Kempner: Big land for big Atlanta dreams is opening up on westside

Mayor Kasim Reed showed renderings of what Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry could look like. First phase could include a gateway entrance with lighting, signage and graphics on the north side. The restoration includes resurfacing the road and improving the greenway along the corridor. The park will also have trails and a pedestrian connection to and from Proctor Creek Greenway. The site will become a 2-billion-gallon water reservoir. At 280 acres, Westside Park will be larger than Piedmont Park (185 acres).

A chunk of railroad land that stretches across more than three miles of west Atlanta is going up for sale.

It could be developed for more apartments and homes, which I’m told is the most likely demand for it. Or big thinkers could find a more valuable use. This is a city that hungers to think big, after all.

CSX’s Tilford Yard isn’t just any old piece of land.

It will likely continue to include an active freight line straight into the heart of transit-waffling Cobb County. Tilford – shaped like a rattlesnake that swallowed a bunny or two — covers about 300 acres on Atlanta's Westside. It comes close to a western stretch planned for the Atlanta Beltline. It's also near the city's proposed Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry.

If rail transit is ever going to be in Cobb's future, this is a property worth eyeballing. Or if MARTA ever again contemplates extending rail to the northwest. Or, regardless of rail, if someone wants to cook up another big idea that can impact the city beyond the yard's boundaries.

So I called a guy, who it turns out is thinking the same thing.

"It seems like we would use this land for a higher purpose," said Ryan Gravel.

Gravel is an urban planner, so he is perfectly suited to dreamy talk about "large-scale strategic ideas" that can turn into reality. He dreamed up the Atlanta Beltline, which has become one of Atlanta's most aspirational visions .

Gravel stressed the Tilford land’s potential to help anchor passenger transit in the city and on the way to Cobb. He mentioned it’s potential as a storage space for growing transit systems. And he told me he could picture other public uses, including a linear park that leads toward the banks of the Chattahoochee River, one of Atlanta’s most under-appreciated natural resources.

“The fact that it connects the Beltline to the (Chattahoochee) river practically is pretty amazing,” he said.

CSX railroad has pulled up most of its tracks at Tilford Yard in Atlanta’s Westside near a proposed stretch of the Atlanta Beltline. Neighbors like Wendy Vinelli are wondering what comes next. She’s hoping for passenger transit, a connection to the Beltline and more green space. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

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A bigger, big picture

Metro Atlanta will keep growing.

“If we want Atlanta to be the kind of city that Amazon wants to come to, we have to invest in that,” Gravel said.

Planning more of those things before big crowds pack the place would be nice.

But time is short. And so is money.

In recent months CSX has been busy tearing out most of the tracks at Tilford. Until last year the railroad had used the yard as a local and regional site to break up and reconfigure freight trains.

Some neighbors told me that over the years they have become mostly immune to the screeching and banging of rail cars as crews did the work of a bustling economy. The routine included 900 rail cars a day. Rail buffs often showed up to watch the magic that began there in the 1950s.

But new CSX management concluded that less of such sorting would help profits. So the company is dismantling and eliminating most of it’s so-called hump yards nationwide.

Tilford runs alongside a rival Norfolk Southern yard, a co-joined twin that apparently will remain active.

Officially, CSX is “in the process of evaluating what the highest and best use of that property is going to be,” according to Craig Camuso, a regional vice president. But even more officially, CSX’s chief transportation officer already told investors the company would be planting a for sale sign on the property.

Always challenges

There are plenty of reasons why Atlanta might miss a shot at this.

Traditionally, railroads operating in Atlanta have shown little interest in sharing space with passenger transit that could complicate freight operations.

Buying lots of land takes lots of money. And some potential public funding sources for such projects aren’t focused on this one.

MARTA has lots of needs and has been looking elsewhere, though back in the 1960s rail was envisioned in the general area.

“We are always interested in opportunities but at this time we don’t have any pending expansion plans for this area,” said Ben Limmer, MARTA’s assistant general manager in charge of planning. “But I do see this would be a great opportunity to secure some right of way.”

MARTA’s Green Line has a single station, Bankhead, that veers toward the city’s northwest. It doesn’t attract many riders.

Beltline folks showed no enthusiasm when I tried to broach the Tilford subject with them. The organization is already facing pressure over how it will push for existing priorities, including its lagging promise for additional affordable housing and paying for transit beside trails along the Beltline’s primary route.

CSX plans to sell a big chunk of westside Atlanta land. The railroad company has already pulled up lots of track in Tilford Yard, which ends near a planned western route of the Atlanta Beltline. Still to be determined: what should go on the land. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

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Jim Martin chairs the city’s neighborhood planning unit that covers the area around Tilford. He told me he had spoken to Cobb planners in the past about the potential for passenger rail cutting through on its way into the northern suburbs.

“If you look at a map, it makes perfect sense,” Martin said. But “they had a very strong prejudice against an transit connection on the west side of town.”

Instead, he said he suspects that if they go for transit, it will likely be something with lower upfront costs, such as bus rapid transit routes along I-75.

Neighbors I spoke to near Tilford were shocked that CSX’s switch yard had shutdown so suddenly. Now, they’re hoping for something else in its place.

“I’m all for transit if it can be efficient,” said Wendell Burks, the Hills Park neighborhood’s NPU liaison. But he seemed particularly excited about any chance to connect the land to a broader network of pathways in and around the city.

Wendy Vinelli pointed out stunning views of the city’s skyline from a bridge over Tilford.

“It is prime real estate,” she said. “We are all about Atlanta growing. We’ve been kind of on the cusp all this time.”

Cobb already has a connection through the area. Vinelli told me she sees lots of Cobb tags on cars clogging local roads along Tilford whenever the Atlanta Falcons or Atlanta United are scheduled to play downtown.

But the area is missing something, she told me. She and her husband are planning to move to the city’s Morningside neighborhood, where she said they’ll be able to park their cars all weekend and walk to plenty of nearby amenities.

That’s better than what she faces the way the city’s northwest is now, she said. “I live in the city, and I still have to get in my car.”

It’s time to think bigger.

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