Exploring the Beltline’s downtown Connector corridor and what it could mean for Atlanta

Recently acquired “critical link” aims to open Beltline and downtown access for English Avenue, Bankhead, beyond

It’sIt’s a drizzly afternoon at a place most Atlantans have never been: an elevated, abandoned railroad corridor directly west of Bank of America Plaza, the city’s tallest building. Given the corridor’s narrow width, height above neighborhood streets, and skyline views across rooftops and graffiti-strewn warehouses, it feels a bit like New York City’s High Line, in some nascent early phase before the tourist influx.

Closer to the corridor than Midtown sky-rises, however, are scenes indicative of economic activity (and disparity) most Atlantans are very familiar with. Along Northside Drive, a 12-acre, mixed-income redevelopment of Herndon Homes led by Atlanta Housing Authority looks like a rolling pasture of red clay; it’s meant to be a catalyst for future development but also a beacon of diversity. Meanwhile, even closer, the exterior wall of a film production studio is being enlivened with a Greg Mike mural, in collaboration with Porsche.

It’s the disparate forces of a changing Atlanta commingling, and this railroad corridor—a future Atlanta Beltline link that leaders call crucial—is right in the middle of it.

In February, Beltline officials announced they’d closed a deal with church-led Bethursday Development Corporation to use $5.1 million in TSPLOST dollars and acquire a former rail segment described as a “major piece” and “critical link” to the grand scheme of multi-use trails across Atlanta.


The dotted blue line shows the most recently purchased path area. The bold purple section represents the “kudzu line” and a planned Beltline section branching north.

Atlanta Beltline Inc.

Stretching three-quarters of a mile, the corridor had been owned by several religious groups and colloquially known as the “church line.” It starts where Northside Drive meets Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, across the street from the Georgia World Congress Center.

From there, it extends northwest to Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, through an area with an unsavory, drug-addled reputation known as “the Bluff,” before linking with another nicknamed segment: the 1.8-mile “kudzu line,” which will eventually be incorporated as part of the Beltline’s Westside Trail.

If that’s confusing, take heart in knowing the pastiche of trail monikers is going away soon.


A closer look at the kudzu line (in blue), which was purchased by the Beltline for $6.3 million in August, and the planned mainline Beltline it would link to.

Atlanta Beltline Inc.

The entire three-mile trail will be known as the Westside Beltline Connector. And it will allow anyone at, say, Centennial Olympic Park to bicycle, ride e-scooters, jog, or simply walk from downtown, via protected lanes, to the mainline Beltline and under-construction Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry, planned to be the city’s largest green space.

More importantly, project leaders say, the collaboration between the Beltline and PATH Foundation will lend transportation options and trail connectivity to neighborhoods—namely English Avenue, Bankhead, Knight Park, and Howell Station—that have thus far been largely cut off.

“You talk to folks in English Avenue and Vine City, and they feel a little disconnected to the Beltline, because they’re not neighborhoods that are right on it,” says Beltline spokeswoman Jenny Odom. “This will connect them into the Beltline, very directly.”

When the latest corridor purchase was announced in February, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom described it as helping pave the way “for a more unified and accessible Atlanta.” We recently ventured with project officials into the swampy corridor, following a string of stormy days, for a firsthand look at how this unification vision might play out.


“We’re going to make this trail a showstopper,” predicts PATH Foundation executive director Ed McBrayer. “I hope the Westside is ready to get something really cool.”

As they have with projects spanning from Proctor Creek to the wildly popular Eastside Trail, PATH is collaborating with the Beltline to make the Connector piece a reality. McBrayer describes it as a means of traveling paved trails and bike lanes from around Ponce City Market and points east to downtown, the Westside, and potentially all the way to the Silver Comet Trail.

Along the way, the Connector trail will bisect English Avenue, which the New York Times described in 2017 as one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Southeast, where roughly 40 percent of residents were living in poverty. Alongside neighboring Vine City, police data showed English Avenue as being the city’s most high-crime area for years, in terms of calls for assistance and violent offenses; but since 2016, crimes across all categories have plunged by more than 40 percent, thanks to the installation of surveillance cameras, homes reserved for officers, and the broader philanthropic efforts of groups such as the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and Quest, according to the Atlanta Police Foundation.

