Atlanta BeltLine's popular Eastside Trail (©Michelle Khouri)
Atlanta was born of railroads. It began as the hub of five major lines, which catalyzed massive growth for the city.
But in the mid-20th century, trains gave way to interstates and airplanes, and the railroads played second fiddle as a method of transporting people and goods. A 22-mile rail corridor encircling Atlanta fell victim to neglect during this time. This once-decaying ring of rails is now the basis for one of the nation’s largest redevelopment projects, the Atlanta BeltLine. The wildly popular BeltLine is transforming this corridor into a network of parks, trails and transit, passing through 45 neighborhoods.
Atlanta is not traditionally known for historic preservation. Until a few decades ago, what wasn’t burned down during the Civil War was being torn down. Not anymore: A focus on restoration and reclamation, especially in urban areas, has changed the look, feel and attitude of this progressive Southern city.
The BeltLine was a brainchild of Georgia Tech grad student Ryan Gravel and formed the basis of his 1999 thesis. “It was a natural space for rethinking how our city is organized," Gravel says. "We don’t have a riverfront or harbor view. These railroads are our ‘waterfront opportunity.’”
His idea inspired civic leaders, including former City Council President Cathy Woolard, who helped Gravel grow public support for the project. Soon thereafter, former Mayor Shirley Franklin formed the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership to rouse corporate and community support. Six months later, the BeltLine master plan was approved by several local government agencies.
Since construction began in 2006, the Atlanta BeltLine has changed not only the way visitors and residents traverse the city, but also what they do, where they go and how they live. The BeltLine is now the place to stroll or jog through some of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods; enjoy coffee, cocktails or a meal; watch skateboarders grab air; visit the Atlanta Botanical Garden; and, admire public art.
Says Atlanta BeltLine CEO Paul Morris: “It’s serving as a model of remediation and sustainability nationally and even internationally. The Los Angeles River Project is an amazing project underway now that has drawn inspiration from the Atlanta BeltLine.” According to Morris, there have been many “rails-to-trails” projects in the United States, but none combines the Atlanta BeltLine’s extensive mix of multiuse trails, transit, parks, economic development, health and fitness, public art, historic preservation and more.
The Eastside Trail is the most developed and used section of the 22-mile ring. The trail’s 2.2 miles connect Ansley Park with the Old Fourth Ward and average 21,000 users per week. It’s estimated that more than a million people will use the Eastside Trail in 2015—with so many things to see and do, it’s no wonder.
Art on the BeltLine is the largest temporary art exhibition in the Southeast and runs from September to November each year. The exhibition includes visual and performance works by hundreds of local, national and international artists throughout the completed West Side and Eastside trails. The exhibition kicks off with a festive nighttime Lantern Parade. In 2014, the parade dazzled more than 20,000 participants and spectators with a stream of handcrafted lanterns. About two dozen murals and sculptures brighten the Eastside and West Side trails throughout the year. Also available year-round is the recently opened, 17-acre Historic Fourth Ward Park, which includes an amphitheater, modern playground and skatepark. The BeltLine also offers free fitness classes and walks each week and four races as part of the Atlanta BeltLine Running Series.
The BeltLine’s various guided tours cater to a wide range of preferences. Leisurely bicycle tours are offered on the weekends and explore up to 16 miles of trails. The 1.5-hour walking arboretum tours showcase native trees, architecture and history found throughout the Eastside Trail. Immensely popular bus tours offer the best look at the full project, including the only public access granted to Bellwood Quarry, the future site of Westside Reservoir Park. Bus tours are available Friday and Saturday mornings.
For visitors who prefer to explore the BeltLine on their own, a self-guided food tour is a must. Lining the Eastside Trail are some of Atlanta’s liveliest restaurants, like Park Tavern at Piedmont Park, or Parish, Kevin Rathbun Steak and Barcelona in Inman Park. What’s more, special events like the BeltLine Wine Stroll and the BeltLine Boil have become eagerly anticipated annual events.
These BeltLine-facing restaurants and shops are a testament to the project’s unprecedented economic impact. The BeltLine has spurred more than $1 billion of development, with condos, townhomes, offices and shops sitting on land formerly choked with weeds. “[The BeltLine] is transforming Atlanta by linking some of the city’s oldest and most unique neighborhoods. Living along the Eastside Trail is convenient and fun,” says Wilma Sothern, who owns a new townhome on the BeltLine.
Ponce City Market, a mixed-use development in a historic, 2-million-square-foot. brick building originally owned by Sears, is at the epicenter of the BeltLine-fueled revitalizations. Anna Foote is a native of the Poncey-Highland neighborhood and has been active in community planning for years. Foote was one of the first residents of the Ponce City Market Flats and says the project has made the area vibrant and inclusive.
When asked to name a few of her favorite things to do on the BeltLine, Foote shared, “Sit on the back steps of Paris on Ponce and people-watch. Bicycle early in the morning. Stand on the North Avenue Bridge and watch a sunset next to the sculptures. Eat on the back patio of Two Urban Licks and enjoy the smell of their herb garden. Watch for the lady who plays the violin as she walks the BeltLine.”
Gravel also has moved to the BeltLine. “I’ve been talking about this idea for 16 years, but after moving to a loft in Inman Park, I’m surprised that not only is riding my bike to work an option, it’s the fastest and often most pragmatic option,” says Gravel. “[Using the trail], I can go to the grocery store, the movies or out to eat. And when my kids go to high school, they’ll be getting there on the Atlanta BeltLine.”
The BeltLine has continued to expand in 2015. Construction began on the West Side Trail and the southern extension of the Eastside Trail. Along the Eastside Trail, the North Avenue Plaza has opened next to Ponce City Market, which has unveiled a pedestrian bridge that feeds from the BeltLine into the building’s courtyard.
“The best thing about the Atlanta BeltLine is actually not the thing itself—it’s what’s happening in the neighborhoods around the city," says Gravel. "It’s not only changing the way we move around, it’s changing the way we live our lives.”
Thanks in large part to the Atlanta BeltLine, this ever-evolving Southern metropolis is poised to become an international model of urban renewal and sustainability.