The Atlanta Beltline: An Interview with the Principal Landscape Architect, Part 2

By Thomas Schurch, ASLA, AICP

Atlanta BeltLine Inc in partnership with Trees Atlanta is establishing a 22-mile linear arboretum unlike any other in the world. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

In this second of the two-part interview with Principal Landscape Architect Kevin Burke, ASLA, Kevin addresses facets of the BeltLine’s construction, funding and construction costs, social impacts, and public participation that he has been involved with. As stated in Part I, this urban design project is remarkable for its ultimate transformation of Atlanta that includes 22 miles of pedestrian friendly rail transit, 33 miles of multi-use trails, 1,300 acres of parks, 5,600 units of affordable housing, public art, historic preservation $10-20 billion in economic development, 30,000 permanent jobs, and, of course, sustainability.

CONSTRUCTION

What is your role in “post construction oversight”? 

We believe that the upkeep of public funds investment is a basic parameter of our responsibility. However, a significant level of our funding comes from a Tax Allocation District (a.k.a. Tax Increment Financing) tied to local real estate values on commercial/industrial/multi-family properties. This source was legislatively created to spur economic development and specifically precludes utilization of these funds for O&M. As such, we are somewhat hampered in our ability to do what most landscape architects would consider basic maintenance needs. The Parks and Recreation Department assists us, especially with graffiti removal, as resources permit.

To aid our efforts, we established a “Fixit Line” that facilitates the public letting us know matters needing attention.

This 2013 image of the theater within the basin shows that the design team and ABI underestimated the popularity of exercising in this space. / Image: Tom Schurch

Regarding “bricks and mortar” implementation, how will completion of The BeltLine unfold, and is there an identifiable timeframe for the project’s completion? 

The official schedule has us completing the various project components by 2031 when the Tax Allocation District funding sunsets. Realistically, however, that schedule never anticipated the recession starting in 2008 that severely impacted our revenues for 5-6 years and hence our ability to implement parks and trails on the original schedule.

FUNDING AND CONSTRUCTION COSTS

What is the estimated cost of the completed project? 

$4.8 billion

This early image shows the 11′ wide littoral shelf around the edge of the basin. In retrospect, the floating fountain should have been replaced with a fixed spray head. / Image: Tom Schurch
In this more recent image, the plant material has established to the point of better defining the various spaces around the basin. In the background is one of the seven new apartment complexes near the park. / Image: Tom Schurch

With much talk in Washington regarding significant infrastructure expenditures by the Federal government, is The BeltLine likely to be a recipient of such funds, and if so, can you foresee how this will impact the project? 

We have a very engaged Director of Government Affairs who has done an outstanding job since joining us several years ago, and we added a grant writer two years ago. We recently completed the Westside Trail which included $18 million in TIGER V funding that was part of an overall $42 million project cost. Hopefully, I am correct in stating that the Federal Highway Administration was sufficiently impressed with our diligence and ability to get the job done with only about 45 days added to a 30-month schedule and that we therefore are in a favorable position for future grants.

Regarding project funding, e.g., CMAQ funding, EPA EJ funding, Safe Routes to Schools, there apparently are philanthropic sources as well. How important has this funding been? What are some of the philanthropic sources?

As the TAD cannot provide all the necessary funding, utilizing other funding sources is critical to our success. We have some remnant TE moneys that will fund the retrofit of the Eastside Trail with lights and security cameras. Private foundation grants were critical to the creation of H4WP and the connection to the Eastside Trail. The EPA has provided funding to assist us in remediating the old rail corridors and the aforementioned farm site. We are completing the application for a $600k construction grant from the National Park Service and Land & Water Conservation Fund for Enota Park to be applied to active recreation areas of the park. We would not be in this position without our grant writer who has also done an outstanding job on a wide range of our projects including grant acquisition from the National Endowment of the Arts that fully funded 100% the Reynoldstown Stage design.

Enota Park represents a $8 million investment in a neighborhood that has historically been under-served with open space. The adjacency to the recently completed Westside Trail affords users safe options to get to the park. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

How is maintenance being addressed through design considerations and ongoing upkeep?

