The Atlanta Beltline: One of the Most Impressive Urban Revitalization Projects in the World

We know that Atlanta is unique – and not just because of Coca-Cola, CNN and the CDC. Atlanta stands out among major U.S. cities because of what it doesn't possess: a navigable waterway.

Why does that matter? Read on.

Many major U.S. cities are built on navigable waterways. Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans are located on the historic Mississippi River. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are located along the Ohio River. New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle are coastal cities.

Atlanta is one of the few major U.S. cities that isn’t built on a major river or near a large body of water. (The Chattahoochee isn't navigable for major shipping or transport.)

Many major cities in the United States grew along rivers banks and ocean ports.

How did Atlanta develop? Along railroad lines.

Why does this matter?

Because many of those same railroads lines are now making an impressive second act.

Those railroads lines are the star player in one of today's most remarkable urban redevelopment projects in the world: the Atlanta Beltline.

The Founding of Atlanta: Why Did This Landlocked City Emerge?

Atlanta’s unique developmental history as a land-locked hub of prosperity came about because it was the terminal point for trains traveling from the Midwest to the South. In 1836, Georgia decided to build a train that linked the state to the Midwest; one year later, in 1837, they pounded the stake that marked the southern "terminus," or Zero Mile Post. As a result, when the city first started out, it was just a train depot known as Terminus.

By 1839, Terminus held a store and a few homes. In 1843, the city was incorporated as Marthasville, named for the governor's daughter; two years later, in 1845, the city changed its name to Atlanta. Throughout this time, Milledgeville stood as the capital of Georgia.

Between 1845 and 1854, rail lines appeared in Atlanta from four different directions. This once little town turned into the railroad hub for the southern U.S., and therefore developed particular strategic significance during the Civil War, which is one of the reasons General Sherman targeted Atlanta during his march.

Post-War, Atlanta's population grew rapidly, and the city turned into a manufacturing hub. By 1868, Atlanta turned into the state's capital.

That's impressive growth for a city that's not located anywhere near a navigable waterway.

Even though Terminus didn’t have access to waterways, it had access to the sprawling and crawling railroads that entered the area from every direction. So, just like cities built on waterways, Terminus quickly became a wealthy and prominent southern city soon known as Atlanta because of its access to the easy transport of goods over the rail system.

Atlanta's unique opportunity

Atlanta holds a unique and rich history as a transportation city. Thanks to that history, modern Atlanta has a lot of old, disused train tracks.

Instead of seeing the abandoned railways as urban blight, a (former) Georgia Tech student named Ryan Gravel saw that Atlanta had a unique opportunity.

In his 1999 Master’s Thesis, Gravel wrote about how Atlanta could transform the sprawling, disused city tracks into a new, living, breathing part of the city, just as cities like Paris and Milan once transformed the abandoned spaces of their cities into new and useful areas for living and commerce.

Those disused railroad tracks could become pedestrian and bicycle paths. Those paths could be surrounded by green public parks. Local artists could display sculptures and other artwork throughout.

And since these railroad tracks connected with one another, why couldn't the pedestrian and bike paths connect, too? Why couldn't the entire project become one gigantic loop, linking the city together – north, south, east, west – and breathing new vitality, walkability, and modernity into Atlanta?

Gravel’s 1999 thesis has come a long way. In the year 2000, Gravel and two colleagues mailed copies of the thesis to more than two dozen influential Atlanta residents. One local city council representative became an early supporter. Throughout 2001 through 2004, they actively promoted the idea to the PATH Foundation, local business community, and local political leaders.

In 2005, the Beltline plan was officially adopted.

The Beltline is an ambitious plan that will create 22 miles of walking and bicycling trails, which runs through densely-populated Intown neighborhoods including Midtown, Old Fourth Ward (O4W), Virginia Highlands, Inman Park, West End, Adair Park, and much more.  It will redevelop 2,544 acres and include a transit system, such as a light rail or streetcars. The Beltline will also Atlanta's greenspace by approximately 40 percent.

Since the city doesn’t need to obtain right-of-way to pave over the abandoned tracks, they could get started immediately transforming the city. This new project developed a name – the Atlanta Beltline – and created plans to

The Atlanta Beltline 2030 Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP), along with the Atlanta Beltline’s board of directors, will guide the citywide transportation and redevelopment program to its completion, aiming for completion before the year 2030.

Completed Multi-use Beltline Trails

The Eastside Trail is the most prominent finished section of the Atlanta Beltline project along the old rail corridor. It is a combination of park space and multi-use walking and biking trails that run from the tip of Piedmont Park to Inman Park and Old Fourth Ward.

The completed Eastside Trail Gateway is the connection between the completed Eastside Trail and the Historic Fourth Ward Park. The Gateway allows visitors quickly to access the 12 acres of green space, scenic lake, playground, and splash pad inside Historic Fourth Ward Park.

Along with the Eastside Trail, several projects have already reached completion. The Edgewood Avenue Bridge Replacement Project, for example, has improved walking conditions and created more pedestrian connections to the Beltline.

Art on the Beltline

The completed portions of the Beltline have become a magnet for city artists. These areas now feature the largest temporary public art exhibition in the South.

