The Atlanta Beltline has to be one of the two or three brightest ideas for improving the City of Atlanta that has come along since railroad engineers drove a stake in the ground at the Zero Milepost in 1837.
What’s puzzling is why its advocates have not taken a page from one of the world’s great cities – Vienna – and promoted the Beltline as a local version of that Austrian city’s beltline, known as the Ringstrasse.
The Atlanta Beltline is an urban development proposal for parks, high-end dwellings and other model urban development along existing but little used railroad right of way. The 22-mile loop encircles the historic core of the City of Atlanta and right now is a mix of overgrown woods and marginal property.
Vienna’s Ringstrasse is a ring of classic buildings and greenways encircling the city center along what had been the walls surrounding the city – walls built to protect the city from the threat of potential Ottoman invasion.
When the Ottomans were no longer a threat, Vienna tore down the walls and built the Ringstrasse. Historians say this development, completed in the late 19th century, represented both the city’s aesthetic and political view of an urban landscape. Ever since, the Ringstrasse has been the focal point of Vienna’s city center.
The public buildings on the Ringstrasse were also different from earlier inner-city structures such as churches and imperial buildings. The new buildings were devoted to Vienna’s secular culture and its new government, ruled by a constitution.
It was – is – built on a grand scale, in the Baroque style but laid out so that roads leading into the inner city are drawn into the circular flow of the Ringstrasse. The buildings were designed to be drawn towards the street, which highlights the Ringstrasse even more. Electric trams, a subway and the U-Bahn serve the traffic needs of the Ringstrasse, which is closed to motorized surface traffic.
The Atlanta Beltline concept was originated in 1999 by a Georgia Tech student, Ryan Gravel, who proposed the beltline in a graduate thesis as a catalyst for close-in redevelopment.
According to published figures, the completed beltline would cost $2.8 billion but generate an estimated $20 billion in new economic development. It would also add 1, 200 acres of new green space to the city.
The Atlanta Beltline has been stalled in controversy – hardly unusual for Atlanta – one of the most recent being a Department of Transportation proposal to use 4.3 miles of beltline railroad tracks in Midtown for full-size rail service, including by Amtrak. The DOT contends this service would promote economic development.
The City of Atlanta’s position is that the DOT plan would discourage residential development, since large passenger trains would run alongside Piedmont Park. Mayor Shirley Franklin, in a letter to U.S. Rep. John Lewis early this year, accused the DOT of “boorish behavior” – which of course it was.
As of now the issue appears to be unresolved. But it’s hard to believe an idea this good won’t get done sooner or later. Yes there will be problems. After all, the Vienese had them too – they had to overcome the Ottomans. Pro-beltline advocates have to overcome the Georgia DOT.