But despite a retention strategy—including an Anti-Displacement Tax Relief Fund for homeowners that launched in 2017—the area’s population continues to dip, and just 17 percent of residents in the broader Westside are homeowners, as officials told Curbed Atlanta earlier this year.

In places, the Connector piece provides the flipside view of Atlanta than what Eastside Trail patrons see: landmarks such as Westin Peachtree Plaza and the Coca-Cola Headquarters sweep off to Atlantic Station’s high-rises at left. From a socioeconomic standpoint, a place like English Avenue might be the flipside of tony neighborhoods such as Virginia-Highland, but that doesn’t mean residents won’t have a voice, as project leaders stress. McBrayer says community feedback in forthcoming meetings, likely beginning with NPU-L this month, will dictate what the trail becomes and how it’s used.

“We’re already done the survey, gotten it back, and we’re going to propose an alignment with illustrations and seek neighborhood feedback,” McBrayer says. “If they want a connection to a particular street, then we’ll try to work that in. If they don’t want railing on a particular overlook, then we can change.

“We want to assimilate into the neighborhood as best we can,” he adds. “There will be plenty of places to get on the trail, and it’ll become an integral part of the neighborhood.”


PATH has recently installed a cycle track leading out of downtown on Marietta Boulevard and, two years ago, bike lanes that span over Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard.

Where those meet Northside Drive is where the new Connector segment will begin.

Next, an existing tree-lined park space across Northside Drive from the GWCC could act as a respite for trail patrons.

Renderings for the Connector trail’s southernmost beginnings are too tentative to publicly share, but plans generally call for the path to boomerang around these GWCC beehives (below) and then bridge over Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, the gateway to Vine City.

Due to the proximity of a substation and transmission lines next door, Georgia Power has to sign off on trail plans here, and that process is ongoing, says Stacey Patton, the Beltline’s vice president of real estate.

A complete streets makeover is underway on Joesph E. Boone Boulevard, a couple of blocks east of the forthcoming, $45 million Rodney Cook Sr. Park.

The abandoned railroad corridor is visible at right (below), and a new trail bridge planned to cross over this street will have to meet higher clearance standards than one demolished years ago.

“The pedestrian bridge we’re going to be building will have extraordinary views of downtown,” says McBrayer. “And we’re going to have a plaza up on the hump, if you will, where everybody’s going to be taking photos of downtown and everything. It’s unobstructed views from the Westside.”

Next is a view from Jones Avenue, looking back toward Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Engineers are assessing now whether this bridge—and another three blocks north at Jett Street—can be refurbished and reused.

The railroad spur, when active, serviced industrial properties on both sides of the corridor. This section has been dormant for two decades, says Patton.

The bridge over Jones Avenue, from below, as the trail heads toward Meldrum Street.

Next the trail will dip back to street-grade and cut behind the Northside Village Apartments, which face Northside Drive. Plans call for widening an existing sidewalk and slinking behind the building here.

Beyond the apartments, the trail corridor rises again, where work to clear trash—including more than 300 tires to date—and vegetated debris is ongoing.

“It is so sweet,” says Patton of the views from this vantage. “One of the nicest [Beltline] elevations.”

At Jett Street, as seen from the sidewalk below, is the second old railroad bridge undergoing an engineering analysis.

Beyond that is a bridge-less section over Cameron Madison Alexander Boulevard—the second of three elevated gaps where bridges will have to be rebuilt, all still in design. PATH’s McBrayer downplays bridge construction as being any sort of significant hurdle.

“We’re on about our 80th bridge,” he says. “Bridges are no big deal.”

Over a lost section of Meldrum Street, where a campsite has replaced vehicle traffic, another gap is visible.

Beyond this point, the Connector trail will swoop down to ground level again and remain there, via more recently decommissioned railroad lines, until reaching the future mainline Beltline.

The cleared corridor, as seen from North Avenue, looking toward Travis Street, is no longer elevated.

