The Atlanta Beltline: An Interview with the Principal Landscape Architect, Part 1

By Thomas Schurch, ASLA, AICP

The integration of stormwater green infrastructure into the park has facilitated a walkable neighborhood and has led to the construction of over 2,500 housing units within a half block. / Image: Tom Schurch

The Atlanta BeltLine is one of the most comprehensive urban design efforts in the current era and rivals others today such as San Francisco’s Mission Bay, Manhattan’s Battery Park City, New York’s Fresh Kills, Boston’s Big Dig, and the Orange County Great Park. As such, it is transformative for Atlanta, a city known for poor land use practices over the past quarter century. The BeltLine will ultimately connect 45 intown neighborhoods through 11 nodes within a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails, light rail transit, and parks – all based on abandoned railroad corridors that encircle Atlanta. As an engine of economic development, it is demonstrating remarkable outcomes in adjoining areas comprising infill, compatible mixed land use, including urban housing, and thereby exemplifying transit oriented development.

As with all urban design projects of this scale, identifying one firm or one individual to credit for the achievement is impossible. With regard to urban design and landscape architecture, however, a key individual who has guided the BeltlIne’s unfolding is its Principal Landscape Architect, Kevin Burke, ASLA. The following is the first of a two-part interview in which Kevin shares his experiences and insights concerning this remarkable achievement. Part I provides a general project overview and design considerations. Part II addresses construction, funding and construction costs, social impacts, and public participation.

Atlanta BeltLine aerial model / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

OVERVIEW

How significant is the Atlanta BeltLine as an exercise in urban design and the landscape architect’s role in that regard?

The term “transformative” best describes the long-term outcomes. The Eastside Trail is indicative as close to two million people use this two-mile section annually and upon completion a significant number are expected to use the 1.5 mile extension to the south. The northern temporary terminus is at Piedmont Park and Grady High School. Now that kids can ride their bikes the two miles without traffic conflicts, quite a few students use the trail to get to school.

The Eastside Trail affords users opportunity for a safer mobility option due to its grade separated alignment, and opportunities for healthier lifestyles. / Image: Atlanta Beltline, Inc.

The lead designer of Phase I of the Historic Fourth Ward Park (H4WP) cycles about 7 miles each way from Decatur to his office in Midtown. Importantly, as part of its commission, H4WP resolved flooding issues around a Sears and Roebuck warehouse started in 1926 and completed in 1966 at the nexus of three watersheds. A two million SF building that was sitting unused was subsequently purchased by Jamestown Properties which invested over $300 million renovating the structure into food courts, commercial/office space, and residential, now the Ponce City Market. The property is now back on the tax roll. The trail has been so successful that Kroger decided to close and demolish an adjacent facility for the opportunity to rebuild the store as part of a new development with the store at grade with the trail.

The $350 million Ponce City Market renovation in the background and the construction of Historic Fourth Ward Park support the nearby apartment building occupancy of over 90% on a consistent basis. / Image: Tom Schurch

The 17-acre park also has seen over 2,400 new housing units that did not exist before 2008. $50 million in public and private funds were used to purchase/design/construct the park and, at the moment, the return on investment (ROI) from all the construction is above 10 and rising.

The Clear Creek Stormwater Basin within Historic Fourth Ward Park, a prime example of green infrastructure, provides relief during large storms and was implemented at a substantial savings to the rate payers of Atlanta. / Image: Atlanta Beltline, Inc.

Both the Eastside Trail and H4WP designs were led by landscape architects: respectively Perkins+Will, HDR, and Wood+Partners. All three firms were integral to the success of the projects and the outcomes that have resulted.

Related to the preceding question, how much of a “game changer” is The BeltLine to land use and quality of life in its immediate surroundings (and the Atlanta metro area)? Environmentally, economically, socially.

