- Leon Stafford The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This fall, the Atlanta Beltline will cut the ribbon on its westside trail, the latest stretch of greenspace and walking paths designed to connect 45 intown Atlanta neighborhoods.
But nearby resident Marie Owens couldn’t tell you much about it. Owens, who moved to Sylvan Hills five years ago to take care of her elderly mother, said she’s never received a flier, email or phone call about the project.
“Every once in a while, I hear something about the Beltline on the news. But otherwise I don’t know much about it,” Owens said.
Among the well-heeled and millennials, the Beltline is one of the most popular infrastructure projects to come along in Atlanta in decades. City planners have declared it an unmitigated success. It was featured on the front page of The New York Times in 2016, has won numerous awards and been credited with reviving several communities along the eastside trail.
But some say Atlanta Beltline Inc., the organization that oversees development of the project, has fallen short in keeping the poor- and working-class communities adjacent to the trail informed on what to expect next in the sea change taking place.
City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who represents the southwest Atlanta area, said many residents of nearby neighborhoods weren’t prepared for what the Beltline would bring: property tax increases, real estate speculators and new neighbors who sometimes want to mold the neighborhoods in their vision. And many don’t know how to respond.
Residents fear that the lack of information on what’s happening could cause some of their neighbors to be duped into selling their homes cheaply to “predatory buyers,” as some officials are calling them. Those are real estate companies that lowball homeowners, sometimes tempting with cash payments. Over the past 18 months, hordes of such buyers have been knocking on doors or calling residents looking for sellers.
“When I moved here in 2010, there were lots of vacant properties and boarded up houses,” said Ayisha Weisner, president of the neighborhood association for Sylvan Hills, which is about a half-mile south of the westside trail. “But once you could tangibly see that the Beltline was coming, all of a sudden all these people were interested in these abandoned houses.”
Weisner said she tries to fill in the blanks on the Beltline to her neighbors, many of whom are older and are not able to get out to meetings about the project.
“If you are not Internet savvy, you have no idea that the Beltline is coming,” she said.
Sheperd expressed her concerns to Beltline CEO Paul Morris during a contentious council committee meeting earlier this year, saying the organization relies too heavily on social media and other online tools to communicate to residents. She has introduced a still-pending ordinance mandating Atlanta Beltline holding meetings at Neighborhood Planning Unit gatherings.
“How are they telling people what the impact of the Beltline is going to be on their community?” Sheperd said. “They email it out. They Facebook it out. But they need to go to NPU meetings, to neighborhood meetings. The NPUs were set up by (former mayor) Maynard Jackson to get the information out to the meetings. ”
Atlanta Beltline spokeswoman Ericka Brown Davis said the group’s social media strategy should not be confused with its community engagement efforts. Social media is meant for promotional efforts.
But efforts are also made to reach out in other ways. In 2016, Atlanta Beltline sent direct mail about the progress on all segments of its trails to more than 5,200 addresses throughout the city. The group also sent out 6,000 quarterly newsletters, more than 113,000 emails and 52,173 fliers to libraries, recreation and senior centers and churches.
It also has quarterly briefings for the public, study group meetings around the city and resident round tables.
“People ask us to come out to provide information all the time,” said Beth McMillan, director of community engagement and planning for the Beltline. McMillan said Beltline officials have attended NPU meetings, but don’t go regularly because the agendas of the gatherings are so packed they only allow for brief updates.
The Beltline does have its unofficial ambassadors. Patrick Berry, development committee co-chair with the West View Community Organization, said he’s tried to keep residents informed on the westside trail’s progress through his organization’s email list, Facebook page and Facebook group. The information has been plentiful, he said, if not a bit overwhelming.
“I’m connected through all their communication channels,” he said.
Mayor Kasim Reed said it’s important to get the word out about the impact the Beltline can have on home values because he worries people will be tempted to sell if an offer sounds attractive.
“The most important thing we can do is to communicate to people that live in these neighborhoods is you have an opportunity, because you’re already there, to take advantage of the current [housing] environment in the city of Atlanta,” he said. “But you really have to be mindful because you’re going to have people who are more and more aggressive about acquiring your home.”
He said what might sound like a good deal now, could prove to not be later because the value of houses along the Beltline’s trails are only going to go higher as the project attracts more residents and services.
Vickie Scheer said she and her husband Wayne did not wait for Beltline officials to educate them. They started to investigate when they saw neighborhood houses that had been boarded up since the recession being renovated.
The Scheers, who have lived in the same southwest Atlanta home on Melrose Drive home since 1981, have since attended forums for Atlanta mayoral candidates to hear how they plan to handle the increased interest in living along the Beltline.
“We are very concerned about the gentrification,” Vickie Scheer said. “There is nothing physically we can do about it but be aware of it.”
Rosanne Maltese, who has lived in her southwest Atlanta home for 35 years, said she didn’t really start keeping up with the progress of westside trail until she started getting mail asking if she wanted to sell her house.
“Initially, I didn’t put that together with the Beltline,” she said of the offers. “I didn’t know what to think at first.”
She said Beltline officials could have done a better job of reaching out to the community, but that she’s thrilled now that she knows what’s going on.
“When I first moved in the area, it was stable,” she said. “Then there were a lot of older residents who died and the area just seemed to go downhill.”
The Beltline is starting to reverse that decline, she said.
“I think this is a wonderful thing,” she said.