Coca-Cola Journey is presenting a two-part look at the Atlanta BeltLine, an innovative transportation and redevelopment project that’s drawing attention from around the world. Last week we explored how the BeltLine has grown from one grad student’s brainstorm into an engine for urban revitalization and economic growth. Today we look at some of the challenges facing the BeltLine, and how other cities are using it as a model for making the most of existing infrastructure to revitalize their communities and economies.

Despite early success and enthusiasm, the Atlanta BeltLine faces great challenges before its scheduled completion 17 years from now.

No. 1, of course, is money. The proposed 22-mile “emerald necklace” around the city's core would link parks and neighborhoods and bring in millions of dollars of sustainable economic growth. But voters, typically not supportive of public transportation projects, turned down a referendum to raise city sales taxes to help pay for it. 

And broader cultural challenges could come into play as the trail expands in areas of town that traditionally have been more economically challenged. BeltLine supporters promise to ensure affordable housing, and point to 250 units so far along the Eastside Trail.

BeltLine naysayers also question whether the project can make much of an impact on the metro area’s gridlock. The city’s population is about 450,000. But with some 6 million people, the metro region is notorious for traffic that is among the nation’s worst. An ice storm infamously shut down the whole area a year ago.

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Joggers pass by a new restaurant, Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, which recently opened on the BeltLine.

‘The Culture of the BeltLine’

But the BeltLine is undeniably a source of pride for many in Atlanta, and the support from everyday citizens, business leaders and the government is strong. Runners, bike riders, dog walkers and parents with baby strollers crowd the Eastside Trail when the sun is shining, and sharp rises in revenue are reported from businesses that range from popsicle stands to white-tablecloth restaurants.

More than 1 million people used the Eastside Trail in 2014. People who frequent the BeltLine talk a lot about civic pride, being outdoors, and the energy it creates.

Anthony Spina plans to move to Atlanta from New Jersey and open a pizza shop on the BeltLine, which was part of what drew him to the city. He likes seeing folks walking their dogs and jogging, and he says there’s more to it than just recreation. There’s real community.

“It’s the culture of the BeltLine,” Spina says. “I want to be a part of that.”

Maintaining that draw is critical to the project's success. “The early challenge was engaging people with the possibility – and now, it’s on the long-term project,” says Chuck Meadows, the new executive director of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, which raises awareness and money for the BeltLine. “We’ll really need support throughout. It is very much a long-term investment.”

In November, hundreds of government officials, citizens and journalists turned out for the groundbreaking of the Westside Trail’s $43 million construction. Much of that cost will be covered by federal grants; private contributions topped $10 million. 

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called it a “historic day” for the city. “We are moving quickly toward our goal of completing the Atlanta BeltLine to connect every corner of our city," he said in a press release. "The Westside Trail will bring new vitality and investment to the neighborhoods in southwest Atlanta.”

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H Harper Station, a restaurant housed in a renovated train depot, named a burger after the BeltLine.  

Bigger than the '96 Olympics?

Atlanta’s first streetcar since the 1940s opened at the end of 2014, another symbolically rich effort to show that "The City Too Busy To Hate" (as it was known during the Civil Rights Era) isn’t too busy to plan for its future and nurture its image.

The Atlanta Streetcar connects the historic Martin Luther King district with newer downtown tourist attractions like the College Football Hall of Fame, the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola. It eventually will connect with the BeltLine – which, organizers say, will eventually include the light rail system that was part of the early plans.

And while the BeltLine’s economic impact grows, some observers say it will have a more lasting impact than did the 1996 Olympic Games, since it will be permanent and ongoing. 

The BeltLine can help cities around the world find creative uses for existing yet long-forgotten infrastructure, says Lisa Borders, chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation and vice president of global community affairs.

In Atlanta, the BeltLine’s old rail lines had been covered with kudzu (and more) and largely neglected. “Another city might look for a resource just beyond financial capital and look at everything you have at your disposal, and try to look at it through a new lens," Borders says.

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This pebble path in Atlanta's Reynoldstown area will eventually become part of the BeltLine.

Ryan Gravel, a former graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, gave birth to the BeltLine as part of his thesis project. At first, he thought it was just an interesting idea. But now, as the BeltLine has become tangible, he sees it continue to grow in richness and possibility, for Atlanta and for other cities around the world that are watching and learning.

He says that, just as cars and suburbs were the main forces behind development decades ago, now cultural trends toward in-town living are forming. They offer a future that is more affordable, culturally vibrant, economically sound and healthier for people and the environment, Gravel says. Successful cities in the future will have prepared for the “economy of the future,” based on people rather than on automobiles.

“We’re just now beginning this,” Gravel says. “This story, whatever it is, is part of a much greater cultural momentum. I’m fascinated with where that’s going.”

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Atlanta's Historic Fourth Ward Park is one of the first completed urban park elements of the Atlanta BeltLine.

Breaking Down the BeltLine: Facts and Figures

The Atlanta BeltLine is a comprehensive revitalization effort that provides a network of parks, trails and transit. Plans call for 22 miles of old rail corridors to connect 45 neighborhoods. Among other facts and figures, the BetlLine proposes:

  • 1,300 acres of parks
  • 33 miles of multi-use trails
  • 22 miles of pedestrian-friendly rail transit
  • Public art projects
  • Affordable housing
  • 1,100 acres of environmental remediation
Source: The Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Visit for more information.

Read part one of our two-part series on the Atlanta BeltLine.