Railroad giant CSX is shifting its freight operations out of a sprawling depot known as Hulsey Yard, a swath of prime land long seen as critical to the future of the Atlanta Beltline.
Some observers suspect the move is a precursor by CSX to putting up for sale the 70-acre site along DeKalb Avenue east of downtown. CSX did not detail future plans. The land sits between two MARTA stations and bisects the Beltline, making it an enticing future redevelopment site that could help better-connect the bustling eastside Beltline trail with segments under development to the south.
“It is the essential link of the eastside Beltline,” said Ryan Gravel, an urban planner whose master’s thesis formed the basis of the 22-mile loop of trails and future transit.
Hulsey Yard created what more than one observer described as a “chokepoint” for Beltline pedestrians and stands as a costly obstacle for future transit. Light rail along the eastside trail of the Beltline is part of the $2.5 billion-plus MARTA expansion plan approved by Atlanta voters in 2016.
A sale of the Hulsey Yard site could unlock room for future development along one of the city’s most popular amenities. It could also create flexibility for planned future light rail and improved connections to MARTA where the Beltline and the heavy transit line intersect.
In a written statement, MARTA pledged “to be nimble and smart to leverage opportunities as they present themselves. The operational changes at CSX are a clear example of this.”
“It is an important parcel, and MARTA absolutely recognizes its significance to the future of transit in Atlanta,” said Robbie Ashe, who represents Atlanta on the MARTA board.
CSX neither confirmed nor denied plans to sell the land, but in a statement the company said it is shifting the freight traffic from Hulsey Yard to a facility in Fairburn, southwest of Atlanta.
“Our immediate plans are to safely secure the Hulsey terminal as we determine the best use for the property,” the statement said. CSX will continue to operate the east-west freight rail line that borders DeKalb Avenue.
For years, neighborhood groups in Cabbagetown, Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward and Reynoldstown dreamed of what the yard might become if CSX were to ever sell it.
About two years ago, the community groups laid the groundwork for a master planning process, which formally launched in recent months.
The Hulsey Yard Study Committee hired Lord Aeck Sargent to form the plan. On Wednesday, Lord Aeck Sargent planners will start a four day “pop-up studio” at Lang Carson Community Center on Flat Shoals Avenue to take community feedback and inform residents about the property.
The four neighborhoods have raised nearly $40,000 to fund the master plan and want to raise another $10,000 to help formalize it for submission to City Council.
Nicole Seekely, who chairs the Hulsey Yard Study Committee and is an architect at Smith Dalia in Atlanta, said the timing couldn’t be better.
The community recognized it wanted to be prepared in case CSX ever decided it wanted to sell, Seekely said.
Though it’s not clear if a sale will happen, neighborhood leaders want to know “what the community would support on these 70 acres,” she said.
“The goal is for us to be proactive and have a unified voice from all the neighborhoods,” Seekely said.
The committee launched a website to survey residents and in the past week received about 300 responses. Park space and an aversion to big box retail are two of the prevailing themes so far, Seekely said.
The “intermodal” rail yard, where CSX transfers cargo between trucks and trains, cut off neighborhoods north and south of DeKalb Avenue for decades. The incessant chug of locomotives, the beep of reversing tractor trailers and clanking of metal boxes and coupling railroad cars have long proved an inescapable nuisance, residents said.
But the din faded in recent months as less traffic seemed to flow through the site, said Seekely, who lives about 100 feet from the yard in Cabbagetown. Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook lit up with posts from residents and Beltline enthusiasts that showed the yard mostly empty.
Some internet sleuths also found a letter from shipping giant Maersk to customers informing them that CSX had shifted freight traffic. The letter said effective April 15 international rail freight would be processed through the CSX Fairburn facility and not Hulsey Yard for cargo moving to or from the ports of Savannah, Charleston, or North Charleston.
In its statement, CSX said “the change will greatly increase the efficiency of CSX’s intermodal operations in the region and support further improvements in the company’s service to intermodal customers.”
On Saturday, Gravel, the Beltline visionary, went by Hulsey Yard to see it virtually empty. He said he had heard informally 15 years ago that CSX eventually would sell Hulsey Yard. CSX officials reportedly said last year the company didn’t intend to vacate it.
The company also is selling the much larger Tilford Yard transfer station on Atlanta’s westside.
“Hulsey is a small yard relative to other intermodal yards,” Gravel said. “It’s in the city, it’s in the middle of traffic and the value of Hulsey Yard is high.”
In a statement, Beltline officials said they are “in communication with CSX and we will continue to work together on potential future Beltline alignments as CSX’s plans develop.”
Mark Toro, managing partner in Atlanta for North American Properties, said Hulsey Yard has “tremendous potential” if CSX chooses to sell.
Toro’s firm recently opened the $90 million Edge, which includes apartments, office space and restaurants across DeKalb Avenue from Hulsey Yard.
Toro, who is also a member of the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority board, which oversees transit in metro Atlanta, said he’d like to see the Beltline, MARTA, the neighborhoods and developers join to form a master plan for the site.
Sam Shenbaga, manager of the community development at the Atlanta Regional Commission, said the neighborhoods are wise to launch their plans. He encouraged the groups to have all stakeholders at the table. That means residents but also economic development and real estate experts with insight into what the market will bear.
“There’s a fine line between visioning and hallucinating,” he said.
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