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Don't get dense over the Beltline

Parks and transit project needs smart planning, not oversimplifications

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Wayne Mason has a vision for Atlanta's Beltline: He sees gleaming glass-and-steel towers looming over a narrow rail strip between Piedmont Park and the family homes that have rested on the edge of the park for decades.

Most of us have a different vision.

Is high-rise density the answer to Atlanta's traffic problems and the key to a rosy future, as John Sugg wrote in recent CL columns? It's certainly part of the answer. Atlanta's population is increasing as more people recognize the advantages of living intown. All the new people need new places to live, work and play.

But Mason's proposed 38- and 39-story towers go further than is wise. Cresthill Avenue, a small street, would be the main entrance to the skyscrapers and their 1,700 parking spaces. And the towers would cast a shadow over the meadow where Atlanta comes to play.

The developer argues that his land is perfect for such a project. Most everybody else disagrees. And opponents shouldn't be vilified as narrow-minded NIMBYs because they argue that an outrageously out-of-scale project will harm the neighborhood, degrade the park and add too much traffic.

The Beltline offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to plan for growth around transit, parks and trails. It promises to bring groceries and restaurants, along with good jobs and mixed-income housing, to parts of town that have experienced decades of population decline.

But in-with-the-new shouldn't always mean out-with-the-old. The Beltline is an ambitious 25-year project that will shape Atlanta 100 years from now. It requires careful, responsible planning and significant public input and support. Done right, it can preserve the character of neighborhoods, minimize the negative effects of gentrification, and enhance the quality of life for all residents.

Anyone who supports high density should know that parks aren't, as Sugg implies, a trivial part of the Beltline. Atlanta's supply of greenspace is woefully inadequate for a city this size. As we add people, we must add parks and recreation facilities. The Beltline calls for adding more than a thousand acres of greenspace and for encouraging the development of population centers around those new parks.

It's true that increased density citywide is necessary for mass transit to succeed. Trains without riders would drain public resources. But the answer isn't to plop outsized projects into neighborhoods long before the transit is ready. Gradual, balanced growth makes more sense.

Realistically, transit on the Beltline is 15 or more years away. Meanwhile, increased density should be encouraged in appropriate pockets -- such as near existing MARTA stations, so that MARTA might finally have sufficient ridership to operate efficiently.

But acknowledging that dense development should be situated near parks and transit isn't the same as giving free reign to a developer to build something completely incompatible with the area.

While Sugg's busy promoting Mason's project, the city and its citizens are busy working on a plan to make the Beltline vision a reality. Over the next two years, Atlanta's Department of Planning and Community Development will be collaborating with neighborhoods to create 20 master plans to shape development within a half-mile of the transit corridor that will circle the city. Those plans will ensure a future Atlanta we can all be proud of, even when an extra 200,000 people call Atlanta home.

Some want to oversimplify. If density is needed to promote transit, they claim, then high-rise condo towers next door to single-family homes must be needed also. Common sense says otherwise.

Atlanta is a city of distinct neighborhoods that define its character. From Virginia-Highland to Little Five, Old Fourth Ward to Grant Park, Capitol View to West End, the Beltline connects them all. It can be developed in a way to protect them all, too. We can grow as a city without destroying our identity.

I find it interesting that people who don't even live intown keep telling us that Atlantans want to be a 24-hour city, like New York, I suppose. Someone once asked me what city I wanted Atlanta to be like in the future -- Portland? Houston? Chicago? I love Atlanta, so I say unapologetically that when Atlanta grows up, I want it to be like ... Atlanta.

Someday, Peachtree Street may resemble a grand boulevard like Chicago's Magnificent Mile or the Champs-Elysees in Paris. At that same point in the future, historic Grant Park can still be a neighborhood of beautiful old homes, eclectic restaurants, great parks and a world-class zoo that draws families from all over the metro area. Only they'll be riding the Beltline to get there.

Liz Coyle is vice chair of the Neighborhood Planning Unit near Piedmont Park and a founding member of the BeltLine Neighbors Coalition. For more information, visit www.bncatlanta.org.

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