The Atlanta BeltLine is America’s most ambitious redevelopment. It is transforming 22 miles of mostly unused rail encircling Atlanta’s core into transit, trails and parks. The first section of the corridor to be redeveloped, the multi-use Eastside Trail, opened to the public in October 2012 for walking, running and biking. The design and construction of transit will follow as funding becomes available. Attendees of EPA’s national Brownfields 2013 Conference in Atlanta next May will have the opportunity to see it for themselves.
In anticipation of the Eastside Trail’s debut – and with the promise of transit to follow – there has been more than $775 million in new private development either completed or underway since 2005 within a half-mile of this section of the Atlanta BeltLine. This validates one of the initial assumptions in the Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Plan: That a thoughtful approach to public investment would yield significant private interest in sites once thought to be too challenging for redevelopment.
More than 100,000 people (20 percent of Atlanta’s population) live within a half-mile of the Atlanta BeltLine corridor, which runs through 45 of the city's neighborhoods. The creation of a new public realm and the adjacent commercial built environment is resulting in new businesses, new recreational options, new mobility alternatives, more affordable housing and improved livability in neighborhoods all along the Atlanta BeltLine. The redevelopment of this once blighted corridor gives 11,000 residents direct access for the first time to a park, and it connects an additional 127,000 people to transit. Its 1,300 acres of parks, 33 miles of trails, approximately $45 million in streetscape and intersection improvements, and the expansion of transit will improve access to employment opportunities, services, schools, and recreational facilities while improving public health.
The Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail is a revelation for Atlantans that are traversing their city in a new way. It includes a 14-foot wide concrete multi-use trail running through 30 acres of landscaped greenspace, which includes spaces for both public art and naturalistically designed exercise stations. This is the first phase of development for a corridor that will eventually contain all of the elements of the Atlanta BeltLine vision—pedestrian-friendly transit, a multi-use trail, the world’s largest linear arboretum, greenspace and connectivity with surrounding developments and neighborhoods.
As part of the project, significant underground infrastructure was installed before work on the trail itself began. This work included a utility duct bank that will help carry power for lighting as well as current and future utilities that utilize the corridor; retaining walls to maintain the width of the corridor for both transit and trail; the installation of a new bridge and the rehabilitation of a historic rail bridge. But first there had to be remediation. The collaboration and innovation that made the cleanup possible created a different sort of path: A new way for contaminated corridors to be reclaimed.
The implementing organization, Atlanta Beltline Inc. (ABI), its consultant AMEC, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (Georgia EPD), and EPA agreed to complete construction-ready trails as part of the cleanup in order to meet the Eastside Trail schedule. (In addition to ABI, Georgia EPD and EPA, critical partners included the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership and multiple City of Atlanta departments.) This approach resulted in cost savings by eliminating the second round of mobilization crews that dig, haul, and complete sites for construction.
The challenge in reclaiming the Atlanta BeltLine corridor is common to former railroad sites: widespread and varied levels of contamination, particularly arsenic, which was used as an herbicide to control vegetation. So the remediation solution employed for the Atlanta BeltLine is applicable to not only former rail projects but to any site with widespread, varied levels of contamination.
In 2004, a foundational study analyzing brownfield revitalization opportunities along the project’s 22 miles was underway, while a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) was approved by Georgia EPD for nearly five miles of then privately held property (today the site of the Eastside Trail). ABI and the city of Atlanta acquired the property in 2007 and, in accordance with the Georgia Brownfield Law, the limitation of liability transferred with the property.
With the approved Georgia EPD CAP, control of nearly five miles of corridor, and a combination of public and private sector funding in hand, ABI prioritized the redevelopment of the Eastside Trail. The engineering innovation behind the Atlanta Beltline brownfield reclamation was born of funding and time constraints. Project leaders wanted to make the Eastside Trail available to neighborhoods as soon as possible while providing a safe environment for the community.
An EPA revolving loan fund provided $850,000 for remediation of the site before construction commenced. EPA and Georgia EPD partnered with ABI to ensure proper environmental cleanup of the former industrial freight rail corridor. Georgia EPD, EPA, the city of Atlanta, ABI and AMEC refined and amended the initial corrective action plan. The group’s innovative solution focused on removing areas of contamination and otherwise remediating the property in accordance with state requirements.
The Atlanta BeltLine corridor ranges from 50 to over 200 feet wide for 22 miles. As much as 14 to 24 feet of that width will be hardscape. So the team focused on human exposure risk factors to guide the clean up. It also considered plant health, as the project includes planting more than 600 trees along the Eastside Trail. Outside of the areas to be covered with hardscape, the remediation used statistical analysis to test for Areas of Concern, or hotspots. Once identified via sampling and testing, hotspots were removed – approximately 1,700 tons of contaminated soil in all. The solution includes one foot of verified clean soil in a cap over elevated arsenic factors left in place.
The resulting cleanup and redevelopment is creating a model for similar revitalization projects reusing rails, roads and other rights-of-way. This approach is being brought to bear in other corridors—including, for example, automobile dealer and gas station corridors. Within the Atlanta BeltLine project, the successful approach to the remediation of the Eastside Trail section of the corridor has since been used to assess a portion of the Southwest section of the corridor and is now being applied to the Reynoldstown area of the corridor.
The amended CAP is also serving as the basis for EPA Brownfield Cleanup Grant Applications for the remainder of the Northeast Corridor (approx. 2.2 miles) as well as for an EPA Brownfield Assessment Grant for the remainder of the Southwest Corridor. Once these sections are addressed, nearly half of the 22-mile corridor will be remediated.
Most importantly, neighborhoods are being transformed. Families are relishing the new Historic Fourth Ward Park—formerly largely abandoned industrial land. Kids fill a new skatepark nearby, and diners enjoy outdoor cafes along a linear trail that use to be a railroad. Business thrives where only idle factories and warehouses stood for decades.
Lee Harrop is Atlanta BeltLine Inc.'s Program Management Officer (www.beltline.org).
The National 2013 Brownfields Conference will be in Atlanta in May (www.brownfieldsconference.org).