When Kit Sutherland and her husband moved just off Ponce de Leon Avenue in the mid-1980s, the area near what's now the Atlanta Beltline was a ghost town. Before the Kroger was built in 1985, Sutherland, the president of the Fourth Ward Alliance, says that part of town was "the ultimate food desert." Sure, the 2 million-square-foot Sears distribution center hummed with activity and cars pulled in and out of its automotive center. A trucking facility chock-full of paint and oil also sat across the street. But for the most part, the area was barren.
"I just remember nothing," she says with wide eyes. "Derelict."
Today that automotive store is a hip coffee shop with swinging benches, where Sutherland sips a complex java concoction. The old trucking facility was converted into Historic Fourth Ward Park, an eye-popping greenspace centered on a stormwater retention pond that opened in 2011. The lot next door to where Sears employees used to park is now a construction site — the future home of 300-plus-unit apartment complex that will join other developments that have sprouted alongside the $23 million park. It's the same story on the other side of the greenspace. And, of course, there's Ponce City Market.
In the last seven years, Beltline officials estimate that more than $775 million in private investment has been pumped into the area within one half-mile of the Eastside Trail. As of this writing, more than seven residential developments — some of which were shelved while waiting for the market to recover — are either underway or in the works. Jamestown Properties is already hard at work on the more than $180 million transformation of the former Sears warehouse (and city government complex) into Ponce City Market, a mixed-use megacomplex that could bring much-needed retail into Old Fourth Ward. In a few weeks, work is expected to begin on the conversion of Tyler Perry's old Inman Park film studio into Krog Street Market, a foodie's paradise and market similar to San Francisco's Ferry Building Market.
While some would say the energy and interest in Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, Poncey-Highland, and Virginia-Highland started long ago — the building where the Sutherlands live was built 10 years ago — the Beltline has undoubtedly fueled the fire for recent development. In the next decade, as the neighborhoods around the Eastside Trail become increasingly connected, the area could be come one of, if not the, most vibrant parts of the city.
"I see it becoming the most dynamic residential and commercial corridor in the city," says Aaron Goldman of Perennial Properties, an intown developer that's scheduled to break ground in a few weeks on 755 North, a 228-unit, five-story apartment complex at the corner of North Avenue and Somerset Terrace. Were it not for the Beltline, Goldman says, his firm would not have developed the parcel.
While all neighborhoods adjacent to the trail are poised to benefit, many agree that the richly historic Old Fourth Ward will see the biggest transformation. The hip neighborhood bordered by the Beltline on the east, the Downtown Connector on the west, Ponce de Leon Avenue on the north, and DeKalb Avenue on the south, is one of the few along the trail with vacant parcels of land.
"As they say in East Tennessee, it's fixin' to happen," says Joe Stewardson, a resident and business owner in Old Fourth Ward, who in 2001 purchased the building that houses Sister Louisa's Church, the Corner Tavern, and Cafe Circa.
With this intense interest and development in the area, however, come challenges.
Property values are already starting to reflect the improvements in the surrounding area. In a condo building near Ponce City Market, a bank sold a one-bedroom foreclosed unit in 2010 for $65,000. Six months and some renovations later, the condo sold for $108,000. According to a source in the building, the unit recently closed for $145,000. Rents are following suit.
Sure, it's still possible to find a $400 room for rent in some of the neighborhoods. For now. But over time, as more and more people move into the area, the concentration of shops, trails, parks, and restaurants could make it more difficult for a young family, service worker, police officer, firefighter, or teacher to afford to live in communities along the Eastside Trail. Ponce City Market asked for, and received, a reduction in the number of affordable units in its development. And in May 2011, subsidized rents at the Telephone Factory, the Poncey-Highland loft building south of Historic Fourth Ward Park, expired and converted to market rates.
Andy Schneggenburger of the Atlanta Housing Association of Neighborhood-based Developers warns that those cheap rooms for rent could quickly disappear.
"Relying on current market conditions certainly doesn't guarantee that such affordability will be available in years to come, either," says Schneggenburger. "Market rental rates and property tax rates will rise over time, especially from where they are now, and reduce both affordability and access. Hello, gentrification. We know it happens, we know what it does to affordability."
Beltline officials say they're "intently focused" that affordable housing is available "long term" in northeast Atlanta, the same area where it's hardest to convince developers to build units that people living on lower incomes can call home. They recently struck a deal with the developer of new apartments under construction on North Avenue near the Masquerade to make 20 percent of the units affordable for 10 years.
The concentration of dense developments with little, if any, transit options could also lead to clogged roads.
Sutherland predicts the neighborhoods will feel growing pains followed by adaptation, either by more people walking to nearby Ponce City Market or stores for daily needs, working from home, or riding new transit investments that will become more likely as more people live along the project. She points out that Sears and the nearby trucking facility handled several thousand people and dozens of 18-wheelers each day when roads were narrower. "Things get worse before they get better," she says.
Stewardson, who hopes the Eastside Trail's completion means that attention can shift to neighborhoods along the Beltline in other parts of the city, is optimistic. He's not overly concerned about the challenges that come with revitalization.
"All this revitalization stuff is a lot of work," he says. "And from my experience, and I have a fair amount of it now, the work pays off. It's manifested itself in this community in some amazing things."