Money was once a big problem for the Atlanta Beltline.
What was intended to be the project’s primary funding source—a special tax allocation district (TAD, for short)—was short-circuited from a combination of lawsuits over Atlanta Public Schools foregoing tax revenue to the Beltline and revenue shortfalls from tax abatements, the 2008 recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, the TAD has not produced sufficient tax revenue to cover the project costs. As recently as 2021, funding to complete the entire 22-mile loop by 2030 looked uncertain and the number of affordable housing units the project promised to build was way under target.
But the Beltline’s big $153.6 million budget for fiscal year 2024, thanks to additional revenue sources, indicates that its funding is back on track. That’s a 30% increase over the project’s 2023 budget of $117 million – and is over five times higher than the Beltline’s 2020 budget of $28.6 million. The biggest additional expenditures will go to real estate investment, which includes acquiring land for housing earmarked as affordable for regular Atlantans.
“This year, we turn a significant corner in the history of the BeltLine as we complete our most active year to date for construction, affordable housing initiatives, land acquisition, and other elements of our program that promote thoughtful, intentional development,” said Beltline CEO Clyde Higgs in an announcement.
The board of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, passed the Beltline’s 2024 budget last week. Here’s how it breaks down:
Slightly over a third of the 2024 budget ($57.1 million) will go to the design, and construction of the trail itself, as well as adjacent parks. Work is expected to continue on several Beltline sections that broke ground earlier this year.
That includes building a 1.2-mile section of the Southside Trail and a similarly sized section of the Northeast Trail in Ansley Park and Piedmont Avenue, which includes paving the trail, lighting and security cameras, planting, stormwater management systems, and a bridge crossing the CSX railroad. For the Westside Trail, a 1.3-mile section is under construction to connect the current trail terminus near Lena Street and Washington Park to an existing section.
Work is also planned for a streetscape project for Ponce De Leon Avenue between Boulevard and Freedom Parkway that aims to improve pedestrian and bicycle routes to the BeltLine. That project is expected to be finished during the second quarter of 2024.
In addition, construction has begun on the Reynoldstown Community Space just north of the Eastside Trail entrance at Memorial Drive, which will have public art and space for events and performances.
So far, almost 16 miles of the 22-mile Beltline loop have been built or are in the works and fully 80% of the loop – or 17.6 miles – is projected to be complete or under construction by the end of 2024.
Real estate and affordable housing
The Beltline has been criticized as a gentrification engine that’s more about real estate development instead of promoting transit and connectivity, as property values have spiked along completed sections of the main loop since the project started in 2005.
In response, the Beltline aims to produce 5,600 affordable housing units within the boundaries of the Beltline TAD by the end of the decade – and 28,000 new units overall, since the affordable housing typically comes from private developers setting aside units with rents priced below market rates. It says it’s 56% of the way toward this goal, with 3,100 units produced or preserved.
For FY24, a hefty 46% of the Beltline’s budget will go to real estate acquisition and housing development. The Beltline has budgeted $56.2 million (36%) to acquire property for affordable housing and commercial sites within the TAD, more than double the $26 million it has spent this year. That includes the purchase of a 6.3-acre site at 350 Chappell Road, a 31-acre site at 425 Chappell Road (currently in master planning), The Avenue at Oakland City, a 20-acre Murphy Crossing development, and the 2.68-acre Garson Drive project in south Buckhead.
Another $15.5 million or 10% of the Beltline’s budget is earmarked for affordable housing development, including site planning and partnerships with private developers. As in other cities, the Beltline’s use of tax incentives to promote affordable housing development has stirred some controversy—with opponents arguing that in Atlanta’s booming market, tax breaks to big developers are unnecessary or wasteful. Developers say the incentives can make or break projects that might never come to fruition otherwise.
Where does the money come from?
The BeltLine’s Tax Allocation District (TAD) revenue is projected to cover up to 40% of the budget. The BeltLine TAD is funded through property taxes in a deal with Atlanta Public Schools (APS), the city of Atlanta, and Fulton County, which had to agree to forgo some or all of the property tax revenue they would otherwise receive. As of March, the cash balance of the TAD was $139 million, with $78 million expected for the next fiscal year.
The Special Service District (SSD) will fund 18% of the budget. The Atlanta City Council passed the SSD in 2021 to make up for the shortfall in anticipated TAD revenue.It tacks on an additional property tax of $2 for every $1,000 of assessed property value for businesses and apartment complexes located within a half mile of the Beltline. That means a property appraised at $1 million pays an additional $2,000 annually.
Almost 40% of the budget comes from philanthropic contributions and grants. The most significant gift is an $80 million gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation with another $30 million donation from the Cox Foundation.
More info on affordable housing:
For more information on living along the Beltline at a rent you can afford, check out its Affordable Housing Dashboard. It’s a tool that shows affordable housing options, including available apartments, for various income levels.