Perkins+Will completed preliminary design for the entire corridor and design of the Eastside Trail. In that context, we made several decisions regarding materials that included backend maintenance without foregoing aesthetics. To this point, selected materials include granite cladding on retaining walls and stainless steel handrails.

Granite is as a suitable material – versus exposed concrete – that can be power-washed to remove graffiti. No matter how well paint is applied to metal, it will eventually start to fail. We selected 304 grade stainless steel as an alternative. However, we did not anticipate rings gliding over stainless steel that can erode the chromium coating and cause maintenance issues. In these choices and others, a number of staff have been on both sides of the consultant-owner debates regarding spending more up front to reduce post- construction maintenance costs. That these additional costs with lower maintenance requirements have proved to have merit.

Granite-clad retaining walls along the Eastside Trail. / Image: Perkins+Will

SOCIAL IMPACTS AND PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

Are there physical linkages – transit, walkability, bicycling – between low-income, minority population neighborhoods with jobs availability?

That is the long term project goal that will not be met on a macro scale until transit is operational. At that point, you can work at Georgia Tech or downtown and have greater options of where to live and still get to your job most efficiently using transit. On the local level, the trails provide opportunities for safely getting to neighborhood jobs.

What has been your experience working with various stakeholder groups, and what are some of the lessons learned in that respect?

Just like working with many different people, different groups can be part of a collaborative process or they can be confrontational. Similar to my years working on the Big Dig, I have seen both here. Some people suspect you of an ulterior motive simply based on a prior experience that has nothing to do with the BeltLine. One lesson I learned from Mike Lewis, former Project Director of the Big Dig, to state the obvious, is to be completely forthright and honest with people regarding what can be done and what funds are available. There may be disagreement about what that means on any given project, but no one can accuse us of lying to them. Garnering respect and trust from the public and having a reputation for the same is critical to project success.

This is a huge project that involves many diverse communities. What have been some of the best methods for community outreach at the ground level?

We have a very robust community engagement process that reaches out to neighborhood groups, Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs generally encompass several adjacent communities), churches, businesses, and others. We are preparing to meet with the Enota Park neighborhood in SW Atlanta to initiate design by reviewing the master plan completed 10 years ago to deciding what elements are still acceptable. We’ll return with two conceptual designs for further input and then with the design development drawings for the selected option. Before construction, we will meet with the neighborhood again to introduce the general contractor followed by two to three updates depending on the schedule length. Our CEO has coffee with smaller groups to listen to their concerns and discuss various aspects of the project. Of course, he also reached out to business and government to keep them informed and to gather support. Finally, we have a large social media presence across multiple platforms that keeps people informed about scheduling of events and meetings.

The BeltLine has contributed to rising property taxes and housing costs. Is avoiding displacement scenarios a priority for The BeltLine, and if so, what strategies are being used to combat displacement of current or longtime residents?

Resident and community retention is a top priority for the BeltLine and the city. The BeltLine intends to create and preserve 5,600 units of affordable housing; preservation of existing affordable housing to prevent displacement, particularly of renters. The Atlanta BeltLine Affordable Housing Trust Fund offers subsidies for preservation of existing affordable housing, as well as for new affordable housing. In 2015 and 2016, the BeltLine funded and administered a program for owner-occupied rehabilitation of homes along the corridor, targeting legacy residents in adjoining neighborhoods and helping to prevent displacement of legacy residents. A similar citywide owner-occupied rehab program was recently started, for which BeltLine neighborhood legacy residents may apply. Additionally, mandatory inclusionary zoning around the Atlanta BeltLine will further support the creation and preservation of affordable housing, helping to combat displacement.

Have you or others worked with hospitals/healthcare facilities to optimize healthy living? If so, have these efforts included programs assisting vulnerable populations with respect to health disparities?

