An artist rendering of the Atlanta Beltline's new Westside Trail. The three-mile trail extension, expected to be completed in 2016, is expected to help stimulate redevelopment in neighborhoods southwest and west of downtown.
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

Western leg of the Atlanta Beltline begins

The Atlanta Beltline is going west.

City leaders are expected to break ground Wednesday on the Beltline’s Westside Trail, a $43 million project they believe will dramatically change the face of southwest Atlanta. Supporters say the expansion of the popular green space project — which aims to transform former railway corridors into a 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit — represents one of the largest investments the area has seen since MARTA rail entered the neighborhood.

The planned three-mile corridor will stretch from Washington Park to Adair Park, the site of the groundbreaking, connecting 10 neighborhoods. The 14-foot wide trail is expected to be completed ahead of schedule, by late 2016.

“The big conversation with the Atlanta Beltline is would it ever reach the southwest part of the city and give us true connectivity?” Mayor Kasim Reed said. “This really does end that conversation.”

Originally envisioned as a master’s thesis by then-Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel, the Beltline — run by nonprofit Atlanta Beltline Inc. — is funded in a variety of ways: a tax allocation district, or TAD; a mix of federal, state and local grants; and private donations.

The Westside Trail received a boost with an $18 million federal transportation grant and $10 million in private dollars. Cox Enterprises Chairman Jim Kennedy, whose holdings include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gave $5 million to the project through his foundation.

Atlanta officials and supporters are hoping to replicate the success of the Beltline’s Eastside Trail, a path that runs from Piedmont Park through Inman Park. That project has spurred an estimated billion dollars in economic development, including the mammoth Ponce City Market. On any given day, the path is crowded with joggers and strollers, and has brought an influx of apartments, restaurants and businesses.

Many residents of southwest Atlanta are hopeful the Beltline will bring similar results to their long-overlooked communities.

Michelle Rushing, an Adair Park resident who is a member the Beltline Tax Allocation District advisory board, said there’s “an incredible amount of excitement” around the expansion. Much of that comes from the connections it will make to nearby neighborhoods and the potential to lure new restaurants, retail and another amenities, she said.

But there’s trepidation, too, that the paths and trails will lead to skyrocketing property taxes and, ultimately, displacement.

The Beltline was envisioned as a trail that would run through neighborhoods with a mix of incomes, but much of the housing built on the Eastside is anything but affordable. Rents for studios and one bedroom units in many of the new apartment buildings cost more than $1,000 per month.

Reed predicted an influx of modern apartments and condominiums will soon flood areas near the Westside Trail.

“There are a number of kids that graduate from the Atlanta University Center every year that like southwest Atlanta, but haven’t had new housing stock, certainly in a rental space, in years,” he said.

“Because of the land values in southwest Atlanta,” Reed continued, “the opportunity for some more creative developments is right there.”

Rushing said her community welcomes new residents and development, but “there’s also a little anxiety about losing the character of the neighborhood.”

Adair Park, sandwiched between the Pittsburgh and West End neighborhoods about a mile west of Turner Field, is one of the more diverse neighborhoods on the Westside Trail corridor, with neighbors of differing ages, races and income levels.

Residents hold potluck dinners and events in community parks, which has helped form bonds between new and old residents.

“Our biggest challenge is how to maintain that,” Rushing said.

Nia Knowles, a West End resident and head of the local neighborhood planning unit, has worked for years to educate her neighbors about the benefits of the Beltline. She’s heard from neighbors skeptical of the trail project, doubt that she says stems from decades of promises of redevelopment that never materialized. Her neighborhood was among the nation’s hardest hit during the foreclosure crisis.

“Those who say they aren’t going to use (the Beltline) are many of the people who have been here a long time and heard change is coming … but still see the crime and stink of foreclosure and kind of lost faith,” she said.

She tells neighbors worried about gentrification that the Beltline “is not coming to push out, but enhance your quality of life.”

But that takes careful planning, she acknowledged. She’s part of a group lobbying elected officials to freeze property tax levels for senior residents. As a real estate broker, she works with affordable housing programs and says she tries to sell properties to buyers who plan to make a long-term investment in the community.

“I do have to worry about (affordability),” she said. “…I may be out-priced in an area that I helped to build.”

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