By Veronica Nitkin
Atlanta, Georgia is infamous for its sprawling nature and limited transportation. In 1999, Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel proposed an idea: to use an abandoned rail line around the city to create a 22 mile ring of trails, parks, mass transit, and urban redevelopment (Kirkman, Noonan and Dunn, 2012). This ring is now known as the BeltLine, and the 6500 acre project (Immergluck, 2008) is one of the United State’s largest redevelopment projects underway (Roy, 2015). The BeltLine has lofty goals which it has been clear about since the project’s inception. It expects to generate $20 billion of new economic development, 30,000 new jobs, and over 5,000 units of affordable housing between 2005-2030 (Immergluck, 2008). The BeltLine has used public-private partnerships to make great strides towards achieving these goals. While 73% of Atlanta residents responded in a survey that they believe the BeltLine is a good idea, taking on such a large project still creates many challenges, even with public support (Kirkman, Noonan and Dunn, 2012).
A large scale redevelopment project, such as the BeltLine, can help a city move from an industrial to postindustrial stage. The BeltLine is an excellent example of the use of public-private partnerships to generate economic growth. Part of the development is funded by tax increment financing, while the rest of the development is privately funded (Immergluck, 2008). The project takes great pride in its ability to inspire $1 billion in private redevelopment (Roy, 2015). Driven by the economic priorities of encouraging private real estate development, improving tax-base, and creating more jobs, the BeltLine exemplifies neoliberal planning (Roy, 2015). The BeltLine is run financially and administratively by Atlanta BeltLine Inc., which works closely with City of Atlanta departments to define details of the plan, determine construction, secure public funding, and engage members of the community (beltline.org, 2017). The BeltLine transformed from a student’s master’s thesis idea to reality through grassroots efforts, so it is no surprise that the public is still highly involved through the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership (beltline.org, 2017). This is a non-profit organization created in 2006 to engage the public and empower residents in the surrounding area to have a voice. Unfortunately, within a neoliberal political-economy, this public-private structure can actually limit citizen ability to disrupt, because community members were hypothetically involved in the planning process. In the case of the BeltLine, there have not been any significant protests from marginalized members. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that much of the development on the BeltLine is done in mixed income and mixed race neighborhoods, where many people don’t have internet access, thus limiting their ability to really become involved (Roy, 2015). The local district councilman in the Historic Fourth Ward Park area in east Atlanta commented that the development of a 35 acre park was mostly the wish of the relatively new, middle/higher-middle income, white residents (Roy, 2015). This discrepancy between the population able to voice its opinion and the entire population who is affected by the BeltLine development contributes to the gentrification of areas surrounding the BeltLine.
This large scale project has resulted a significant increase in property value, especially in areas within a quarter mile of the BeltLine (Immergluck, 2008). Because the BeltLine has been such a public and highly documented initiative, property values actually began to increase with initial media coverage of the BeltLine planning process (Immergluck, 2008). From 2000-2006, the City of Atlanta has seen the median price of single-family property values increase by 12.4% annually, and prices within one-eighth mile of the BeltLine increase by more than 15% annually over this same period, and construction did not actually start until 2005 (Immergluck, 2008). This preemptive increase was due to press about the BeltLine and expectations that property value would increase. Tax rates have also increased substantially. A typical homeowner with a house worth $100,000 and within an eighth mile of the BeltLine would have seen a change in property taxes from $540 in 2001 to over $1400 in 2006 (Immergluck, 2008). These changes in property taxes have pushed out some lower-income homeowners near the BeltLine. Since the BeltLine encompasses the whole city, it also encompasses a wide range of socio-economic levels. The southern tracts of the BeltLine touch predominantly on lower-income residential neighborhoods, where 20-30% of residents are below the poverty level (Immergluck, 2008), however price premiums on the southside within a quarter mile of the BeltLine increased 15-30% between 2002 and 2005 (Immergluck, 2008). The significant increase in property values and low income level of the area led to gentrification in many areas of the beltline, but especially the south side (Immergluck, 2008). It is often assumed that high property values are desired, but that perspective leaves little regard for the adverse consequences in the form of displacement (Immergluck, 2008). To maintain affordable housing in these areas, substantial planning is required early in the process to mitigate potential gentrification and displacement.
The Atlanta BeltLine is an exciting example of a flagship redevelopment project in the United States. The promises are lofty: to improve public transportation, create urban green spaces, create affordable housing, spur economic redevelopment, and generate job opportunities, all within a 25 year period. So far, support for the BeltLine has remained overwhelmingly positive, in part thanks to public-private partnerships and advanced planning. Atlanta BeltLine Inc., working closely with the City of Atlanta, has been very receptive to the voices of non-profit organizations, the public, and private interests. Despite these efforts, some voices, especially low-income minorities, remain unheard. This has caused increasing gentrification of the areas around the BeltLine. If the expected completion year remains, the BeltLine is now almost halfway complete, and Atlanta residents are eager to see if the BeltLine will live up to its initial hype.
Beltline.org (2017). Atlanta BeltLine Overview. [online] Available at: https://beltline.org/about/the-atlanta-beltline-project/atlanta-beltline-overview/ [Accessed 2 Nov. 2017].
Kirkman, R., Noonan, S. and Dunn, S. (2012). Urban transformation and the individual responsibility: The Atlanta BeltLine. Planning Theory, 11(4), pp. 418-434.
Immergluck, D. (2008). Large Redevelopment Initiatives, Housing Values and Gentrification: The Case of the Atlanta Beltline. Urban Studies, 43(8), pp. 1723-1745.
Roy, P. (2015). Collaborative planning — A neoliberal strategy? A study of the Atlanta BeltLine. Cities, 43, pp. 59-68.