Abutting the trail is Grace Midtown, one of six churches along the trail, where a renovation that installed picturesque outdoor seating areas is expected to wrap in coming weeks.

Just across Travis Street from the church, with a side lot fronting the trail, is rapper T.I.’s newly opened Trap Music Museum and Escape Room, where weekend entry lines sometimes span the block.

Continuing northwestward on the trail, the Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway bridge is reflected in puddles along the corridor.

Beltline officials provided this image and rendering depicting how the trail and adjacent properties could look at Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway.

Tentative plans for the Westside Beltline Connector as it would pass under Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. [Images courtesy of Atlanta Beltline Inc.] A photo of a worn-down building bordered by a thick brush of green trees. In the background is the Atlanta skyline. and A rendering of an updated building with the word “Cafe” on it is superimposed over the photo of the dilapidated structure flanked by trees.

After crossing several other at-grade streets, the corridor enters what previously was known as the kudzu line, as seen here near Law Street.

The rail line through this area has been inactive for about five years, and CSX is expected to have all remaining infrastructure removed by May, Patton says.

Next the corridor passes beneath a Marietta Boulevard bridge and meets active railroad lines.

Patton says the Beltline bought a small, triangular parcel in this area to bring the trail up to Marietta Boulevard, where lanes to Huff Road are planned to be converted into the Beltline, providing a link between the existing Westside Trail and the future northwestern segment.

The hope is that PATH, at that point, will break west to link with the existing, 61-mile Silver Comet Trail.

As for a timeline, officials say Atlantans can expect to see construction on this more pedestrian-friendly Connector soon.

The Beltline’s TSPLOST-funded outlay of more than $11 million paid only for acquisition of the rail corridors, a means of securing the land. Cost estimates for the full three-mile Connector are pending design finalizations, but each segment is planned to open with lighting, cameras, and other infrastructure.

The Beltline is still working to buy a few necessary, adjacent parcels, while McBrayer says PATH is raising and contributing $5 million from the private sector.

The first planned section where Joseph E. Boone Boulevard meets Northside Drive is almost ready to enter permitting phases, McBrayer says. Following neighborhood meetings, construction to bring the trail from there to the Northside Village Apartments, a section of a few blocks, is expected to launch this fall and take about six months to finish, likely next spring.

Meanwhile, the former kudzu line section will enter design phases and ancillary property acquisitions. As McBrayers sees it, the whole Connector trail can be funded and built within three years, providing the missing link to downtown and vice versa.

“To have the connection to downtown—I think it’s amazing,” says Patton. “There were so many people down there at the Super Bowl; with an electric bike rental, they could have been at the quarry park.”

Biz leaders line up support for Westside revitalization

Top business leaders are lining up to support the Westside Future Fund, a high-powered umbrella organization that’s been formed to coordinate the planning, fund-raising and revitalization efforts in the communities west of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium now under construction.

Written by Maria Saporta for Atlanta Business Chronicle

Oct 16, 2015, 6:00am EDT

Pulte

Westside Future Fund Chairman Richard Dugas, CEO of PulteGroup Inc. (one of Atlanta’s newest Fortune 500 companies), sat down with Atlanta Business Chronicle on Oct. 14 for his first in-depth interview about the initiative since he was tapped to lead the effort last December.

In the past 10 months, the Fund has hired Quince Brinkley as its executive director, raised about $1.5 million for its initial operations, formed its board and started putting together a strategy of how to attract new investment and improve the quality of life in Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill, the Atlanta University Center and Ashview Heights.

“This is not a community redevelopment effort,” Dugas said. “This is a community revitalization effort. We will have failed if we have displaced anyone.”

The Fund is taking a multi-pronged approach towards the Westside. It is working with the numerous partners who already have been investing in the neighborhoods, and it is hoping to serve as a coordinator and facilitator in making sure everyone is working collaboratively rather than independently.

“I see our role as taking all the tributaries and turning them into a river,” Dugas said. “We want to play a coordination role, to serve as a community quarterback.”

When the Fund was formed, the idea was to have a neutral entity that could coordinate “the good existing efforts already underway and not care who got the credit,” Dugas added.