We refer to the various components of our project as Triple Bottom Line successes – environmental economic, social. H4WP remediated 63,000 cubic yards of lead contaminated soil and almost 13,000 cubic yards of debris from an old unregulated construction and demolition dump from the 1960s with significant asbestos. In the transit corridors, we regularly clean up vegetation treatment residuals leftover from the days of no environmental regulations. D.H. Stanton Park was another unregulated landfill that was supposedly cleaned up around 2000, but municipal solid waste was found with a plethora of compounds that end in “ene” (never good in my experience), and more lead contaminated soil.

Aerial image of D.H. Stanton Park, a once unregulated landfill. / Image: Atlanta Beltline, Inc.
The splashpad in D.H. Stanton Park provides relief from the summer heat and social interaction for neighborhood children and their parents. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

In addition to the economic benefits cited above regarding the Eastside Trail and H4WP, and dating back to 2006, we have seen over $4.1 billion of private development with an underlying investment of about $450 million for an ROI close to 10 project-wide.

The various social benefits are summarized in the following quote from a Facebook user referring to H4WP: “As I sit in the park, I see picnickers, drawers, readers, lovers and friends. There are babies, laptops, bicycles, dogs, blankets, and ducks. All of this in what was a parking lot not so many years ago.” On our trails, you see joggers, bikers, skateboarders, people strolling with friends and visitors, and running into co-workers. Our sense is that the social impacts are enormously beneficial.

The local skateboard community was highly involved in the design process for the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark. An organic land care regimen is used to maintain the greenspace and landscaping. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

What has been your role as the BeltLine’s Principal Landscape Architect, and have you been with the project since Atlanta embarked on this ambitious undertaking?

I moved to Atlanta in January ’09 after spending several years on Boston’s Big Dig. For the BeltLine, the first project was the Clear Creek Basin which was Phase I of H4WP. In this respect, there was one specific item that I learned, among many, through working for Richard K. Webel, FASLA, in the ‘80s – that a random pattern of rectangular stone should never have more than three pieces on a common joint. That might not appear to be significant, but it made a huge difference when we had almost one acre of granite facing on the retaining walls of the basin. When too many stones share a common joint, one’s eye tends to see joints and less than stones. I also discovered that setting forms for an actual arc to a walk or bridge was not common in Atlanta. This resulted in establishing construction standards that have carried forward and stipulating that Atlanta BeltLine will not accept anything less than the best work as part of its professional and fiduciary duty to the public.

By definition is The BeltLine a “greenbelt”? If not, what would you call it?

While there are aspects of the project that would be understood as consistent with a greenbelt, it is so much more. The Atlanta BeltLine is a $4.8 billion multi-modal transportation project that promotes historic preservation, affordable housing, job creation, along with 33 miles of multi-use trails, and 1,300 acres of new or renovated public open space. It is a project that alters people’s perception of optional ways to get around the city, to socialize, recreate, and the various changes that will accrue from those opportunities.

What is the number and generally what are roles of the landscape architects comprising your staff? How does this compare with our allied disciplines of architecture and planning that are on staff?

Perhaps surprisingly, there are only two landscape architects on staff. Meghan Injaychock graduated with a ’09 BLA and a ’12 MEP from UGA. She started with us in 2010 as one of our fellows and we fortunately had the good sense to hire her full time in 2013. In addition to managing the Eastside Trail Extension, Meghan is overseeing the recent revisions to our signage package. Starting in 2010 and for four years, she and I managed our one-day Organic Land Care Symposium intending to initiate a conversation on better ways to manage our public open spaces.

Our Director of Real Estate graduated with a BLA, although she chose an alternate career path. We currently have an open position for our Director of Design, hopefully adding a third landscape architect next year. In the meantime, I am the titular head of our Design Review Committee which is an advisory body created by former Mayor Kasim Reed tasked with improving the design of structures within roughly a half-mile of our corridor.

There is no staff architect as we have an insufficient amount of vertical construction to merit one and there are four planners who handle our community outreach and master planning.

We have 46 full time staff and typically design work is outsourced.

Clemson students rethink their career options after listening to Kevin Burke present the multiple benefits that have accrued from constructing the green infrastructure within the Historic Fourth Ward Park. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

Can any of the three allied design disciplines be regarded as having a principle role as “lead consultant”?

