Monday, May 19, 2008

Atlanta Beltline community benefits

** This post was substantially updated on Aug. 16, 2009. Contact me here to obtain the archived original post. **

Project Overview


The Beltline project, an initiative of the Atlanta Development Authority, involves the development of a 22-mile light rail transit loop around the city of Atlanta. The transit component of the project will include multi-use trails, sidewalks, streetscapes and road improvements, providing alternative transportation options and transit oriented design for a city known widely for its sprawling habits. The $2.8 billion project will also incorporate green space, affordable housing, brownfields remediation, historic preservation and public art. Over the next 25 years, the project is expected to generate billions of dollars of economic development and create tens of thousands of construction and permanent jobs.

In order to finance the Beltline, the city of Atlanta established a 6,500 acre tax allocation district (TAD) in 2005. (Funding is also being provided by private donations and federal programs.) Most of the properties within the TAD are underutilized, and as they are developed, their property taxes will increase. The TAD functions by diverting the difference between the baseline taxes and the increased taxes (sometimes called the "tax increment") to repay the municipal bonds issued to finance the Beltline. For a more detailed explanation of the TAD process, see here. (And for more background on this financing mechanism, including the problems it may create, see here.) In addition to funding the Beltline itself, TAD proceeds will also be used to provide economic development and affordable housing incentives.

Beltline Community Benefits

The Beltline project has been received with enthusiasm, but it has also generated concerns about gentrification and the displacement of current residents. The 2005 city resolution creating the Beltline TAD responded to these concerns, recognizing "the importance of balanced and equitable development of the city in a manner that preserves the dignity of existing residents and ensures equal participation by all residents in the many benefits, direct and indirect...of the Beltline project" (p. 3). Importantly, the law also contained a community benefits provision (section 19):
The capital projects that receive funding from TAD bond proceeds shall reflect, through the development agreements or funding agreements that accompany such projects, certain community benefit principles, including but not limited to: prevailing wages for workers; a 'first source' hiring system to target job opportunities for residents of impacted low income 'Beltline' neighborhoods; establishment and usage of apprenticeship and preapprenticeship programs for workers of impacted Beltline neighborhoods. A more complete list of such principles and a community benefit policy shall be developed with community input and included within the agreements to be approved by City Council.
This provision ensures that community benefits will be included in numerous individual Beltline developments, similar to the Park East redevelopment legislation in Milwaukee that made CBA provisions mandatory for developments of county-owned land.

Community Involvement

Because separate community benefits packages will be developed for individual Beltline projects, continued community involvement is especially important. While there is no Beltline CBA coalition, the project is being managed in such a way as to provide enhanced opportunities for public input.

Atlanta Beltline Inc., an affiliate of the Atlanta Development Authority tasked with planning and implementing the Beltline project, has developed a community engagement framework to keep residents informed and engaged in the Beltline's creation. The framework consists of the Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee, the Beltline Affordable Housing Advisory Board, quarterly public briefings made by Atlanta Beltline Inc., a community engagement advocate, and 5 study groups that seek to receive public input on the project (meeting minutes and briefings are available here).

The community "think and act tank" Georgia STAND-UP was instrumental in having the community benefits provision included in the Beltline TAD, and "[s]ince that win, Georgia Stand-Up has been organizing, educating and empowering community, labor, faith leaders, and elected officials, to develop and fight for comprehensive community benefits policies and CBAs for the Beltline[.]"

Implementation

Like most large projects, the Beltline has had its share of problems in getting off the ground. In 2008, the Beltline was almost derailed by a Georgia Supreme Court decision that prohibited school district tax funds from being included in the TAD (Woodham v. City of Atlanta), but a referendum (Amendment 2) was passed several months later to amend the state constitution and overrule the court. In June, 2009, the Atlanta Development Authority and the Atlanta Public Schools reached an agreement on the financing and the disposition of the $18 million in TAD funds raised since 2005.

Another hitch in the project came in January, 2009, when the Georgia Department of Transportation and Amtrak teamed up in a last minute move to acquire some abandoned railroad tracks needed for the Beltline. The national rail corporation wanted the tracks for a regional heavy rail line running from New York to New Orleans, but after strong public protest, GDOT's board voted to retract its objection to the Beltline project. In July, GDOT and Atlanta Beltline Inc. reached a deal giving the Beltline exclusive control of the tracks until 2012. The agreement brought the Beltline up to almost 50% of its needed acquisitions, well ahead of schedule.

The Beltline's official groundbreaking came on February 23, 2008, with city leaders ceremoniously shoveling dirt from the site of a future bike path in the city's West End. A park project in the Fourth Ward was kicked off in December. According to the Atlanta Beltline 5-year Work Plan, by 2011 the Beltline should have acquired 10 new parks, constructed two portions of the trail system, prepared the right of way for rail construction, completed master planning, provided $19 million in economic development incentives and $42 million in affordable housing incentives, and invested $21 million in road, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

In June, 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $1 million grant to the city Atlanta for brownfields cleanup along the Beltline. The grant money will be used to seed a revolving loan fund, which is expected to fund the remediation of 10-15 sites.

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