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Chattahoochee master plan aims to recreate Beltline magic on river

Advocates of an ambitious plan to develop a network of linear parks and trails along a vast stretch of the Chattahoochee River say it holds the promise to transform the metro region in the way the Beltline changed Atlanta. 

The Chattahoochee River Greenway Study, administered by the Atlanta Regional Commission in conjunction with local communities and nonprofits, proposes to expand and connect existing greenspace to create a 100-mile corridor from Lake Lanier to Newnan. 

“With the continued growth of Atlanta, there’s a realization that across the metro area we don’t have enough park land and really don’t have enough great public spaces,” said George Dusenbury, the Georgia director for the Trust for Public Land, a driving force behind the movement. 

Such a sprawling project could stoke competing business interests who profit from the river and test the ability of a diverse set of communities to work together toward a common vision for the Chattahoochee, which historically has been seen as a dividing line more than an amenity. 

The regional commission is expected to announce a firm in the next few weeks to develop the $1.5 million master plan. The cost of implementing that plan is unknown, but will likely be paid for with local tax dollars and some federal matching funds. 

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The vision of a continuous trail along the river has already helped spur public and private investment along the waterway. Roswell is building its own river walk that connects to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Supporters of the Silver Comet, which runs from Alabama to Cobb, cheered the announcement last week that CSX would abandon several miles of unused track to extend the trail. They hope to see it cross the river and reach the Beltline one day. 

Private developers have also sensed an opportunity, with large residential developments in the works on both sides of the river. 

Earlier this month, Atlanta’s development arm, Invest Atlanta, approved a land swap with Kovach Development to extend the Proctor Creek Trail down the riverbank about a mile. Kovach plans to build as many as 900 condos there, some of which could be set aside as affordable housing. 

In nearby Smyrna, Ardent Companies is making river access the central selling point of its new, mixed-use development, Riverview Landing. The company is in talks to convey 12 acres on the river to Smyrna for a public park and boat launch. 

The surge in interest comes after decades of efforts to clean up the Chattahoochee. Dusenbury said clean water, more than the economic recovery, is driving investment now. He credited the Chattahoochee River Keeper with filing a landmark lawsuit against Atlanta in the nineties that forced the city to stop polluting the waterway. 

“There’s an incredible amount of largely untouched greenspace and there’s recognition looking at what other cities have done embracing their waterfronts,” Dusenbury said. “To protect the river, you need people to embrace and love the river.” 

But the activity has flared familiar tensions. Industrial business owners who have been operating on the river for decades fear an influx of bike-sharers and condo-dwellers will interfere with their ability to make a living. 

In some cases, communities who in the past viewed each other with suspicion will have to work together. 

Leaders in Cobb County and Atlanta, for example, have expressed a desire for at least one pedestrian bridge across the river, a gesture of unity that would stand in stark contrast to another major conduit just a few miles upstream: The I-75 Lester Maddox Bridge, named for the famous segregationist Governor. 

“It’s a new day; it’s a new time,” said Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who represents the area on the Cobb side. “I think it could be a catalyst.” 

But first, Cobb will have to put to rest a controversy over a new riverfront park in Cupid’s district that contains unique Civil War earthworks and could one day connect to a larger Chattahoochee greenway. 

Many local residents wanted to name it Mableton Discovery Park, a name they said reflected the optimistic spirit of their diverse community. But historic preservationists insisted the name include a reference to Johnston’s River Line, a network of trenches and earthworks constructed by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston as a defensive line against the Union Army. 

The County Commission tabled the issue last spring. Months later, Cupid is still working on a compromise as construction moves forward. 

Kwanza Hall, the former Atlanta city councilman who now works for Invest Atlanta, said Atlanta is dealing with its own questions about how to address a complicated and dark history along the river. He pointed to the expulsion of Native Americans, who named the river, from the region, and a debate over what to do with the site of the Chattahoochee Brick Company, where Atlanta’s postbellum mayor James English exploited convict labor in a system likened to slavery. 

Hall said it was important to acknowledge history without venerating legacies that cause pain to others. He called the proposal to build a pedestrian bridge between Cobb and Atlanta a “very, very powerful addition.” 

“This allows neighbors who haven’t known each other a new way to connect and to begin to see the world from each other’s vantage point,” Hall said.

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