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AtlantaBy Alina Tugend

The revitalization of an abandoned railway loop in the heart of Atlanta is unifying communities, transforming urban living and providing a vision for the 21st century.

  • Switchyards Downtown Club. © Jason Seagle
  • Switchyards Downtown Club. © Jason Seagle
  • Urban living visionary Ryan Gravel—whose master's thesis at Georgia Tech was the concept for the BeltLine—speaks on stage during New York Times Cities For Tomorrow Conference, 2015. Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for New York Times

On a recent weekday evening, hundreds of yoga lovers congregated in a field by the Historic Fourth Ward Skate Park in Atlanta. Neatly aligned in rows on their mats, they flowed in unison from one asana to the next, chaturangas morphing into cobra poses followed by downward-facing dogs, as an instructor guided them through an hour-long session. Many had walked to the class on the Atlanta BeltLine, which hugs the park. That concrete path buzzes with activity at this time of night, with runners and cyclists weaving through pedestrians, people walking their dogs, skateboarders trying out new tricks and mothers pushing baby strollers while wearing yoga pants.

To meander along the BeltLine is to experience the city’s newest defining feature, a 33-mile network of trails and parks that follows Atlanta’s mostly abandoned rail corridor around the city core. A $4.8 billion urban redevelopment project, the BeltLine is transforming how Atlanta residents and visitors experience the city by uniting 45 distinct neighborhoods. As Atlanta’s population grows to a predicted 9 million in the next 30 years, up from about 6 million today, the BeltLine is poised to steer people “intown,” as Atlantans refer to the central neighborhoods of the city. And it’s already attracting unprecedented investment, creating jobs, raising property values and revitalizing communities.

“It’s bringing Atlanta together,” says James Carr, a Morningside resident and founder of marketing firm Longleaf Media. He first moved to the Atlanta metro area in 2001, and after a year in New York returned in 2015, in part because the BeltLine complements his lifestyle. As an avid cyclist, Carr relies on it to get around intown safely. “It’s dangerous for bikes to get around the city,” he says, adding that the BeltLine’s multitude of activities and arts programming contributes to its appeal. “When you’re walking around, you see these amazing murals and art installations—there’s just a cool factor.”

Last year, 1.7 million people from all over the world walked, jogged, skated or biked along the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, a 2-mile landscaped concrete path that connects Piedmont Park south to Reynoldstown, with a 1.25-mile extension almost completed. Other trails—the Northside and West End—exist along with unpaved interim routes at other points in the network, which will all eventually join to form a contiguous loop. The next phase, the Westside Trail, opens this fall. The project also boasts the largest temporary public art exhibition in the city—and the largest outdoor art exhibit in the South—and an arboretum spanning 22 miles comprising existing and cultivated tree species.

  • Historic Fourth Ward Skate Park. Photo by James Duckworth/Courtesy of ACVB
  • The BeltLine project has transformed miles of abandoned railways into a sought-after housing and artist arena. Photo by James Duckworth/Courtesy of ACVB

While the BeltLine is still in its early years of implementation, Atlanta so far has spent $447 million in local, state, federal and private funds to build out 2,000 acres of public parks and 33 miles of multiuse trails, and to prepare to accommodate streetcar and light-rail transit. The private sector has responded with $3.7 billion in new residential and commercial development since 2006, when the BeltLine’s five-year work plan was created. The goal is to attract $20 billion by its 2030 completion, says Jerald Mitchell, director of economic development for Atlanta BeltLine Inc., a nonprofit that coordinates with the city and regional and state agencies to oversee the BeltLine’s design, construction and operation.

The first large public-funding source that set the project apart was the creation of a tax allocation district (TAD), a geographic area in which incremental property tax revenues finance the project, which in turn stimulates further growth, increased property values and even higher tax revenues. Fifteen percent of the funds collected by the TAD goes to affordable housing. While that may not be enough—as property values on the BeltLine have increased 50 to 60 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to a Georgia Tech study—it’s a start for a city that has for too long had insufficient resources to support low-income families. At the same time, the BeltLine is creating a walkable, car-less solution to the city’s traffic congestion. To show support for transit alternatives, Atlanta voters in 2016 overwhelmingly passed two sales taxes, one that pays for lighting and the remaining land to close the BeltLine loop, and a transportation tax to fund the streetcar program.