The Westside Future Fund was an outgrowth of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, the blue-ribbon business group that works with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on the city’s top initiatives.

At the last ACP meeting, Reed said that in addition to Chick-fil-A Inc., The Home Depot Inc. and the Blank Foundation had pledged at least $250,000 each to support the operations of the Westside Future Fund. Dugas said Pulte Homes also has made a similar commitment.

To support the operations of the Westside Future Fund through the end of 2018 — staff, rent, administrative costs as well as consulting services — Dugas said the board needs to raise a total of $4.5 million.

The Fund also is putting together a comprehensive plan for the entire area that will incorporate the multitude of more targeted plans that already have been done for the Westside. The scope will be education, economic development, public safety, housing and land use as well as health and well-being.

Dugas said he appreciates the skepticism that exists both inside and outside the Westside communities, based on what has happened in the past.

“I have been educated about the false starts,” Dugas said. “I’m committed that we will not do that again. We feel a strong obligation to not let people down again.”

That’s one reason Dugas wants to be sure the Fund is working from a comprehensive plan before the Fund starts implementing projects on an ad-hoc basis.

On the top of his list is community engagement. Dugas is well aware that that population in those five neighborhoods has fallen 55 percent between 1970 and 2010–from 41,000 to 18,000, and he said the most important constituents are the residents in the community. That’s why he wants to make sure this effort is done right.

“We are in this for 20 to 30 years,” Dugas said. “This is not a short-term — raise a bunch of money — and leave. It’s going to take a long time. We are acutely aware the community is skeptical.”

Another top priority is respecting the unique history of those communities. For example, the home where Martin Luther King Jr. was living when he was assassinated is on Sunset Avenue in the heart of Vine City. “The Westside Future Fund is very committed to preserving the historic integrity of the entire west side, including historic properties,” Dugas said. “Our goal is to make sure that unintended consequences don’t occur.”

Dugas asked for patience as the Fund’s leadership puts all the pieces in place.

One of the initiatives that could have the greatest impact is what Dugas is calling a “social responsible acquisition fund.” The idea would be for the Westside Future Fund to set up a vehicle whereby people could make a low-margin investment to a social fund that could be used to acquire blighted properties that could either be renovated or rebuilt.

“There are executives and corporations in town, like Jeff Sprecher, sitting on the sidelines, watching the Westside Future Fund’s ability to manage a social responsible acquisition fund and are willing to make sizable contributions to the overall effort,” Dugas said.

If the Westside Future Fund can work through those, Sprecher, CEO of New York Stock Exchange-owner InterContinental Exchange Inc., has pledged to invest $5 million into such a fund. Because that kind of contribution is more like a loan than a donation, Dugas said it could be a way for the entity to raise a significant amount of money in a short period of time.

“There’s a lot of momentum from a lot of foundations and corporations,” Dugas said. “The reality is that there’s a lot of excitement around the Westside, and our goal is to have a catalytic impact over the long-term.”

CLOSER LOOK

The existing partners include:

–    The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which has pledged $15 million towards revitalizing the Westside–primarily by investing in human capital;
–    The city’s economic development agency Invest Atlanta, which also is investing $15 million on primarily physical improvements in the community;
–    The Chick-fil-A Foundation, which just announced that it is donating $300,000 to the Westside Future Fund and building a Chick-fil-A store on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive;
–    Families First, which will be moving its headquarters to the to the historic E.R. Carter School;
–    Westside Works, which is creating job training and employment opportunities for Westside residents, placing 216 individuals in living-wage jobs;
–    Friendship Baptist Church, which is building its new sanctuary in the community and has more extensive plans to invest in the area;
–    City of Refuge, which is planning to expand its community footprint to the areas adjacent to its home base on Joseph E Boone Boulevard; and
–    The Atlanta Police Foundation, which is installing security cameras, launching neighborhood security patrols and working with Pulte Homes and the Blank Foundation to have Atlanta police officers live in homes in the area.

The Westside goes boom!