Now in its sixth season, Art on the Atlanta Beltline showcases installations and performance of art from new and returning artists along four miles of the Beltline. 

Parks on the Beltline

The long-term Beltline plan will create a series of parks throughout the city. These thirteen connected “Beltline Jewels” are known from the working plan as The Beltline Emerald Necklace.

In total, the Atlanta Beltline will create or revitalize 1,300 acres of public green space (and 2,544 acres of total land redevelopment). Historic Fourth Ward Park, just south of the Ponce City Market, for example, has a new recreational park area built on the site of the old Ponce de Leon Amusement Park.

The current Atlanta Beltline plan would expand Enota Park, Maddox Park, and Ardmore Park by a cumulative 77.7 acres. The Trust would also create 713 acres of new park space.

What’s Next?

The Atlanta Beltline will eventually feature a continuous path circling the city center along the old railroad right of way, with paths that divert in areas along the Northwest portion of the route.

Once complete, the Atlanta Beltline will feature 33 miles of multi-use trails and will connect the surrounding neighborhoods and make new shops, restaurants, and parks accessible to Atlanta’s residents.

The Beltline won’t be finished for several years, but now that the Eastside Trail is completed, there are several other projects lined up that will both work towards completing the Beltline as well as raising property and home values in Atlanta.

The Plaza at North Avenue

The Jamestown Company along with Atlanta Beltline, Inc. are working to complete the Plaza at North Avenue project. The plaza will be the first of its kind at North Avenue on the Eastside Trail. It will serve as a public space immediately adjacent to the Ponce City Market.

The Plaza will be a place where Beltline users can step off the trail for shopping, eating, and entertainment. It will be accessible from the bridge that crosses over North Avenue as well as from the existing access path to Ponce City Market’s rail shed deck. The Plaza will also eventually have stairs and an elevator from Ponce City Market to North Avenue.

Arthur Langford Jr. Park

The Arthur Langford Jr. Park, located in the Joyland neighborhood, is just a few blocks away from the future Southside Trail of the Beltline.  Improvements made to the park will improve the city and raise home values in the surrounding areas.

The park will host a second Beltline skate park, thanks in part to a grant given to the Beltline project by the Coca-Cola Company. The park will also receive upgrades to the playground and a complete renovation of the park’s community center.

The Eastside Trail Southern Extension

The Eastside Trail Southern Extension will add about 1.25 miles to the already opened multi-use trail. The extension will run between Irwin Street and Memorial Drive.

The Westside Trail

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the City of Atlanta $18 million dollars through the TIGER V grant to develop the southwest corridor of the Atlanta Beltline. This new Westside Trail will be a 3-mile corridor formed on the Atlanta Beltline’s southwest side, running from University Avenue in Adair Park North to Lena Avenue in Washington Park.

The Urban Agriculture Site at Adair Park

The Urban Agriculture Site at Adair Park is a project headed by two newly hired farmers, Andy Friedberg, and Andrea Ness. The Urban Farm at the Westside Trail, located near the border between the Oakland City and Adair Park neighborhoods, will transform a formerly contaminated site of depleted and eroded soil into an urban farm which will utilize sustainable farming methods.

Friedberg and Ness are currently working on creating a market garden and selling produce grown in the Urban Farm to turn use funds for more agricultural improvement projects. The Urban Agriculture Site will become an invaluable resource to the community for both fresh food options and nutrition education.

How the Beltline will Affect Home Values

Once completed, the completed Beltline project will redevelop nearly 3,000 acres of underused property along the Beltline. These projects, new businesses, and increased access to surrounding Atlanta neighborhoods will create 30,000 permanent jobs over the next 20-25 years and are expected to generate more than $20 billion dollars in new economic development. Most of this economic redevelopment will take place in historically underinvested areas of Atlanta.

The Beltline is helping to rejuvenate neighborhoods, clean urban blight, and raise home and property values. Sustainable development, affordable housing, and neighborhood stabilization have also played an important role in the revitalization of Atlanta through the Beltline project.

The Beltline offers city-center access to all of Atlanta’s neighborhoods. Since the Beltline will connect all of Atlanta, residents will have access to all of the walking and biking trails, independently own businesses, and vibrant local art that Atlanta has to offer.

The Beltline has transformed formerly crime-ridden and collapsing areas into beautifully recovering areas. New restaurants and storefronts are going in every day and businesses are flourishing. Development of these new or previously underused properties will help the Atlanta Public School System since rising property values and increasing tax revenue will become an economic boost Atlanta’s public school budget.

The Atlanta BeltLine even won the prestigious Prix d’Excellence award from the International Real Estate Federation (FIABCI), for the best rehabilitation project in the world.” The FIABCI recognizes that Atlanta is leading the way to establish public green space, revitalized neighborhoods, and reestablish a connection between citizens and the environment.

There hasn’t been a better time to move to Atlanta. Without a doubt, the Atlanta Beltline is helping neighborhoods revitalize, businesses flourish, and home values rise. This project -- which started as a Master’s thesis -- has become one of the largest and most impressive urban re-development projects in the world.

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