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What's next, Beltline?

Taking stock of how far the $2.8 billion project has come — and what might come next

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HELLO THERE: Businesses which back the Eastside Trail, as many predicted, are starting to “open themselves” to the path, luring in customers. At least one developer plans future renovations to interact with the trail. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • HELLO THERE: Businesses which back the Eastside Trail, as many predicted, are starting to “open themselves” to the path, luring in customers. At least one developer plans future renovations to interact with the trail.

NEW LEADER

A few weeks before the T-SPLOST failed, ABI came under fire when an AJC analysis found that project officials expensed a wedding gift, parking ticket, and dry-cleaning, among other inappropriate purchases. Five days later, the project's board showed CEO and President Brian Leary the door.

Executive headhunter Korn/Ferry International has been selected to find the new project leader. Until then, Lisa Gordon, the project's former chief operating officer, is acting as interim CEO. Whoever snags the job — which paid Leary a $195,000 salary in 2011 — will be expected to navigate a tricky sea of politics, high public expectations, and increasing scrutiny.

Local advocates are urging the board to hire someone who will establish strong ties with other parts of the city affected by the Beltline.

"It's really going to take the whole community to make the Beltline a reality if it's gonna happen," says Deborah Scott of Georgia Stand-Up, a think tank. "To get projects off the ground on the southside, it's gonna take trust with the community. I'm not sure we have that right now."


POT O' CASH

Some cash from the Beltline bond issuances is supposed to help spark new businesses and create jobs along the project. Thus far, relatively little has been done with that cash. Currently, there is a little more than $600,000 in the bank. In years past, competing schools of thought have argued over whether ABI should collect cash or dole out small grants. ABI's director of affordable housing James Alexander says project officials considered creating policies on how to award that cash earlier this year, but pressed the brakes after learning the city was crafting its own economic development strategy. "We see the Atlanta Beltline as a component of a larger citywide strategy," he says. "To that end we've been working with them on that."


AFFORDABILITY

Fifteen percent of each Beltline bond issuance is, by law, earmarked and placed in a trust fund to boost the amount of affordable housing in Atlanta, be it by helping potential homeowners with down-payment assistance, giving developers incentives to build affordable units, or other means. In the project's 25-year lifespan, officials estimate at least 5,600 affordable units will be created along the Beltline.

But according to a report in January commissioned by the Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee, the citizen group tasked with overseeing the Beltline, the project has lagged on that front. Between 2008 and 2010, only 147 units were built — a total that doesn't include ABI's purchase, with trust fund cash, of the 30-unit Triumph Lofts in Reynoldstown.

Beltline officials blame two culprits for the slow efforts. First, the aforementioned 2008 legal woes hamstrung ABI's finances, which meant less cash to deposit in the trust fund. Plus, the economic crash and dismal housing market ruined developers' appetites and abilities to build any housing, much less affordable units.

Alexander says the project is working with a consultant to refine and improve the affordable housing program, which is now down to roughly $1.8 million. But the project has pledged to help fund more than 120 units in two proposed developments in Reynoldstown and Adair Park, and others in Old Fourth Ward. The downside: The majority of those units convert to market rates after so many years.


BRING YOUR BEST, DEVELOPERS

As the economy slowly improves, developers are flocking to the Beltline. And neighbors, if they're not pleased with the proposal, are pushing back hard. Case in point: Atlanta developer Jeff Fuqua's plans to turn a former concrete facility across the street from Glenwood Park along the Beltline in southeast Atlanta into a massive retail complex. Residents of surrounding neighborhoods say the design — a sea of parking and a 155,000-square-foot, suburban-style store — isn't right for the Beltline, the neighborhood, or the city. Whether the city agrees with them remains to be seen.

Note: This article has been altered to correct a reporting error. Federal funding, which passes through GDOT and the Atlanta Regional Commission, will be used to fund much of the Beltline's southwest trail. The piece has also been updated to include comments from city officials about new plans to improve public safety along the Eastside Trail.
COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE LOWERY
  • Cover illustration by Mike Lowery

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