No single discipline can be seen as the “lead consultant” as what we are doing encompasses too many disparate but allied fields. Transit planners, TOD consultants, developer/architect for an upcoming affordable housing complex, planners, engineers, and landscape architects have all been lead consultants.

DESIGN

Is the trail used as an alternative transportation route for workers, or is it largely recreational in nature?

We see a lot of social interaction on the trail, many people exercising in various ways, students using our trails to get to various schools, and at the moment in some cases, commuting. With trail expansion we expect that latter option to increase.

Dancers from Full Radius Dance perform on the amphitheater stage in Historic Fourth Ward Park. / Image: Tom Schurch

Is public art being incorporated, as well as history of the area (possibly adaptive reuse of buildings), planting design, as well as other materials and design details that that are “place” based? If so, how?

Yes. Art on the Atlanta BeltLine began in 2010 and has grown into the largest temporary art installation in the southeast. What started as a small community and social capital raising parade has grown to be the Lantern Parade on the Eastside Trail that in recent years has involved tens of thousands of residents and visitors participating in a two-mile social extravaganza.

The annual Lantern Parade has grown from a few hundred participants and observers to over 40,000 marching and viewing the event. This is one of the best examples of generating social capital within a city. / Image: Atlanta Beltline, Inc.

Overall, the annual arts budget has grown to $350,000 and attracts artists of national and international stature. Some pieces are inherently magical in their simplicity and have become part of our ongoing collection. For example, the artifact sculpture by artist Jac Coffey, depicts three railroad workers made out of old railroad track parts each carrying tools and walking to/from work. The magic is what is evoked through repurposing reclaimed parts. Working with our Arts and Culture Manager, we are planning to incorporate one permanent piece and one piece from a local HBCU (historically black college and university) that will rotate every two years within the new Enota Park. While I believe that landscape architecture is, when done well, inherently art, we have not utilized planting/landforms in what might be considered a more artistic sense, although the quality of the design in quite high. Learn more about Art on the Atlanta BeltLine.

These three railroad workers were created by artist Jac Coffey from salvaged pieces of the old railroad. They are part of the permanent collection and are a perennial favorite of the public. / Image: Atlanta Beltline, Inc.
Live performances are integral to the success to the 8 year-old Art on the Atlanta BeltLine. / Image: Atlanta Beltline, Inc.

In terms of patrolling security and equipment, such as cameras, as well as lighting, how is public safety designed into The BeltLine?

All parks and trails have lighting and security cameras installed as part of the base contract. The Westside Trail, completed last fall, was the first completed section to have pan/tilt/zoom security cameras. I understand the need to feel safe but I am conflicted that we are headed towards a day when we cannot go out in public without camera surveillance. Currently, our cameras are reactive and not continually monitored and are used primarily for evidence gathering.

Additionally, the city has used Federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants to implement a dedicated group of officers known as the Path Force. They patrol the trails and parks on bikes or electric powered four-wheelers. We also have Mobile Medics that ride the trails on weekends.

Is The BeltLine building in crime reduction techniques like those from Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design?

CPTED is certainly part of our design process and design considerations, but not the primary driving force.

How will the completed mainline trail relate to downtown transit?

The initial goal was to extend the downtown streetcar service to the corridor on both the east and west sides. Subsequently, the long term city’s Streetcar System Plan approved in 2015, has a build-out that includes a number of crosstown connections that significantly improves the original concept. That said, the trail system is a complementary modality to use within the corridor and to get to or from any transit station – the so called “last mile.”

How does the completed mainline trail factor in biking and pedestrian connectivity?

The trail allows students to get to and from school under much safer conditions than previously available. Commuters can use the trails between home and job nodes. Shopping is facilitated for those who don’t own a car as well as providing a transit alternative for those who do. A lot of people use the East and Westside trails to get to restaurants, microbreweries, and bars without having to drive. Much of this is weather dependent – even in the southeast – as our winter numbers drop.

Are you likely to see significant reductions of automobile dependence due to increased options of movement – public transit, biking or bike sharing, walking?

