Excerpt from Prosperity Comes in Cycles
by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
Bicycle trails are good for business. They attract restaurants, brewpubs and retail shops catering to those who walk or pedal for fun, exercise, and health. When trails connect centers of employment, recreation, education, and culture, they also generate residential development aimed at people who increasingly prefer active transportation over fighting traffic. And when trails are extended and linked with one another, they expand tourism revenue from a growing breed of vacationers who want to get out of their cars and experience places at a more leisurely and enjoyable speed.
As trails succeed, they increase business activity, employment, wages, property value, income and, importantly, tax revenues in a self-reinforcing upward spiral. Specifically, trail improvements boost trail use which grows trail-adjacent businesses and property investments which, in turn, expand tax revenues and create public support for further trail improvements. By riding Atlanta’s Beltline Trail in 2018, my wife and I got a first-hand look at this virtuous cycle.
Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall proclaims its address as Mile Marker 9.5 on the Atlanta Beltline. That’s one measure of the success of this city’s ambitious project to redevelop and connect 45 neighborhoods encircling downtown using the conversion of 22 miles of abandoned rail corridors as the catalyst. Ladybird Grove owes much of its popularity to its quirky, summer camp vibe and a huge selection of craft beer. But the main attraction here is a huge deck overlooking the Beltline where people can take a break from their walking, running, or biking and watch others passing by under their own non-motorized power.
Proximity to the Beltline is in high demand. “Beltline Living” is a common advertising slogan seen on the banners hanging from new apartment buildings under construction here. Taking its cue from Ladybird Grove, a beer garden facing the Beltline was nearing completion when we pedaled past in 2018. Anchoring the Eastside Trail is Ponce City Market. Once a Sears & Roebuck regional distribution center built in the 1920s, this two million-square-foot 1920s building has been repurposed as a multi-use complex with 259 apartment units, 550,000 square feet of office space and 330,000 square feet of retail including a Central Food Hall featuring famous chefs and international cuisine. Ponce City Market incorporates bike storage, showers, and bike-friendly elevators in order to take maximum advantage of its location on the Beltline (Urban Land Institute 2016).
In 1999, the Beltline concept was first proposed in a thesis written by Ryan Gravel, a Georgia Tech graduate student. Grassroots support for the idea was nurtured by Friends of BeltLine and a 2004 Trust for Public Land study demonstrating the feasibility of the project using a Tax Allocation District (TAD). By 2005, a plan and TAD were approved and the first trail segment was open by 2008 (Atlanta BeltLine 2018b). As of 2016, the project had created seven parks and hundreds of affordable housing units as well as $3 billion in residential complexes, commercial buildings, affordable housing and other forms of private investment (Atlanta BeltLine 2018a).
The Beltline is all about connecting Atlanta. While the Atlanta region is famous for sprawl, the older parts of the city of Atlanta concentrate many recreational, cultural, residential and commercial destinations within easy bicycling distance via the Beltline. The Eastside Trail segment of the Beltline passes through 185-acre Piedmont Park. In 1887 and again in 1895, this park was the site of international expositions, two of many reasons why the park is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some elements from this era still survive, including Lake Clara Meer, which once featured water slides and diving platforms. A 1912 Olmstead Brothers plan influenced the park’s current look, which offers the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a swimming pool, a tennis academy, ball fields, playgrounds, dog parks, a community garden and a Saturday morning farmers’ market (Piedmont Park Conservancy 2018).
Just south of Ponce City Market, a consortium has transformed an area previously plagued by flooding and neglect into the Historic Fourth Ward Park, a model of multi-functional green infrastructure. This 17-acre park includes a playground, splash pad, skatepark, sports areas, and passive green space. In addition, the two-acre lake here serves as a stormwater detention basin as well as a stunning bit of landscape architecture (Atlanta BeltLine 2018a).
On a spur called the Freedom Park Trail, cyclists can pedal one mile west to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. The Visitor Center here explores the life of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Surrounding the Center are Dr. King’s birth home, grave and the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King was co-pastor from 1960 until his death in 1968 (National Park Service 2016).
Just east of the Beltline on Freedom Park Trail, cyclists encounter the 35-acre campus of the Carter Center, a non-governmental organization founded by former US President Jimmy Carter promoting conflict resolution, civil rights, democracy, disease prevention, and mental health. The beautifully landscaped grounds here showcase a particularly-moving sculpture depicting a child leading a man stricken with river blindness, a disease that the Carter Center and its partners are in the process of eradicating throughout the world (The Carter Center 2018). Visitors to the Carter Presidential Library & Museum can take selfies in a life-size replica of the Oval Office and wander through a maze of exhibits on the life and times of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, with an understandable emphasis on 1977 through 1981, the turbulent four years of the Carter Presidency (Jimmy Carter Library 2018).
Going further east, the Freedom Park Trail becomes the Stone Mountain Trail and a trail spur leads to Dinosaur Plaza, an outdoor space in front of the Fernbank National History Museum dominated by a family of Lophorhothon atopus dinosaurs recreated in bronze. The 75 acres surrounding the museum are home to Fernbank Forest, the largest old-growth Piedmont forest within the urban United States. In the heart of the city, hikers can wander two miles of paths beneath trees more than 16-stories tall. The WildWoods exhibit features an elevated walkway where visitors can experience forest life from a treetop perspective (Fernbank 2018).
The destinations sketched above are connected by the Eastside Trail, one of four segments of the Beltline that are currently in use. On completion in 2030, the Beltline will connect 2,400 acres of parkland with a 22-mile streetcar loop and 33 miles of multiuse trails. Atlanta BeltLine estimates that the project will ultimately remediate 1,100 acres of brownfields, build 5,600 affordable housing units, generate $10 to $20 billion in economic development, create 30,000 permanent jobs and support 48,000 one-year construction jobs (Atlanta BeltLine 2018a). Considering the huge success of the Beltline segments finished so far, these estimates might actually be conservative.
Atlanta Beltline. 2018a. The Atlanta BeltLine: Where Atlanta Comes Together. Accessed on July 13, 2018 from https://beltline.org/about/the-atlanta-beltline-project/atlanta-beltline-overview/.
Atlanta BeltLine. 2018b. Project History. Accessed on July 15, 2018 from https://beltline.org/progress/progress/project-history/.
Fernbank 2018. Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Accessed on July 15, 2018 from http://www.fernbankmuseum.org/explore/permanent-features/.
Jimmy Carter Library. 2018. Museum. Accessed on July 15, 2018 from https://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/museum.
National Park Service. 2016. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park. Accessed on July 14, 2018 from https://www.nps.gov/malu/index.htm.
Piedmont Park Conservancy. 2018. History. Accessed on July 14, 2018 from https://www.piedmontpark.org/park-history/.
The Carter Center. 2018. About. Accessed on July 15, 2018 from https://www.cartercenter.org/.
Urban Land Institute. 2016. Active Transportation and Real Estate: The Next Frontier. Washington, DC: The Urban Land Institute.