Several years ago, the Beltline project appeared to have gone astray.
Construction was slow on the 22-mile trail looping the entire city of Atlanta, and some unhappy homeowners filed lawsuits claiming the city improperly seized their property. Meanwhile, housing advocates raised concerns about affordable housing, gentrification, and displacement around the Beltline that were not getting addressed. Two members of the Atlanta Beltline Partnership resigned in 2016 —Ryan Gravel, who dreamed up the idea as a graduate student in 1999, and Nathaniel Smith of Partnership for Southern Equity.
The following year, Dan Immergluck, an urban studies professor at Georgia State University, called the Beltline an engine of “environmental gentrification,“and the Housing Justice League petitioned for an Affordable Housing Policy Package as part of its BeltLine for All campaign.
But the Beltline’s story is back on track, says Clyde Higgs, the Beltline’s CEO since 2019. While other city of Atlanta transportation projects may suffer from an “execution problem,” the multi-use trail is entering a period that is “like nothing we’ve ever seen in Beltline history,” Higgins says – as far as building the outstanding sections and ensuring that some of the new housing along the Beltline is affordable.
As proof, he adds: They’ve hit over half of the project’s goal to provide 5,600 units of affordable housing and the rest should be completed by the longtime goal of 2030. Developers building apartments in the Beltline Tax Allocation District set aside a portion of units as affordable in exchange for property tax breaks.
So far, 16 miles of the Beltline trail have been built or in the works, since the project kicked off in 2006. The Beltline started paving a 1.2 mile section of the Southside Trail and a 1.3 mile section of the Westside Trail in March.
Following these back-to-back groundbreakings, Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with Higgs to find out more about the state of the Beltline.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Atlanta Civic Circle: The Beltline has a stated goal to create or preserve 5,600 units of affordable housing by 2030. Where are you now?
Clyde Higgs: We are super-excited that we’ve crossed the magical threshold of over 50% of our affordable housing goal along the BeltLine. Even last year, we exceeded our affordable housing numbers by over 30%.
[Ed: So far, 3,148 units of affordable housing have been produced in the Beltline TAD, defined as affordable for people making from 30% to 80% of the area median income (AMI), according to the Beltline’s Affordable Housing Dashboard.]
The Beltline has been accused of being one of the main drivers of gentrification for intown Atlanta. What’s your response?
We hear that statement: Well, what about gentrification? Yes, it’s a fair question.
I appreciate what they are saying, but it comes off as a little bit disrespectful from my vantage point, because if you’re suggesting that there’s a person in a neighborhood that doesn’t deserve a quality park and amenities – to me, that’s a disrespectful statement.
Gentrification can be a lazy word. And it’s not really what neighbors and residents in these communities are saying; they’re saying: ‘We like the Beltline, and we want all of that, the new infrastructure and investment. But just make sure you have programs and policies to ensure we benefit.
That’s the work we should be doing as a whole, not just from a Beltline perspective but for the entire city of Atlanta. And that’s why you see us so focused on making sure that our numbers from a minority business perspective are really high, and that they are getting opportunities to win contracts from the Beltline. On the economic development and small business side, we’re uniquely focused on businesses of color to ensure that the wealth opportunities generated out of the Beltline are spread out throughout the entire community.
Will the whole 22-mile project really be done by 2030?
Yes. Now that we’re on this acceleration or catch-up schedule, the number of assets we’re about to turn over to the city will be like nothing we’ve ever seen in Beltline history.
The last 30 months for the Beltline have perhaps been our most productive since our inception. From a financing perspective, the SSD got passed in a significant way. [In March 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved legislation creating a Special Services District or SSD, with a tax hike for commercial properties and apartment complexes targeted to provide approximately $100 million towards the Beltline.]
And then on top of that, the Woodruff Foundation gifted us about $80 million, and then the Cox Foundation [added] $30 million. We cobbled all of this money together, and we essentially have about $330 million identified. We will finish the BeltLine trail and most of our programmatic elements by the end of 2030. We just did the two groundbreakings in March, which was historic for us.
We are looking for a general contractor to help us with Segment 1 of the Northeast Trail. [It will run 0.9 along the east side of Piedmont Park, going north from the corner of Monroe Dr. and 10th St. to Westminster Drive.]
What challenges still lie ahead?
Market forces have been our friend so far; we don’t expect it to be that way forever. We have to prepare for hiccups in the future.
The maintenance side of the Beltline is a challenge. We’re pushing this beautiful asset for the city, but it’s also a full-blown maintenance program. Our money has restrictions around it; the tax district [Beltline TAD] is for capital expenses. So we can plan, design, and build, but our money is not uniquely situated for maintenance, graffiti removal, or landscaping. We can’t wait until 2030 to figure out the maintenance strategy.
Did the Beltline receive any money from the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan?
We’ve identified about $50 million from federal sources out of the $350 million needed to finish the rest of the Beltline by 2030. A lot of that is coming through the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Is Atlanta on its way to becoming less of a car city?
That is my hope, but I also think that’s a requirement for Atlanta, if you believe the numbers coming from the Atlanta Regional Commission. It suggests that in the next 25 years or so, we’re going to add close to another 3 million people to the Atlanta metro area. That’s essentially the entire Denver metro area moving to Atlanta in the next two and a half decades. We have no choice but to become less of a car city. That’s why the work we’re doing with the Beltline – from trail to transit, creating opportunities for dense living – is crucial.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING ON THE BELTLINE:
For more information on living in affordable housing along the Beltline, check out its Affordable Housing Dashboard. It’s a tool that shows affordable housing options for various income levels and leasing opportunities.