Note: An expanded and updated version of this piece will be published as part of n+1’s City by City anthology in 2015.
Class has always been the shadow cast by New Urbanism. The idea of curbing sprawl and promoting greater urban density runs up against material realities time and time again. Consider Oregon’s much-lauded urban growth boundary system, which set a limit for growth around the state’s cities beginning in the 1970s. The policy was put in place by a liberal Republican governor, Tom McCall, who hoped to prevent “grasping wastrels” from gobbling up Oregon’s farms and scenic countryside. It has since promoted infill – intensive reuse of existing urban space, in lieu of expansion – and contributed to the famously walkable and bike-friendly urban culture of cities such as Portland. But setting a limit on growth necessarily restricts the amount of land available for development, making the remaining land both scarcer and dearer. Housing becomes smaller and more expensive. Working class Oregonians have not been wrong to ask whether the new urbanist ideal comes at too great a cost when they look in vain for homes they can afford to rent or buy. The walkable city, it turns out, might be a luxury of the upper middle class.
Metro Atlanta is now grappling with similar issues, as both the Tea Party right and activists on the Left line up in opposition to the Beltline – a plan to build a ring of parks, bike and walking paths, and eventually light rail around the city’s in-town neighborhoods. The project mostly traces the path of old rail lines that have long been out of use. In July voters across a ten county area will vote on the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), a grab bag of transit projects that will provide hundreds of millions of dollars to build light rail for the Beltline. The project originated in a Master’s thesis by Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel, who sent his plan for a transit loop to a variety of influential Atlantans in the year 2000. The Beltline has won major support from city politicians, banks, and the business community, while designers and activists have singled it out as one of “the country’s most ambitious smart growth projects.” “We can’t think of a project more inspiring and forward-thinking,” declared Salon’s Will Doig.
What’s not to love? The opposition of Tea Partiers in the white suburbs is not hard to understand. They claim to hate all government spending, and none quite so passionately as liberal handouts to the people of color who are the biggest riders of public transit in the South. (MARTA is said to stand for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”) But opposition on the Left is more interesting, as many progressives have been happy to see words like “light rail” and “affordable housing” without subjecting the project to greater scrutiny. The Atlanta Public Sector Alliance has been particularly vocal in its criticism, claiming that the TIA is a trojan horse for privatizing MARTA. Before people started saying the “devil is in the details,” there was an earlier expression—“God is in the details”—and in the case of the Beltline both may be true.
How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Beltline
Let’s look at the specifics, as best we understand them. By its own definition, the Beltline will create “a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting 45 neighborhoods directly to each other.” Like many public-private partnerships, the project is held together by a patchwork of federal funds, local government support, individual donations, volunteer work, and help from private entities like Bank of America. Understanding its myriad funding sources and the multiple arms of its projects is not easy to do.
The biggest critique centers on gentrification. “Since it’s inception, the BeltLine has received almost no criticism from self-identifying progressives,” says Atlanta Indymedia. This despite the fact that it is basically a “gentrification project for white people,” which involves the “forced displacement of Black families from the city.” The argument here is twofold: the Beltline runs through communities, such as the Old Fourth Ward and Reynoldstown, that have been traditionally working class and African American, but which have already begun to be transformed by largely white, middle-class urban newcomers who fix up the housing stock and raise property values, eventually pricing out the older residents because of rising property taxes and rents. In short, the Beltline is a means to further a process already in motion—as another Indymedia contributor puts it, “a line to serve not workers but, largely, a handful of tourists to view the newly gentrified (= de-blacked) areas along the loop to complete the process bgun with the destruction of Atlanta’ public housing that drove thousands out to South DeKalb and Clayton.”
Concerns about gentrification are legitimate, albeit frustratingly complex, and we will return to them in a moment. Critics are not just upset that the Beltline will foster rising property values along its path, but that it will accelerate a process that has already transformed neighborhoods like Candler Park into havens for the white middle class, who send their kids to “good” local schools, or Grant Park, where the new settlers are anxious to get their children into the Neighborhood Charter School (i.e. not mixed in with the poor and dysfunctional public schools in their district). But the gentrification issue is one that emerges pretty much any time projects to improve quality of life in cities threaten to actually improve the quality of life—and thereby entice the homebuyers who drive up property values.
The more worrisome critiques raised about the Beltline involve funding and priorities. Critics allege that the project is pilfering funds that were diverted from property taxes meant for Atlanta Public Schools (APS)—in essence, making poor people of color pay for the amenities enjoyed by white homebuyers who are pushing them out of their neighborhoods and putting their own children in charter schools, a choice that further saps APS of students and funds.
The core of the problem lies in a funding mechanism called a Tax Allocation District (TAD). Tropics of Meta’s Ryan Reft is the resident authority on these matters, having written before on the issues of TADs and TIFs (tax increment financing) in urban development. Instead of just allocating public funds to pay for the project, the Beltline depends on a TAD that essentially shaves off part of the anticipated increase of future property values for use now. As Georgia Tech’s Catherine Ross explained in 2007, the Beltline
uses the incremental increase in taxes due to increased property values in the district to repay TAD bonds used to fund capital improvements for the BeltLine. The TAD is expected to raise approximately $1.7 billion over a 25-year period; therefore, the publicly funded improvements, like park development, new infrastructure, brownfield cleanup, and workforce housing, will take place over time. Ultimately, the BeltLine is expected to result in an approximately $20 billion increase in the tax base over 25 years.