We have had outreach with Kaiser-Permanente but nothing that I am aware is on-going. Having moved from New England, I was aware of and interested in the Framingham Heart Study. I naively imagined a long-term longitudinal study to track health outcomes of residents who regularly used the trails and parks. I was able, however, to convene a group from Georgia State, Emory, the CDC, and Georgia Tech to discuss the goal and how to realize it. I ultimately learned of the massive funding needs associated with such an undertaking and the unlikelihood of getting a foundation or other granting agency to fund a lengthy study. The group dissolved when the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership took over the task.

CONCLUSION

Lastly, you are in a rather envious position of having direct involvement in the two projects – the BeltLine and Boston’s Big Dig – of the last quarter century that significantly affect urban form where they have occurred. Do you care to make any comparisons between the two?

Both in their own ways fundamentally transformed or will transform the respective cities. When I was at CRJA, I stood outside the office the day they removed the first section of elevated highway in downtown and it was an amazing moment as sunlight reached the ground where it had not been for 40+ years. When the entire roadway came down, building owners had to figure out how to have two front doors as there were simply too many people passing what had been the back side of their buildings that suddenly were part of vibrant public space. The same thing has happened here in a similar albeit lesser degree with buildings having active uses and that once turned their backs on the abandoned railroad corridor. In East Boston, I worked on the preliminary design that transformed a 1,100 car parking lot into a 13-acre park. It, along with tunnels and bridges integral to the Big Dig, was a very intrusive project during construction.

By comparison, the BeltLine has no new tunnels (at least not yet) and will have very minor bridges in comparison to the Zakim in Boston. What we are seeing now, though, is a rapid and complete change in mindset regarding pedestrian and bike-riding cultures as these mobility options have come forth. Almost two million people a year use a 2+ mile section of the Beltline Eastside Trail. While nowhere near the same level of use, the Westside Trail has a visible increase in people using that corridor than were using the previously constructed West End Trail. I fully expect that, when the Southside Trail is completed in about four years, that four-mile section will stitch the two constructed segments together, and we will see people exploring well beyond their own neighborhoods. When transit is begun affording additional mobility options, I believe we will see fundamental shifts in development and job centers that will accommodate the projected 500,000 people expected to move to Atlanta in the next 20 years.

Construction surrounding the event lawn at Historic Fourth Ward Park. Taken in May 2016, this image is the latest iteration of an annual picture taking exercise to create a historical narrative of the changes surrounding the park. / Image: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

I started out in 1982 working for Richard Webel, FASLA, on estate projects where the word budget was never uttered and I loved that work. Through various happenstances, I ended up on the Big Dig and learned that being part of making fundamental changes to the urban fabric was something that also made me look forward to going to work virtually every day. Joining Atlanta BeltLine in 2009 has allowed me to have a larger impact on a significantly transformative project because there are about 2,000 fewer people engaged in design and construction than in Boston. I work with an energized and passionate group of people that are attuned to making this project something of which we will all be proud.

What would you like to add regarding The Beltline that the previous discussion may have left out?

I think it is important to note that Atlanta BeltLine is now requiring that all parks designed for us will include SITES® Silver or Gold certifications. We are the first public agency in the southeast to require utilization of SITES. Enota Park will be the first park under the new standard.

Current Atlanta BeltLine Sustainability Guidelines require compliance with portions of LEED™ NC and Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES) guidelines to ensure that the Atlanta BeltLine corridor will be built with green materials, using best practices available in green construction. Current guidelines require:

  • Ninety-percent or more of Atlanta BeltLine corridor materials must be regionally sourced, in compliance with SSI, Credit 5.7.
  • All wood used within the corridor must be come from non-threatened tree species, in compliance with SSI, Prerequisite 5.1.
  • All construction activities must comply with SSI Construction Prerequisites 7.1 and 7.2.

See the BeltLine’s “Green Materials, Design and Construction” webpage for more information on sustainability considerations and program goals through an iterative and interdisciplinary design process.

Lastly, I think in this day and age, we focus too often on the here and now. What Atlanta BeltLine seeks to do is, at its core, create a legacy project that will serve the residents and visitors to Atlanta for the coming decades and beyond. It is critical that we as landscape architects not lose track of that timeframe in all the decisions we make and what urban design in landscape architecture can offer.

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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