  • Ponce City Market resulted from renovating a former retail distribution center; now it’s home to restaurants, high-end shopping and residences. Courtesy of Jamestown
  • Ponce City Market resulted from renovating a former retail distribution center; now it’s home to restaurants, high-end shopping and residences. Courtesy of Jamestown

“We have really diversified funding streams,” says Clyde Higgs, VP and COO for Atlanta BeltLine Inc. “They also include a significant $18 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help us complete the Westside Trail sometime this fall.”

The breadth of funding reflects the project’s broad scope, notes Ryan Gravel, an urban planner and founder of the design firm Sixpitch. Gravel envisioned the BeltLine in 1999 when he was a Georgia Tech grad student. When he gives talks around the globe on the project—which was his master’s thesis—it sparks tremendous excitement as a way to reenvision urban living. “My ideas were the kernel of it, and it’s gotten to be much bigger than that,” Gravel says. “We have an incredible opportunity to invent something new and make a life that we want.”

To understand what the BeltLine is doing for property values, take a look at Ponce City Market, a mixed-use complex commonly known as PCM, located along the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail. The 2.1 million-square-foot property—formerly a Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution center and, more recently, an outpost of city hall—embodies the BeltLine’s car-free lifestyle and mission of redevelopment. New York– and Atlanta–based private equity firm Jamestown invested $300 million in renovating the decaying building into high-end retail space, offices and a cluster of high-profile restaurants and residential flats. Rent for a 575-square-foot studio at PCM starts at $1,750 a month. A 20-minute drive away from the BeltLine, studios go for $679 per month.

While rents along the BeltLine are hitting record highs, demand is only growing. The narrow connecting roads are constantly filled with cranes and construction workers trying to keep up with demand for multifamily residential units, restaurants, shops and office space. “It shows how starved Atlanta has been for such an amenity,” says Mark Pendergrast, author of the book City on the Verge, which discusses Atlanta’s urban revitalization.

Companies are reaping the benefits of the BeltLine’s draw. Michael Tavani, an Atlanta native who runs Switchyards Downtown Club, a private incubator for tech entrepreneurs, says the BeltLine is helping connect him to the brightest in his field. “It’s having a huge impact,” he says. Notable tech tenants who have set up operations along the BeltLine include Athenahealth, General Assembly, Twitter, Google, MailChimp and Cardlytics. “It’s unique to Atlanta—not a cookie-cutter project,” Tavani says. “This is our most visited park and it’s great culturally. Top creative, tech-savvy talent think a lot about these cultural offerings.”

As is the case with many urban redevelopment efforts across the country, one key area of concern is gentrification. Housing prices in once-affordable communities have more than doubled to the high six figures, with some homes selling for more than $700,000. Meanwhile unemployment in Atlanta remains at around 5.7 percent—well above the national average. “We are trying to address 30,000 new units in housing,” Mitchell says. “Fifty-six hundred of those are encouraged to be affordable workforce housing for school teachers, firefighters and nurses to be able to live and work in the city and around the BeltLine area.”

  • King of Pops founders Steven (left) and Nick Carse on stage during one of Switchyards’ monthly Made in Atlanta events. © Jason Seagle
  • Monday Night Brewing will soon be opening its second location with 22,000 square feet near the developing Westside Trail. Courtesy of Monday Night Brewing

So far, 785 affordable units have been built. But more needs to be done, says Cathy Woolard, a former city council president and one of the early champions of the BeltLine. An Atlanta mayoral candidate this year, Woolard helped to insert the project into the city’s long-term plan and secure $23 million for the corridor. “We need to be more aggressive citywide to ensure we have an array of housing choices in an array of sizes and incomes available.”

All eyes are now fixed on the Westside and Southside trails, dotted with crumbling industrial façades since manufacturing jobs left the area during the economic downturn. Visionaries are playing the long game and properties have started to trade hands. Monday Night Brewing, a popular craft brewery, seized on areas near the Westside Trail to expand its operations. “People are really investing in their communities,” says Jonathan Baker, the company’s cofounder. “There hasn’t been a lot of commercial investment yet in those areas. But a lot of folks simply want gathering spaces outside of their homes. Breweries are great for that.”