Dollars, people pour in as once-industrial area becomes one of city’s hottest

Updated

Westside goes boom

Frank Buonanotte, founder of The Shopping Center Group, is redeveloping Westside Ironworks into restaurants and shops. Credit: Joan Vitelli

Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into the Westside, which has transformed in recent years from a rundown industrial space to a hip, walkable community that ties together Midtown, Buckhead and downtown.

In the last decade, $1 billion or more has been invested in the Westside, saidMichael Phillips, president of Jamestown, who teamed up with Westbridge Partners to redevelop one of the key projects in the area, White Provision. Chris Faussemagne, principal of Westbridge Partners, said at least $250 million in projects have come online since 2012.

Several developers with projects in the area likened it to New York City’s Meatpacking District.

“It’s a former industrial area with that used to have a lot of large warehouses and manufacturing uses, and it’s changing,” said Scott Selig, vice president of Selig Enterprises. “A lot of residential units are going in, a lot of retail, restaurants and entertainment. It’s becoming a place for people to live, and it’s very close to downtown, which makes it appealing.”

The West Midtown Design District, which is located west of Interstate 75, east of Marietta Boulevard, south of Collier Road and north of North Avenue, expanded its footprint for home furnishing-based businesses in the late 1990s, when a new round of retailers like Bungalow Classic, Kolo Collection and Poliform Atlanta opened in the area. This offered a shopping alternative for wealthy Buckhead and Midtown residents, who before had few better choices than Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square mall. The converted warehouses with their brick walls and exposed ceilings stand in stark contrast to more sterile glass-and-steel buildings along Peachtree.

In the years since, the Westside has become a model of new urbanism, as well as a destination for dining, living and entertainment.

Faussemagne said one reason the neighborhood has grown so much is the Marietta Street Artery Association, a small group that pushed for land-use changes and developed a master plan for redeveloping the industrial area while keeping its character intact. The neighborhood association of Home Park, the area’s largest constituent neighborhood, also created a master plan in 2002 that is credited for shaping the Westside.

Several adaptive reuse developments have become the core of the neighborhood. A pioneer in the Westside is the King Plow Arts Center, which was redeveloped in 1990 from a plow factory into loft offices, a music venue called Terminal West, art galleries and a restaurant. Westside Provisions District grew out of Westside Urban Market, a shopping and dining locale redeveloped by TuckerMott Cos. in 1998, and White Provision, which opened in 2007 with more retail, restaurants, office and residential space.

“With White Provision, what’s interesting to me is going back to the mid-2000s, what we were doing was still really entrepreneurial creative space combined with good operators on the retail/restaurant side,” Faussemagne said. “In the 10 years since, it’s really changed to much larger companies and corporations looking to have offices there, and more national retailers are looking to be in that area. I think it’s a combination of the old buildings and the nontraditional corporate atmosphere.”

Jamestown is currently expanding White Provision to make room for 14,000 square feet of additional retail space for three new stores.

Next to the Westside Provisions District is another upcoming multi-use development, Westside Ironworks, an $8.5 million project by Frank Buonanotte, founder of The Shopping Center Group, and Jeff Stein, founder of The Stein Group. It will convert two industrial buildings into 19,000 square feet of swanky restaurants and shops, including sushi restaurant O-Ku, furnishing store Dixon Rye and lunch spot Tom + Chee.

“During the last big real estate boom was the beginning of the evolution of the Westside from a design district into something more,” Buonanotte said. Another huge multi-use project in the pipeline is Stockyards Atlanta, a venture ofWestbridge Partners and the Martin family, a long-time Atlanta landowner whose projects include Brickworks on Marietta Street. The roughly $30 million project will transform three warehouses, two of which were meat-packing facilities built in the early 1900s, into 130,000 square feet of retail space and office space, which the Westside is still sorely lacking.

Stockyards is scheduled to be completed next summer.

Fifteen years ago, residents in the area were hard-pressed to find somewhere to eat that didn’t have a drive-thru, but today the neighborhood has everything from casual to upscale dining concepts. Buonanotte said he has found in conversations with restaurateurs that eateries on the Westside tend to fare better than those located along the Peachtree corridor in Midtown.

“I think it’s because of the authenticity and the character here,” Buonanotte said. “I think it’s cooler to go into a basement space like Ormsby’s and have the exposed brick… I think people find that more appealing than a white box in a glass building.”

