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The following piece was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on November 2, 2012

The Atlanta BeltLine is a Game Changer

By John Somerhalder, Chairman of the Board, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and Charlie Shufeldt, Chairman of the Board of The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership

This page is regularly filled with: Pleas to create new transit and transportation options. Calls for public-private infrastructure investment. Hopes for spurring redevelopment. Cajoling to create jobs. Appeals to build more recreation opportunities. Requests for access to healthier food. Cries to literally and spiritually reconnect our communities.

The 2.25-mile Eastside Trail is delivering on the Atlanta BeltLine promise to do all of the above and more. Officially open for just a few weeks, it is regularly filled with walkers, bikers, joggers, strollers and more people traversing neighborhoods as they never have before.

Most of Atlanta’s leading philanthropies have contributed towards a total of $38 million to the BeltLine, including the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, James M. Cox Foundation, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company and The Home Depot Foundation.

The newest piece of the redevelopment project – and the first built in the historic rail corridor – is a triumph of such public private partnership. Sarah and Jim Kennedy, through the PATH Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente Georgia, each donated $2.5 million to the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership Capital Campaign to support the construction. About $5.5 million of Atlanta BeltLine Tax Allocation District funding through Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. from Invest Atlanta was invested in construction and development. Local nonprofit Trees Atlanta is investing $750,000 for this phase of what will be a 22-mile arboretum, and the PATH Foundation provided in-kind construction management. Remediation of the site before construction was made possible by $850,000 from an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revolving loan fund.

Running from Irwin St. to 10th St. and Monroe Dr., the Eastside Trail connects Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward, Midtown, Poncey Highland and Virginia Highland with a 14-foot wide concrete trail and 30 acres of landscaped greenspace that includes public art and exercise stations. It also connects Piedmont Park to Freedom Park and Historic Fourth Ward Park and Skatepark. The project includes an underground utility duct to help carry power for lighting as well as current and future utilities that use the corridor. Retaining walls were constructed to create the necessary width in the corridor for transit and trails. A new bridge for the trail over Ralph McGill Blvd was installed, and the historic rail bridge over Ponce de Leon Ave was remediated and rehabilitated.

What is the return on this public-private investment? There has been $775 million of private sector redevelopment either completed or underway within a half mile of the trail that has taken place since 2005, anticipating this transformation and fortifying the city’s tax base. Additionally, this new, transit-supportive, denser development is laid out in a more sensible street grid that promotes walkability and has already transformed neighborhoods.

Perhaps most importantly, as with everything on the Atlanta BeltLine, the plan for the Eastside Trail was informed by an unprecedented level of public input. That pattern – public input into planning, public-private investment and collaboration, and outstanding implementation – will repeat itself around the 22-mile Atlanta BeltLine corridor.

That corridor connects 45 neighborhoods that include more than 100,000 people living within half a mile of the Atlanta BeltLine. Since its official grand opening on October 15, the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail has already had an impact that is reverberating around the city and the region. To see the hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in this new public space often inspires comments such as “can you believe this is actually Atlanta?” and “I’m so proud of Atlanta!”

The sheer excitement of getting around like never before, in a safe, beautiful, healthy environment is not only lifting the spirits of Atlantans, it is completely transforming notions about what our city is and can be. It is clear – the first section of an old rail corridor to be redeveloped as the Atlanta BeltLine is a game changer. And it has only just begun.

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