Story by Curt Holman. Photos by Jenni Girtman.
While I was leaving to visit the Atlanta BeltLine’s new Westside Trail, my wife said, “I think it’s funny that you drive to go walk.”
She has a point. I walk my dogs around our neighborhood every day, but I also regularly haunt the area’s PATHs and nature trails. The Atlanta BeltLine trails are absolutely worth a drive, but I appreciate the irony of motoring to places meant to counter Atlanta’s reliance on cars.
Atlantans may have such a proud, ardent and occasionally contentious relationship with the BeltLine not in spite of our driving habits, but because of them. Because we commute so much we largely engage with the city through windshields. On the BeltLine trails, however, we can experience some unique parts of Atlanta — and encounter fellow Atlantans — at our own pace, without being confined to a vehicle.
The BeltLine has enormous potential: When finished in about 2030, it promises to offer a 22-mile loop unifying more than 40 Atlanta neighborhoods, while increasing the options for parks, transit and housing. Some of these features seem a long way off, but the BeltLine continues to evolve, and people like me await the opening of new trails like a kid awaits Christmas.
As of this writing, the Westside Trail is officially open and the Eastside Trail Extension is almost complete, getting the loop a few miles closer to completion. At a time of BeltLine controversies, touring the new trails defies some expectations.
The west is yet to come
Between you, me and the lamp post, the Westside Trail wasn’t technically open when I set foot on it in August and September. Streetlights and Art on the BeltLine pieces were being installed, but not the familiar mileage signs.
I saw as many construction workers as cyclists and pedestrians, so my first impressions were calm and quiet, especially compared to the Eastside Trail’s bustle.
Probably the best place to start is the northern-most entrance at the Washington Park Tennis Center at end of Lena Street. The trailhead includes a marker honoring former mayor Ivan Allen, with Kevin Vanek’s large metal sculpture “Industrial Oaf III” also nearby.
The Westside trail divides naturally into three sections, and the northern third has the most immediate appeal.
The paved path gently curves and slopes below a comfortable amount of tree canopy, and it features many entry points for easy detours into the pictureseque neighborhoods. At Stafford and Jasper streets, the entrance path winds whimsically, and at the curb stands Matthew Duffy’s polygon heart, a metal sculpture that feels like a valentine.
This part of the trail has a slight elevation that showcases compact, attractive houses along the way, so while you stroll you can count the backyard grills or admire features like lattice gates.
Near the long ramp at the Martin Luther King Boulevard entrance, you can see “The Georgia FENCE,” Atlanta Celebrates Photography’s long, banner-like display of artful photo reproductions. Just past it on a hill, the street marquee for Pilgrim Travelers Baptist Church announces “ALL ARE WELCOME,” a line that can echo the BeltLine’s goal of inclusiveness.
You’ll pass under several bridges and through tunnels, some of which feature longstanding murals like Hadley Breckenridge’s “The Highball Artist.” Shortly past the Kroger you’ll reach Gordon White Park, faced by Lean Draft House, one of the West End’s first new establishments drawn by the BeltLine.
For the second stretch, you’ll stroll down part of the initial BeltLine path opened almost 10 years ago, which largely serves as a long sidewalk along White Street. Apart from some interesting street art, there’s not a lot to see. After passing the “West End Remembers” mural under the Lawton Street Bridge, you’ll follow the path left and uphill and see the BeltLine’s Zero Mile Marker. After crossing the bridge, the off-street trail resumes southward.
The final section seems to have the most room for embellishment. It’s straighter, flatter, and while flanked by greenspace, often seems to pass between small industrial parks. There’s little shelter from the sun, and the design of some of the retaining walls and metal fencing can seem harsh.
But the trail grows more homey and hospitable when you approach its end point at Adair Park and Aluma Farm. You’ll see more homes and may reflect on how, if you have a house literally on the BeltLine, you basically have no backyard, just two front yards that need to be kept presentable. Longtime BeltLine advocate and tour guide Angel Luis Poventud lives along here and maintains a little shared greenspace nicknamed “Angel Park.”
Overall, it’s a nice walk, and the northern section is one of my favorite parts of the BeltLine to date. But apart from the art, small parks and a few other features, there’s almost nothing on it, or even near it. But if you recall the relative emptiness of the Eastside Trail neighborhoods a decade ago, it seems fair to consider the Westside Trail as a work in progress.
And some of that progress can bring challenges.
Drawing a line
Michelle and Brent Potter bought their 1920s bungalow in Adair Park in 2013. After a year of renovations, they became occupants in March 2015. More than two years later, she’s been delighted to see more neighborhood rehab.
“When we moved in, two houses across the street were both empty,” Michelle says. “Today, when we look out our front porch, we see two renovated houses with people living in them. That’s what I’m excited about. We have a 2-year-old, several families have children 1 to 3 years old, and we get together Friday nights to walk in Adair Park. We have a porch party once a month.”
She’s used to meeting prospective home buyers and putting their minds at ease about safety. “It’s in the city. Is there crime? Yes, there’s crime in in-town areas,” she says, finding it comparable to their previous home in Decatur. “But we feel safe. I feel perfectly fine going out by myself at night, as long as it’s not too late. You need to be careful here, like you do anywhere.”