Indeed, for cities to succeed in an age when people can work from almost anywhere, they have to focus on lifestyle issues. From transportation to cultural offerings to business opportunities, the BeltLine is helping Atlanta do just that. “It’s the equivalent of having 22 miles of beachfront property in the core of the city,” says Tavani. “It’s the most exciting thing that has happened to intown Atlanta, specifically, and maybe the entire city over the last 50 years.”

  • Cityscape

    WHERE TO WORK, INVEST AND PLAY IN ATLANTA

Atlanta BeltLine Inc.

This organization oversees the execution and planning of the Atlanta BeltLine. ABI works in collaboration with the nonprofit Atlanta BeltLine Partnership to serve the community and engage residents in the decision-making process of the project. 100 Peachtree St. NW, Suite 2300, 404.477.3003, beltline.org

Invest Atlanta

As Atlanta’s economic development authority, this government body offers abundant assistance to startups and incoming businesses, providing such services as financing and loans, and guidance for navigating the city’s property tax structure. 133 Peachtree St. NE, Suite 2900, 404.880.4100, investatlanta.com

Switchyards Downtown Club

Switchyards is a members-only coworking space connecting consumer- and design-focused startup talent. While technically not an incubator, it limits the availability of membership to startups and hosts diverse programming that includes some mentorship and pitch opportunities. 151 Ted Turner Drive NW, hey@switchyards.com, switchyards.com

Kaiser’s Chophouse

This new spot by longtime local chef Peter Kaiser has won critical acclaim since opening in May. While the menu offers standard steakhouse fare, the high-quality meats and convivial atmosphere make it a go-to power dining spot. 5975 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, 404.549.2882, kaiserschophouse.com

Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall

This camping-themed Southern restaurant presents favorites such as fish-n-grits alongside rural eats, like the backyard barbecue board of pulled pork, ribs and sausages. The screened-in patio facing the BeltLine is ideal for an intown brunch. 684 John Wesley Dobbs Ave., info@ladybirdatlanta.com, 404.458.6838, ladybirdatlanta.com

Rathbun’s Restaurant

Chef Kevin Rathbun was the first Georgia chef to defeat Iron Chef Bobby Flay, and his menu reveals why: inventive dishes such as elk chop with cabbage carbonara, spinach and smoked bacon. 112 Krog St., info@rathbunsrestaurant.com, 404.524.8280, rathbunsrestaurant.com

The Georgian Terrace

Dating to 1911, this hotel stands as one of Atlanta’s most famous landmarks and is a quick drive to the city’s financial and cultural districts. Livingston, the hotel restaurant, offers an excellent Sunday brunch. 659 Peachtree St. NE, Mark Williams, GM, 800.651.2316, thegeorgianterrace.com

Glenn Hotel

This landmarked boutique property is close to Centennial Olympic Park and Philips Arena, making it a good base when visiting downtown for business or sports events. It is most famous for its rooftop bar, the SkyLounge, which overlooks the entirety of Atlanta’s downtown skyline. 110 Marietta St. NW, 404.521.2250, glennhotel.com

The St. Regis Atlanta

Set in the fashionable Buckhead district, this 151-room property is the most elegant hotel in the city. The impressive pool piazza is a unique luxury for an intown hotel, creating an atmosphere of ancient Rome in an urban setting. 88 West Paces Ferry Road, Guntram Merl, GM, 404.563.7900, stregisatlanta.com

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Adjacent to Piedmont Park and a quick stroll from the BeltLine, these dazzling 30 acres of nature paths and landscapes offer respite from the concrete jungle of midtown. Of note is its canopy walk, a suspended path that lets visitors experience a forest from 40 feet above the ground. 1345 Piedmont Ave. NE, info@atlantabg.org, 404.876.5859, atlantabg.org

Georgia Aquarium

Known for jaw-dropping exhibits of whale sharks and beluga whales, this 13-acre aquarium is the world’s second largest. It puts you face-to-face with some of the most difficult-to-see animals and marine habitats on earth.
225 Baker St., 404.581.4000, georgiaaquarium.org

The Center for Civil and Human Rights

Conceived by civil rights activist Evelyn Lowery in 2007, this museum opened downtown in 2014 with thought-provoking exhibits that focus on Atlanta’s central role in the American civil rights movement. 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., 678.999.8990, civilandhumanrights.org

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