ATLANTA – Since a new urban trail opened last month in a former rail corridor in Atlanta, it has drawn crowds of joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists to take in spectacular views of the skyline and neighborhoods once seen only by train. Hundreds of trees have been planted along the paved 14-foot-wide path, while artists have added works such as windmills made of bicycle parts and colorful murals on concrete overpasses.
The path, known as the Eastside Trail, is part of a $2.8 billion plan to transform a 22-mile railroad corridor that encircles Atlanta into a network of trails, parks, affordable homes and ultimately streetcar lines. The Atlanta BeltLine is an example of rails-to-trails projects going on around the country, including in New York and Chicago, that aim to make better use of old rail corridors by creating better-connected and more livable urban areas, providing alternatives to car travel and spurring economic development.
"I think it's transformational," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. "The new section is already overused in terms of the people. ... Now folks are demanding more and more."
Advocates say the BeltLine has great promise for a city that was founded as a railroad crossroads before the Civil War and later became a poster child for suburban sprawl and highway gridlock.
"The perception of Atlanta as 100 percent dependent on the car has really started to change," said Ed McMahon, senior residence fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. He cited recent efforts to create bike paths and the planned BeltLine, which he said would be the "first bicycle beltway."
Atlanta's focus on light rail alongside the planned trails is also unique, he added.
More than 1,600 abandoned or unused rail corridors nationwide have been converted to trails, which totaled more than 19,000 miles in 2012.
One of the best-known examples is the High Line project on Manhattan's West Side, where an elevated rail line was transformed into a two-mile-long elevated park. McMahon said it cost $150 million to build and has generated $2 billion in new construction. Chicago is undertaking The Bloomingdale Trail, a 3-mile-long elevated linear park and trail on a former rail line.
Such projects are "sparking real estate sales and energizing future development," McMahon said.
They're also changing the way people get around. In Minneapolis, he said, an abandoned rail yard was turned into a "bicycle freeway" with separate 10-foot-wide paths for travel to and from downtown.
It seems only fitting that Atlantans are reclaiming their rail corridors: The city was settled in 1837 as a railroad crossroads called Terminus.
Atlanta BeltLine Inc., a nonprofit that is an offshoot of the city's economic development authority, works with a myriad of groups and agencies. Its roughly $20-million-plus budget includes new tax revenue above 2005 levels from a BeltLine corridor tax district -- expected to generate $1.7 billion over 25 years -- and government funds and private donations.
In addition to the 2.25-mile-long Eastside Trail, the group has opened three other parks, a skate park and two trails; helped create 120 affordable homes; secured land for future streetcar lines; and invested more than $1.3 million in public art.
However, the grander vision of light rail seems farther off after area voters recently rejected a transportation referendum that included $600 million for transit projects such as the BeltLine.
The ABI has gotten some public-relations black eyes, too. The board overseeing the project voted in August to oust its president and CEO after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he charged taxpayers for a wedding gift, a dry cleaning bill, a parking ticket and other items. Critics also voiced concern about spending for elaborate staff retreats, stays at pricey hotels and meals at expensive restaurants for project employees.
ABI Chairman John Somerhalder said limited dollars were at issue, but that a higher principle was involved. He said the board has put in place policies "to make sure we're very good stewards going forward."
Somerhalder said there has been $775 million in private redevelopment completed or underway within a half-mile of the trail since 2005. And, he said, the positive response to projects like the Eastside Trail will help build on the $41 million in private fundraising, much of it from Atlanta's major philanthropic groups.
In recent weeks, the trail has been a beehive of activity.
"I like it. It definitely cleans it up," said John Timlin, 29, a worker at New York Butcher Shoppe, whose back door abuts an increasingly crowded trail. Sales have gone up 20 percent since the trail opened.
Camila Brioli, 21, a Brazil native who is studying piano performance at Georgia State University, went for a jog on the trail recently and wound up stopping at the various public art works, including a temporary piece by artist Misao Cates where passersby wrote messages on white ribbons and attached them to bamboo poles. She left one in Portuguese about Brazil's soccer team, one of more than 1,000 left by people.
"I love it because I am a pianist," she said, adding that she was talking to her mom on Skype moments earlier and used it to show her some of the works.
The new trail, which links century-old Piedmont Park to the well-known Inman Park and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods, also evokes the past. From one bridge, a visitor can look down on a large retail plaza and lot that was once Ponce de Leon Park, home of the minor-league Atlanta Crackers until the Braves came to town. A magnolia field that was prominently just right of center field still stands.
The trail also passes a 2-million-square-foot red-brick building that was a Sears regional warehouse and store for years before it became city offices for a time.
The city last year sold the building to Jamestown Properties, owner of Chelsea Market in New York, for $27 million. Plans call for turning it into restaurants, apartments and offices.
Fred Yalouris, director of design for the project, said the Eastside Connector has turned out well, drawing on new apartments and condos as well as an influx of 20- and 30-somethings. But planners still must figure out how to better connect neighborhoods that were long separated by railroad tracks.
"There are communities in some parts of the BeltLine within 200 feet and hardly no (one knows) each other," he said.
Two Urban Licks, a popular Atlanta restaurant, used to have a 6-foot-tall privacy fence to shield its back patio, garden and bocce courts from the kudzu-covered railroads tracks. As the trail was built, the fence came down -- and now the eatery may set up a host stand out back. General manager Shireen Herrington called the BeltLine "a great use of something that's just there, been sitting there."
But Herrington said police need to adequately patrol the trail given past crime problems. She also favors adding lighting and call boxes.
Reed said police patrol the BeltLine, and officials say future plans include lighting.
Farther down the trail, a battered old wooden railroad bridge still stands alongside a new span over Ralph McGill Boulevard. There on a recent day, Sabine Markham helped her 6-year-old daughter Savannah learn how to roller blade.
"It's our first time trying it," the Germany native said of the trail. "It's pretty. It's nice they're doing something that lets people do something outdoors."