The Potters have been enjoying the new trail and hope that it brings more amenities to the area. Projects like the 460,000-square-foot Lee + White development promise to provide more food and retail options. “People have definitely been wanting coffee shops, restaurants and retail stores,” she says, “There’s a lot of fast food, but not a lot else. It’s been slow coming. Lean Draft House is new, and when we go it’s always crowded. As more people move to the area, there will be more demand.”
But the risk is that when demand goes up, housing prices and taxes will go up, threatening to displace longtime residents. While the Eastside Trail opened to widespread acclaim, more criticism has surrounded Atlanta BeltLine Inc. in the subsequent years, especially over affordable housing.
Ryan Gravel, who conceived of the BeltLine as a Georgia Tech student and remains a longtime advocate, resigned from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership in September 2016, partly over what he called an inadequate response to the affordable housing issue.
In a resignation letter he co-wrote with Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, he made this observation: “The recent announcement of $7.5 million from TAD [Tax Allocation District] bonds, for example, will likely support fewer than 200 affordable units out of ABI’s obligation to 5,600 — it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the need.”
Shawn Deangelo Walton, founder of WeCycle Atlanta, an advocacy group for bicycles and environmental sustainability, echoes this view. “I think they should be prioritizing affordable housing,” says the Ashview Heights resident. “I almost want to say they should stop [development] until they start prioritizing affordable housing and come up with a more responsive process.”
On a Westside Trail tour in late August, I met Walton and Ben King, an Atlanta-based affordable housing developer. “The BeltLine is not meeting their affordable housing production goals,” King says, “so yes, they need to be doing more. Obviously more funding is part of the answer, but it isn’t the only or even the biggest challenge to affordable housing production.”
King says the BeltLine’s recommendations in its Integrated Action Plan from 2016 reflect the organization’s awareness of the need. “The most important change would be working with the state to change how housing tax credits are allocated, to get some priority points for affordable housing in the BeltLine planning area,” King says. “They are doing more work on getting funding for housing already, and have been coordinating more with Invest Atlanta for finding funds that aren’t in the TAD [tax allocation district], which limits where ABI funds can be used.”
Atlanta BeltLine Inc. President and CEO Brian McGowan emphasizes the organization’s commitment to the issue.
“The BeltLine is about people, and as we continue the work of the Westside Trail long after its opening, we are 100 percent committed to working with the community to identify the unique needs of each neighborhood and including them in the decision-making process,” says McGowan, who replaced former CEO Paul Morse in August 2017.
“We understand that at the top of the list of those unique needs is for residents of the Westside to be able to age in place in their own community without the fear of displacement,” McGowan says. “This imperative will not be an afterthought; going forward they will be built-in to the Atlanta BeltLine as much as the concrete trails are.”
While all Atlantans can enjoy the BeltLine, how many will be able to afford to live on it remains an open question.
So far, the Westside Trail feels more like a blank canvas than a social hub.
“It’s cool for the neighbors, but not so much for being social,” Walton says. “You’re either just riding it, or going to the Kroger or to Washington Park.”
But so far, features of the trails have been filled in gradually. The Eastside Trail opened in 2012 and still sees improvements, like a canvas getting periodic touch-ups.
Some of these changes can happen with breathtaking speed. Around Labor Day, a friend posted on social media that someone had painted a mural of the giant crab from “Moana” under Freedom Parkway bridge. I sought it out just a few days later, and it had already been painted over, only the eye-stalks and head remaining. Even the art has high traffic.
The Eastside Trail feels more fully realized than even two years ago. Ponce City Market provides a major destination and thanks to the trail-facing “The Shed,” which regularly offers artists and farmers markets, you don’t have to go indoors to enjoy it. The landscaping and plants have grown in and filled out, with more art, more trailheads and more homes (largely condos) along the way. At peak hours, it feels more like a busy boardwalk than an exercise trail.
Plus, there’s now more of it. Beginning at Irwin Street near Krog Street Market, the Eastside Trail Extension heads farther south, with a new Bell Street Burritos opening next to it. After a construction-related hiatus it resumes at the corner of Krog Street and Dekalb Avenue and leads through Krog Street Tunnel, connecting to another longtime landmark.
Outside the tunnel the path leads along Wylie Street beneath several blocks of new murals. Largely the work of the Forward Warrior arts group, the paintings turn the sidewalk trail into an expansive “outdoor gallery.” Then the path heads right and stops, for now, at a new pocket park at Kirkwood and Kenyon.
Scheduled to continue when funding becomes available, the extension’s second phase will reach from Kirkwood to Memorial Drive in Reynoldstown. The biggest of the BeltLine’s next features may be Westside Reservoir Park, which will reportedly include Bellwood Quarry and may open as soon as 2019.
Connecting to such a major attraction could bring a big boost to the Westside Trail, but having Eastside-sized numbers can be a downside. “I don’t feel that comfortable riding my bike on [the Eastside Trail] — it’s so crowded,” Michelle says. “The new trail is nice for people who want to get out and walk or bike. I love what’s happened on the Eastside Trail, but we do have a bit of a different vibe.”
At times, negotiating a traffic jam of BeltLine bicyclists, strollers and dog walkers can be reminiscent of the old Yogi Berra line “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
Best to enjoy the Westside’s quiet while you can.
Keep an eye on Ella Mae Wade Bagby Memorial Park on the other side of the Westside Trail entrance at Washington Park Tennis Center. The new sod has barely grown in, but the modest-size park offers a pleasant walk that shows off the neighborhood.