July 17, 2017|By Stacy Funderburke| Cities

I’d like to tell you about a phenomenon that I first observed in late 2012 as the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine opened. The 2.25-mile Eastside Trail is a section and preview of the 22-mile multi-use Atlanta BeltLine trail and transit loop that will circle the City of Atlanta, connecting 45 neighborhoods and creating over 1,300 acres of new parks and greenspace for our city. As I began walking the trail with my family five years ago, I noticed that almost every person I met along this stretch of trail had a very specific, characteristic smile on their faces – lips slightly upturned, self-congratulatory, like they were all in on a greatly pleasing secret. Yes, that was it—on every face I passed, it was the “BeltLine Grin.”

As Atlantans hit the trail in record numbers (1.7 million people used the trail in 2016) and businesses began to reorient from crowded city streets to the steady flow of pedestrian traffic at their back door, we collectively began to discard our old notions of our commuter selves and embrace this new connectivity and identity in the heart of our city. And it certainly seems to be making people smile. 

7 17 SF ATL Beltline 3The BeltLine provides a great place to bike, walk your dog, or simply get outside for a stroll. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

The Atlanta BeltLine is one of the most ambitious redevelopment projects in the United States, and it’s one of the most exciting partnerships for The Conservation Fund, as we continue to expand our work at the intersection of urban parks and greenspace and economic redevelopment. Since our founding, The Conservation Fund has combined our transactional expertise with an entrepreneurial spirit and innovative approach to redefine how land and water conservation can be accomplished, while ensuring real benefits for the communities where we work. 

No project better captures the need for this approach than the Atlanta BeltLine. The brainchild of Ryan Gravel, as a master’s student at Georgia Tech, redevelopment of this abandoned rail corridor is revitalizing environmentally contaminated sites, expanding parks and trails and spurring major economic redevelopment in the process.  The first ten years of the program has generated a roughly 8:1 return on investment, with an estimated $3.7 billion in private redevelopment spurred by roughly $447 million of public and private investment.

7 17 SF ATL Beltline 5Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

An incredible number of organizations and individuals have rolled up their sleeves to make this monumental project happen. I’m very proud that The Conservation Fund is one of those key partners. With 12.7 miles of trail set to be in place by the end of 2017 and $447 million of public and private funds already raised for the project, the BeltLine is on track for a completion date of 2030. In Fall 2016 Atlanta citizens affirmed their commitment to this transformational project, approving a .40₵ sales tax that will result in over $65 million for acquisition of the remaining trail corridor and right of way for the loop. The Conservation Fund, a long-time partner of the City of Atlanta in acquiring parks and greenspace, is now assisting the Atlanta BeltLine in these acquisition efforts.

7 17 Beltline mapAn overview map of the Atlanta BeltLine. This and more maps are available at http://BeltLineorg-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Project-Overview-Map-Brochure-Update-2016.pdf.

Without acquisition of the remaining rail corridor and connected greenspace and amenities, the BeltLine would remain a vision on a map. However, acquisition of properties along an old rail corridor in the heart of the city is complicated. Real estate speculation and environmental remediation needs add to the normal challenges of acquiring land for parks and greenspace. But complexity has always been the space where The Conservation Fund shines. We bring not only extensive transactional experience and expertise, but also a fundamental understanding of the intersection of conservation and economic development. This intersection is the heart of projects like the Atlanta BeltLine. 

A recent example of that partnership was completion of a key acquisition along DeKalb Ave. Thanks to a $2.5 million loan from the Fund, the BeltLine was able to secure a key property for protection of the rail corridor for expansion of the Eastside trail. The BeltLine also worked with North American Properties on this site, resulting in conversion of a former environmentally contaminated site into a $80M multi-use development that includes a workforce housing component.  The former brownfield site will have over 29,000 square feet of retail, indoor/outdoor dining, loft offices, and a pedestrian bridge over the trail to connect it.  Out of the 350 residential units, 36 will be dedicated to affordable workforce housing.  The Atlanta BeltLine is a tremendously complex project, and we rely on our partners every day to turn the Atlanta BeltLine vision into reality” said Stacy Patton, Real Estate and Asset Management Director at Atlanta BeltLine Inc.  “The Conservation Fund’s partnership on the DeKalb Avenue project and other acquisition priorities has been instrumental in helping us work toward our goals of building the Atlanta BeltLine trail and transit system, creating affordable workforce housing, and remediating brownfield sites.”

The BeltLine is changing the way we connect with our City—with our public spaces, our workplaces, our neighborhoods—and most importantly, with each other. In our work with the BeltLine and other partners across the country, the Fund is redefining conservation and setting new precedents for how urban conservation can revitalize our communities and enhance our quality of life. Together with the many other partners in this effort, we are reimagining our City of Atlanta. 

Thanks to the BeltLine, the distance between my neighborhood and Piedmont Park is no longer 20+ minutes of variable traffic, through 10 different traffic lights, barely acknowledging my fellow commuters en route. That has been replaced by a 10-minute bike ride – enjoyable in its own right, with a vibrant pedestrian trail, parks, art installations and interactions with my fellow Atlanta citizens along the way. With my two 6 year-old daughters charging down the trail in front of me and an unapologetic “BeltLine Grin” on my face, I could not be prouder of The Conservation Fund’s role in making this project a reality.

7 17 Art on Beltline 2My daughters enjoy all of the art along the BeltLine. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.