizes a balance of economic, environmental and social considerations. While ABI plans on developing thousands of affordable housing units in Beltline neighborhoods, it currently has just over 100. Meanwhile, high-rise condos and lavish office space are taking root at a much faster pace. In the area around Ponce City Market alone, one development will be home to 238 high-priced single-family units. The Market itself will house companies in the IT, marketing, and (fittingly) architecture and real estate industries. There are many new loft-style developments on the Southeast Trail, many renting for thousands and selling for hundreds of thousands for a one-bedroom unit. The discrepancy between affluent in-town living and affordability in the city core resembles income inequality and gentrification trends seen in Atlanta for over a half-century (Atlanta has been ranked one of the most gentrified cities in the United States multiple times).  

Public transportation in Atlanta has been criticized as insufficient for such an internationally-relevant city. MARTA’s two main lines barely extend beyond the sprawling city’s perimeter, leaving huge portions of both the city and its suburbs underserved. The marriage between MARTA and the Beltline was supposed to provide users with diverse and more comprehensive transportation options. Yet, after ten years, there has been little progress. According to the Beltline website, all that the ABI, the city, and MARTA have accomplished has been a number of feasibility studies.


Atlanta has also been working on a street car initiative, and in October 2014 it began testing its finished product. The downtown Streetcar system links the east and west portions of the Beltline while connecting business with culture entities along the way. The Connect Atlanta Plan has determined that the most effective short-term strategy is to limit the Streetcar to downtown and midtown. ABI says it wants to improve quality of life and accessibility, and its Plan is to attract new real estate development and businesses. Given MARTA’s dysfunctional reputation and the limitation of Streetcar-Beltline connectivity to downtown and midtown, it is unlikely the Beltline will find an effective transportation partner any time soon. 

The Beltline’s Westside Trail is housed in the West End, a historically black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta. This area was hit hard by the Recession and, with the Beltline looming, long-time residents are uncertain about the future supply of affordable housing. The “interim” Westside Trail is cleared but unpaved, and its backdrop includes “Warehouse Row,” a series of large abandoned warehouses directly on the trail. One of the largest is the former Exide Battery plant that closed in 1988. A private firm bought the plant in 2006 for mixed-use redevelopment but has yet to clear the area, which is still contaminated with pollution from the plant. According to the Beltline, the area is on the EPA’s Superfund list and is expected to be taken care of soon. But Exide, who is obligated to clean up fifteen similar sites across the country, is bankrupt, leaving the fate of the site unknown.


Since 2009 the nonprofit Living Walls has commissioned artists from around the world to paint murals around Atlanta, and much of this art is on the Beltline. In December 2012, residents of the Pittsburgh neighborhood, a low to moderate income African American community, convinced officials to paint over a mural by French artist Pierre Roti because they were displeased by its “demonic” images. The incident in Pittsburgh called attention to the lack of public involvement regarding the location of the murals, their content, and who will create them. Living Walls and local councilpersons have since pledged to increase public involvement, but the issue still underscores issues of income and racial inequality, disproportionate political capital, and gentrification in the city.

                                                                                                                                                      Photo Credit: David Rotenstein

Jonathan Coe is a Masters of Public Policy student at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. You can reach Jonathan at

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