Chef Ford Fry has bet on the Westside three times — in 2007, he opened JCT. Kitchen & Bar in the area, in 2013 he opened The Optimist and last month he opened Marcel Steakhouse in the old Abattoir space.

“Everyone in the Westside is really high quality in all elements, so that is what’s so good about it,” Fry said. “Before there weren’t as many people living in the Westside, but the population has really skyrocketed in the last five years.”

Apartment projects are also growing in the Westside at a frenetic pace. The 197-unit Elan Westside, the 250-unit Walton Westside and Perennial Properties’ The Brady, which has 230 units, all have opened in the past year. According to The Reid Report, there are five projects with a combined 1,304 units underway, with at least three more projects planning to break ground next year.

The Allen Morris Co. is currently going through a rezoning process for a 410-unit project at Howell Mill and 11th Street that will wrap around Northside Tavern.

“Our design is going to be in keeping with the neighborhood’s industrial chic look,” said Allen Morris, chairman, president and CEO of The Allen Morris Co.

In keeping with the neighborhood’s creative nature, several art galleries have opened in recent years. Westside Cultural Arts Center, a 15,000-square-foot events space, and Collective One Gallery, a 4,000-square-foot art gallery, opened in 2014, and founder Dr. Jim Chappuis has also purchased the majority of the block bounded by 10th Street, Howell Mill, 9th Street and Brady Avenue for future redevelopment.

“The Westside is one of the few areas in this city that has a sense of place,” Chappuis said. “We’re going to have a footprint here that we think is going to anchor this area.”

Development of the Westside moved outside of the core area recently when Topgolf Midtown opened a 65,000-square-foot store on Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard.

Because there are no definite boundaries of the Westside, it’s impossible to know its population. But the proliferation of new residential space and resulting traffic gridlock makes it clear that the population is growing. This presents the biggest challenge for developers, company owners and residents alike.

“I think it’s interesting that when we started this 15 years ago, the initial plan was ‘how do we get people over here?’” Faussemagne said. “There wasn’t any traffic, just abandoned industrial roads. Today the first question is, ‘how will this impact traffic?’”

Kevin Green, president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance, said his group is in the process of putting together “the most robust, multi-modal plan” it’s ever put together for Midtown proper, which includes improving its connection to the Westside, which is separated from it by the downtown connector.

“All corridors have the potential to be transformed,” Green said.

Restriping Howell Mill Road to add a turn lane and a bike lane could go a long way to ease congestion, Selig said. And when development of the Beltline eventually expands into the Westside, it will play a huge role in the neighborhood’s future by offering residents a new way to get to other parts of the city.

The Westside has a very distinct look, but its biggest issue apart from traffic is arguably how it defines itself, including picking a single name to go by. It’s known by some as the Westside, but to others as West Midtown or Midtown West.

“We have struggled with marketing and branding over the years,” said Shaun Green, a senior transportation engineer for Atlanta Beltline Inc. who helped draft Home Park’s master plan. “For the most part I think ‘the Westside’ is a fair statement.”

As long as the Westside continues to grow, it probably won’t settle on definitive boundaries for itself, either — but Green doesn’t see that as a bad thing.

“It’s this huge land area that people want to associate themselves with, and it creeps and becomes larger than the boundaries are,” he said.

There are few available parcels left in the Westside core, so its growth outward is likely to continue.

“I think the demand is going to be there for years to come,” Buonanotte said. “While the neighborhood has changed dramatically over the past few years, there’s a lot more that can be changed… There’s opportunity and demand, and the only thing in my mind that will slow that down is if the economy slows down significantly.”

Current apartment projects

  • West Midtown Heights by The Worthing Cos. – 244 units, 17th Street and Bishop
  • 1854 Defoor Avenue by First Guaranty Management Corp. – 236 units, 1854 Defoor Ave.
  • Accent Waterworks by Westplan – 181 units, Northside Drive NW
  • The Local by Pollack Shores Real Estate Group – 361 units Mecaslin and 14th Street
  • Westside Heights by the Worthing Cos. – 282 units