Presumably, yes. Anecdotal evidence suggests as much but on a limited basis. Short of utilizing surveys or similar research methodologies, we cannot clearly state that X number of people are using what are considered alternative means to get to and from their destinations.

As an exercise in TOD, comprised potentially of 11 separate TOD nodes inclusive of infill and retrofitting, what are the physical design strategies used to “weave” the nodes into the existing urban fabric?

TOD is more anticipatory around our corridor because anything outside the BeltLine ROW is outside of our responsibility. In being anticipatory, we have ingress and egress nodes throughout our corridors that are scaled to reflect adjacent uses including residential.

Regarding sustainability and resilience – green infrastructure, habitat, carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions – how “green” is The BeltLine?

This is a topic we have discussed a LOT over the last seven to eight years. That conversation includes how one defines “green” – as that term seems to be ever evolving – and to what degree do any actions satisfy another person’s definition of “green?”

We established a goal of purchasing as many products as possible within 250 miles of the project location as “first level” with the more typical 500 miles as “secondary.” One area that we have not sorted through is determining which products represent a higher level of sustainability versus others when the origin of component product pieces cannot be determined. Is the LED light made locally greener than the one made 300 miles away if the latter’s drivers and fixtures last longer, or the locally available steel or aluminum came from a foreign country? This gets into establishing production and life cycle costs that we cannot currently establish.

H4WP and D.H. Stanton Park opened in 2011-2012, and based on Department of Parks and Recreation statements that electricity is the primary hard cost in each park, we installed 23 and 33.5 Kw photovoltaic systems, respectively, to offset power costs in the two parks. The two systems were designed to offset 40-45% and 100%, respectively, of the costs in each park. In H4WP, we also integrated the photovoltaic system into a shade structure adjacent to a multi-use field.

Shade structures adorned with solar panels greet visitors as they arrive through the western entrance to the D.H. Stanton Park. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

We plant 700 to 800 trees per year as replacements for trees removed during construction phases. We no longer have a staff person familiar with iTree that can calculate our carbon sequestration, but it is certainly a benefit of implementing the Atlanta Beltline Arboretum program in addition to tree plantings within our parks. We are planning for tree plantings to reflect natural processes in the sense that spacing is at 12-15 feet on-center with the understanding that some trees will outcompete others to eventually create the canopy for a given space.

With respect to the previous question, does urban agriculture have a place in The BeltLine? Are concerns for food security and food deserts taken into account?

The BeltLine entered into an agreement with Aluma Farm to lease 3.5 acres in SW Atlanta, an area generally considered to be a food desert depending on location. Prior to the lease, and in concert with EPA Region 4, we cleaned up the site which included a former bus maintenance facility. We also dug a 200’ deep well for irrigation. Additionally, we installed an off-grid farm shed with a photovoltaic system. All of these components were to demonstrate that, under the right conditions, urban farms along the corridor are viable.

Aluma Farm at Adair Park creates the opportunity for fresh produce in a section of town that has had few other options. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.
Atlanta BeltLine’s off-grid farm shed demonstrates the viability of such an option. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

To what extent are spaces for programed events a part of The Beltline?

Art on the Atlanta BeltLine is the largest programmed event each year with art installation and various performances including music, dance, and multi-media. This year, we’re adding a folklore lecture series on the history of neighborhoods comprising the corridor. Utilizing an NEA grant, a performance space has been designed for the Reynoldstown neighborhood. We’re awaiting additional funds for construction. Additionally, we have identified a number of so-called “BeltLine Spaces” in pre-light rail transit locations appropriate for temporary art installations or creative plantings with our partner Trees Atlanta and that would activate these locations.

 

Part II of this interview series will be published on Thursday, May 24, 2018. 

Kevin Burke, ASLA, is the Principal Landscape Architect at Atlanta Beltline Inc.

Interview conducted by Thomas Schurch ASLA, AICP
Urban Design PPN Co-Chair
Professor of Landscape Architecure+Urban Design
Clemson University

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