Will ABI’s focus on property over transit derail the BeltLine?

 Posted on August 19, 2016 by 

What if one small development along the 22 miles of the BeltLine held the future of the project in its hands? What if getting this project right could make the difference between the BeltLine being a transit system or simply a pretty recreational trail? And what if the proposal for this site led to the potential disenfranchisement of Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, Peoplestown and pretty much any neighborhood south of Dekalb Avenue. Would you pay attention then?

It’s time to start paying attention to the BeltLine again, everyone.

On Wednesday night, the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI) and North American Properties (NAP) presented a nicely designed set of buildings at 670-90 Dekalb Avenue (right next to the Krog Tunnel) to the Inman Park Neighborhood Association. It had the right building materials, street level activity on Dekalb Ave, an incredibly progressive 20% of affordable housing, an appropriate amount of density, and, of course, pretty trees in the renderings.

But what dominated the conversation was the fact that this site plan not only doesn’t prioritize transit on the BeltLine – it may prevent it from ever being built.

“The buildings on the current site plan at 670-90 Dekalb are beautiful, but they’re not designed with transit in mind,” says BeltLine creator and Inman Park resident Ryan Gravel.

The Beltline, of course, was supposed to be a transit solution for the entire city – and this is a huge reason it garnered so much popular support.

beltline

“In order for the city’s vision of neighborhood preservation, redevelopment, and growth to occur, a [BeltLine] vision that views transportation as a system, and not a series of disparate projects, is critical,” states the white paper prepared for The Atlanta Development Authority by the BeltLine Transit Panel.

Yet the current site plan at 670-90 Dekalb Ave. seems to approach the idea of transit on the BeltLine as more of an if question than a when.

“It sounds like a technical issue, but it’s really a philosophical one. We need to ask ourselves if we believe the last 16+ years of working on the ground with residents to create a city-building infrastructure that includes transit connecting more than 40 neighborhoods around the city is worth fighting for. Because this site development simply doesn’t support that idea.”

How to Stop a Train

According to Gravel, there are 2 critical problems with the current site plan:

1 – Not enough space for rail to run through.
The dimensions of the site are not large enough for transit and trail to run alongside one another. The originally-intended 140 ft. tunnel from Edgewood underneath Hulsey Yards – connecting trains, bikes, and people to Cabbagetown without crossing Dekalb Ave – is now proposed as a 1,000+ ft. tunnel, with an S-curve in it, that will only – theoretically – have enough room for transit. So what? That means the temporary routing of the walking & biking trail through the Krog Tunnel will almost certainly become permanent. Think about that. The entire walking population of the BeltLine (which will only get bigger) will be forced to walk through the already-congested Krog Street tunnel. Permanently.

2 – Tunneling would be too expensive.
The added expense of a tunnel that’s 10 times as long, with an added curve in it, very likely will be enough of a hurdle to prevent the transit. If the transit and trail don’t happen because it’s too complicated and expensive, all the work of countless community meetings will have been a waste of time, and the BeltLine’s greatest potential will be wasted. And once again, the neighborhoods south of the city will get the short end of the stick: Peoplestown, Grant Park, Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown and others will be cut off from transportation and economic opportunities and will not get the BeltLine they were promised.

IPNA’s VP of Historic Preservation, Brian Roof, expressed sincere frustration: “It’s a shame that ABI is looking more at property development first instead of transit. We sell this concept of the BeltLine all over the world. It doesn’t work without transit.”

When NAP representatives were asked whether the decision-making about the site came from them or ABI, the answer was clear: “It’s up to ABI. If they give us the direction to design this differently, we will.”

Suddenly the question is worth asking: is ABI looking out for the public interest of Atlantans? It appears ready to preclude transit from the BeltLine by making it so prohibitively expensive it simply won’t happen – all, apparently, in favor of quick, profitable development. ABI may be not the #1 advocate for the BeltLine we need – so community members will have to step in and make their voices heard once again.

“The saving grace here is that the buildings aren’t built yet,” says Gravel. “We still have a chance to get this right.”

So what can you do?
First and foremost, Atlanta should recognize that the BeltLine still needs advocates for its original vision. Just because we have cheerleaders for the concept of the BeltLine doesn’t mean everyone currently involved is thinking long-term about how to get it right.

NOTE: ThreadATL reached out to ABI but they declined to comment.