BELTLINE OFFERS HISTORIC OPPORTUNITY
By Gregory B. Paxton, President & CEO of The Georgia Trust
The following editorial was printed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Feb. 12, 2007, as a guest editorial.
Like Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised, all who view Atlanta’s BeltLine see their hearts desire. The BeltLine provides visions of neighborhood linkage, development and revitalization, bike and walking paths and an opportunity to connect new parks. All these visions are not only possible, but appear increasingly likely.
The most compelling vision may be a much-needed bike and walkway that will connect 45 neighborhoods. A Peachtree streetcar would dramatically transform retail and mobility in the region’s most densely developed corridor. MARTA expansion is long overdue and passenger rail service is the missing link to the region’s far-flung workforce. BeltLine transit, however, faces many unresolved hurdles.
Still, the success of the BeltLine is already upon us.
Under Mayor Franklin’s able leadership and Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) success acquiring much-needed greenspace, the BeltLine is advancing on nearly all cylinders. What’s missing in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is celebration – even exploitation – of this railroad town’s history around this, its first perimeter.
Though some view historic preservation an impediment to BeltLine development, the opposite is true. Throughout the country and in Atlanta, historic preservation strategy sparks revitalization of formally neglected areas, including Inman Park, West End, the M. L. King district of Old Fourth Ward and downtown’s Fairlie-Poplar. Their rebirths have produced great gains in property valuation, historic housing and reinforcing infill.
So I was going to write about how rehabilitation of the 1,000+ historic buildings along the BeltLine would catalyze development compatible with the substantial investment and distinct designs in adjoining neighborhoods.
Then I took a TPL-sponsored tour and discovered I was too late!
Historic buildings are already leading BeltLine revitalization. The Studioplex project in the MLK district by Historic District Development Corporation, and King Shaw’s King Plow Art’s Center on the west side anticipated this trend ten years ago.
Also leading the pack were Urban Realty’s Puritan Mills and Smith Dalia’s Southern Dairies adaptive uses. But now the trend is running rampant. Gwinnett developer Emory Morsberger is rehabilitating the Southeast’s largest building, the historic Sears center. Transformation of DuPre Excelsior Mill, recently dressed in Masquerade, awaits only the outcome of negotiations.
Wood Partners acquired the nearby National Linen Building for rehabilitation. On Memorial Drive an A & P is being lofted by Miller & Gallman. Near West End, Jerry McDowell successfully pioneered Couer D’Allene Lofts. These are but some of many adaptive-uses using historic rehab to lead BeltLine redevelopment throughout the loop.
So how do we strengthen and institutionalize this new momentum?
(1). The City embraces this strategy for the entire Beltline and installs interpretive signage about its history and its surrounds – including 17 battlefield sites – to enlighten not only neighborhood residents but visitors to this heritage tourism/recreation destination. Atlanta also designates the corridor’s narrow railroad right-of-way, with its historic trestles, tunnels and bridges, as a historic district to preserve these features.
(2). Neighborhoods locally ensure compatible development by seeking historic designation of industrial buildings and even portions of their neighborhoods within the BeltLine overlay district to provide tax incentives for continuing rehabilitation.
This development model is compatible with the BeltLine plan proposed by the Atlanta Development Authority and Neighborhood Planning Units and akin to that of our nation’s capital. In both, over-taxing of infrastructure and over-concentration of traffic are avoided by spreading development throughout the broad districts in low/mid-rise buildings, instead of concentrating it in skyscrapers.
So my Mirror of Erised reflects Atlanta using preservation of authentic historic resources as both development catalysts and the dominant theme for interpreting the BeltLine’s adaptively used rail line.
We can see a heritage tourism/recreation destination that, wherever locals or visitors jump on and off, provides insight into Atlanta’s railroad, industrial, battlefield and neighborhood past. We can celebrate each Beltline neighborhood’s distinct sense of place and history, branded as a whole by indigenous art themes, and connected through the bike/walk trail to adjoining major new parks.
Cool. Take a look yourself.