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Friday, April 18, 2014 - 10:50am

The Atlanta Beltline: Transforming Atlanta's Urban Culture

"Mommy says nobody walks the streets of downtown Atlanta anymore. You’re either riding in a car, or walking across a bridge between the buildings and the sky.”

A 1968 TV ad described the growing city of Atlanta as network of different neighborhoods, connected mostly by highways. The best option for navigating the city was by car.

Fast forward to 2014, and Atlanta is still primarily a “car city”. But urban planners, city officials, and business leaders hope one solution to that problem is the Atlanta Beltline.

The Atlanta Beltline started out as a graduate student’s dream back in 1999. Since then, it’s become one of the most ambitious urban redevelopment projects in the United States.

The Beltline is a network of parks, multi-use trails, and transit tied together by a 22-mile trail around the city. It connects 45 neighborhoods that previously had little in common, such as Midtown and Old Fourth Ward. The trails run along a historic railroad corridor of previously independent rail lines.

Ryan Gravel created the idea for the Atlanta Beltline in his Master’s thesis at Georgia Tech. He’s now a senior urban planner at Perkins+ Will.

Atlanta was built around streetcar lines 100 years ago, says Gravel. Builders extended those lines and opened up new land for the development of neighborhoods like Virginia-Highlands, West End, and Grant Park.

Atlanta’s interstates developed the same way. Builders opened up more land for redevelopment, but those areas were all organized around a travel distance that required cars, making the city more vehicle dependent.

Gravel spent a year in college studying abroad in Paris, where he says he began to understand the connection between urban infrastructure and culture. By connecting Atlanta’s neighborhoods with the Beltline, Gravel wants to inspire a new wave of development in the city- one that will inspire builders to develop more of Atlanta’s neighborhoods into urban multi-use communities.

“So the idea here is to create an infrastructure that will revitalize these urban neighborhoods and incentivize the redevelopment of thousands of acres of abandoned industrial land. And repurpose that for a new way of life so that people can live differently in the city of Atlanta,” said Gravel.

Ryan Gravel gave a speech at TedXAtlanta about redesigning Atlanta's urban future

Dr. Nancy Green Leigh, a professor of regional and city planning at Georgia Tech, says while the Beltline’s concept of turning old railroad tracks into useable pathways isn’t new, the Atlanta Beltline is one of the most wide-ranging urban redesign programs in the country.

“The High Line of New York is often cited but {the Beltline} is much bigger than that and much more ambitious,” said Green.

Paul Morris, the President and CEO of Beltline, Inc., says the Atlanta Beltline is a response to the city’s growing and diversifying population.

“This is really a cultural change happening in the city around a response from many people who’ve lived here a long time, and many moving here, to be able to live their lives with greater mobility and with greater options for how to get around,” said Morris. “Most importantly being able to create public places where people can gather, people can casually connect is a fascinating phenomenon that we’re starting to see occur around the Beltline.”

So, what’s next for the Beltline in terms of development?

First, those anxiously awaiting the project’s completion should know that the Beltline doesn’t currently have permission to build on the entire 22- mile loop.

“We break it down into various parts,” said Morris. “We start with what we have control of. A lot of people don’t realize that the 22-mile loop is not yet under our complete control.”

He says the Beltline’s current status depends on the completion of the trails, parks, and additional transit.

“We’re about 8 years in to our 25 year plan. And then as we acquire, we have to get it permitted, we’ve got to get all of the environmental cleanup done, and then we get to build.”

Morris says the Beltline project has received significant public and private contributions, ranging from about $350,000 to $60 million, including contributions from the Eastside Trail project and the Historic Fourth Ward.

“We’ve seen over $1 billion dollars in private investment spring up,” said Morris.

The projected Atlanta Beltline completion date is 2031. The estimated cost of the redevelopment program is approximately $3 billion.

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