- Haisten Willis For the AJC
Visitors to the world’s most famous cities often embark on bike, bus or walking tours soon after arrival. Whether it’s New York, London or Tokyo, the excursions provide a quick history lesson and an overview of the surroundings.
Now Atlanta, and specifically the Atlanta Beltline, has its own tours even while the project remains very much under construction.
“The trail isn’t open yet, so we can’t walk on the trail itself,” Steve Saenz, founder of and tour guide for Urban Explorers of Atlanta, told his group during a recent Westside Trail tour. “You’ll see the trail from bridges and streets, and by the time you get done with this tour, you’ll probably be over here looking for real estate. You are going to be so excited.”
Saenz led a group consisting not of tourists but of locals with skin in the Beltline game. The group included longtime Westside residents, new residents, lawyers, property owners and real estate agents, all looking to soak up as much information as possible on one of Atlanta’s highest-profile projects.
“Even though I’ve spent most of my life in Atlanta, these are areas I wasn’t really familiar with,” said Alex Heaton, a commercial real estate development lawyer with Morris, Manning & Martin LLP who took in the tour. “I’m primarily a bike commuter, live close to the Eastside Trail and can’t imagine how easy it will be to bike and walk from one side of the city to the other.”
Saenz began the tour at the Oakland City MARTA station with a quick history lesson. The Beltline, as it’s known today, consists of long-abandoned railroad tracks from the 19th century. When rail was king, industrial development cropped up along the lines, which connected in Atlanta, and a 22-mile circle of tracks was constructed to provide additional capacity, forming a sort of early precursor to I-285. Even then, the tracks carried the name “beltline.”
Once completed, further industrial property was developed along the circle. Decades later, as truck traffic took over for trains, the properties became abandoned by the 1960s and ’70s. It took until 1999 for then-Georgia Tech graduate student Ryan Gravel to come up with the original idea for the Atlanta Beltline.
“The reason Gravel came up with the idea is because of the disruptive technology of trucks, which came in, took business away and left those abandoned buildings for us,” Saenz said. “You know the old saying, ‘Where there’s adversity, therein lies opportunities’? Well that’s what Gravel saw. That man is a visionary.”
The city of Atlanta bought into Gravel’s vision in 2005, and construction of the Beltline has been slowly moving forward ever since. The Eastside Trail now runs alongside upscale retail, restaurants and a host of new apartment properties.
The Westside Beltline is set to open this fall, complete with street lights every 90 feet and security cameras, and already its effect could be felt along the tour. Concrete for the trail has been poured, and in places it looks ready to open. Many homes have been renovated in prominent parks near the pathway, and a handful of businesses, such as Lean Draft House, are open as well.
The effect is expected to accelerate once the trail opens. Saenz pointed out that transit plans along the Beltline include light rail stops every half mile or so. (Measures approved by voters last November might help with that.) Those will become more important in the future as well.
“If you’re into real estate, or just want to think about the future, pay attention to where the proposed transit stops are,” he said. “I promise you, that’s where development will take place. Transit in the next 10 or 20 years will become our lifeline.”
Stops along the tour included Adair Park, Bearings Bike Shop, Murphy Crossing, Aluma Farm, a future location of Monday Night Brewing, Rose Circle Park, Kipp Strive Academy, Brown Middle School and Washington Park before ending at MARTA’s Ashby Station.
At many of the stops, Saenz held up artist renderings of the Beltline, some 7 or 8 years old, and noted how faithfully the plans have been carried out. In other cases, he held up future projections for the Beltline complete with transit trains and upscale development replacing older industrial space, predicting those would be faithfully executed as well.
The Beltline isn’t set for completion until 2030, and planned public transit along the line could take even longer. Nonetheless, it has attracted national attention as a major urban renewal project.
“People love the Atlanta Beltline,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says in a promotional video. “The only thing we hear about the Atlanta Beltline is, ‘please do more, and do it faster.’”
The city of Atlanta’s population is expected to triple by 2050, Saenz noted, with young people moving in rapidly from the suburbs. Planners are focusing on an area extending one half mile in either direction of the Beltline, subdivided into 10 zones.
Despite its success, the Beltline hasn’t come without controversy. For example, Atlanta Beltline Inc. is supposed to create at least 5,600 affordable houses and apartments, a plan put into law by the Atlanta City Council, but has fallen well short of projections so far. And Gravel has resigned from his position with the Beltline over housing and other equity issues, though he still works with the city of Atlanta as a consultant.
Saenz said Beltline planners are being more aggressive about purchasing property for the trail’s newer portions ahead of time in order to meet development goals.
Local resident Teresa Kennedy, who has lived in the Westview neighborhood near the Beltline site for 10 years, said she’s both nervous and excited for the project.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Kennedy, an account coordinator for Sterling IRB. “Having been here for 10 years and going through the housing lull, the ZIP code I live in was one of the biggest hit with mortgage fraud during the recession, and we had a lot of vacancies for a long time. We are getting over that, lots of houses are for sale now, but the neighborhood is changing very drastically.”
Keller Williams real estate agent Andrew Dennis, who went on the tour along with his wife, Kelly, to be more knowledgeable for his clients, agreed that change is happening at a rapid pace. He’s already seen large price increases even before the trail opens.
“I just closed on a house in Adair Park. We closed it in the high $100,000s, but a year ago, the house next door to it sold for $70,000,” he said. “So you’re seeing huge jumps in all these Beltline neighborhoods. … There are a lot of opportunities left. They’ve just changed from what they were a year ago.”