But property taxes support Atlanta Public Schools, and critics are right to suggest that the Beltline is simply diverting funds earmarked for education to “build upscale yuppie residences and shopping, and pay corporate welfare to favored banksters and lawyers,” as Georgia Green activist Bruce Dixon put it. Proponents of the project argue that the TAD pays for itself through increases of property values that would not otherwise occur without the Beltline, so it is not taking money from the schools that they would have if it didn’t exist. Further, the Beltline claims that the development will ultimately help the Atlanta Public Schools by raising property values (and thus revenue) in general, while rebuilding the city’s tax base with “a stronger mix of households of varying incomes.”
In any case, TAD-funded development remains risky, given that it mortgages current development on fantasies of future growth. It is like getting a home loan not on the basis of your current income, but a raise you think you might get a couple of years from now. It also makes clear that the intent of the project is expressly to raise property values—the central driver of gentrification.
Moreover, critics say that the majority of projects that would be funded by the upcoming TIA referendum would actually benefit the outlying suburban areas much more than the urban core of Fulton and Dekalb counties, which have African American majorities and depend most heavily on MARTA’s bus and train lines. Such projects include bike trails in Fayette County, bus rapid transit from the city limits to MARTA’s Lindbergh train stop, and a rail extension from Lindbergh to the mostly white and affluent area around Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Critics look at these projects and say that the tax referendum—which calls for a 1 cent sales tax to support a wide array of programs, including the Beltline—is a regressive levy that poor people of color will pay to support projects for affluent white people in the suburbs. Viewed from this perspective, it looks pretty awful.
Ask the Local Gentry, and They Will Say It’s Elementary
Is the Beltline, and the tax referendum that might help fund it, basically a redistribution of wealth from Atlanta’s long-struggling communities of color to groups who are already privileged? Atlantans have already seen their schools and neighborhoods undermined from the age of urban renewal and white flight to the current epoch of gentrification. Bitter memories remain, and they inevitably frame the issues for some critics. Atlanta is a textbook case of 1960s era urban renewal at its most swaggering and destructive, sure to challenge New Haven or New York or any other American city where imperious white planners cut huge swaths through working class communities in the name of fighting “blight.” The building of Atlanta’s Interstate 20 led to the demolition of African American homes through a large area near downtown, where a huge and still barren gash remains, peopled only by the homeless who leave their bundles under overpasses. Public housing was built in part of this area, only to be torn down for the sake of another public-private boondoggle, the 1996 Olympics, which inaugurated much of the current push to prettify downtown by cleansing it of its pesky black denizens (both housed and homeless).
The memory of past misdeeds by urban planners and city officials undoubtedly influences how some Atlantans view a new group of reformers who have big plans to redesign the city’s landscape. “To have people who promote the Beltline say, ‘Trust me, we’re going to do it right this time’ — I don’t see anything in past experiences that would somehow allow African Americans and people who are transit-dependent to say that we trust you to do the right thing this time,” Robert Bullard, a native Atlantan and environmental justice advocate at Texas Southern University, says.
On the other hand, Beltline supporters have tried to “do the right thing this time,” hearing from local communities and outlining plans to ensure a degree of affordable housing exists around the loop. What exactly affordable housing means, though, is not entirely clear. Federal and corporate funds have made possible an extensive program of “downpayment support” to help low-to-middle income homebuyers purchase properties along the Beltline, which we have discussed previously on Tropics of Meta. The project helps teachers, firefighters and the like gain access to homes that they may not otherwise have the savings or income to purchase, especially in areas where property values are expected to rise.
New housing projects built along the Beltline, like the redevelopment of the old hulking structure of City Hall East along Ponce De Leon Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward, promise to set aside a certain percentage of units at below-market-rate, although it remains to be seen whether developers or the Beltline will follow through with such guarantees—or what “affordable” or “below-market-rate” really mean. Such promises have disappointed elsewhere before. (Consider the long struggle over Bruce Ratner’s bitterly opposed Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.)
The goal is to create a mixed-income corridor of housing on the Beltline in order to offset the effects of gentrification, but such a project provides cold comfort for existing residents whose property taxes will rise along with increasing values, or renters whose landlords pass on the costs to them. Here the essential conundrum of today’s version of urban renewal comes into clearest resolution: we may not be wielding the wrecking ball like Robert Moses or Atlanta’s past city fathers, but we are still aiming to create amenities—parks, light rail, bike paths—that make the city more appealing to groups whose incomes and other resources will drive prices up and marginalize people who are already there. Call it the Quality of Life and Cost of Living Trap. If a place becomes “nicer,” people with money will want to move there. The people who participate in the affordable housing initiatives may end up serving as a precious few fig leaves.
Does this mean that any efforts to beautify cities, enhance transit, and generally improve the experience of urban life are inevitably detrimental to the poor, working class, and people of color? Does this mean the better path is to do nothing that would make the city a more desirable place to live—in essence, to avoid raising property values anywhere, at all times, at any cost? This seems like a recipe for the same dystopian abandonment that wrecked cities such as New York and Atlanta during the age of white flight in the 1960s and 1970s, when middle class families (largely, though not exclusively white) fled and took their tax base with them, leaving the cities to rot and whither on less than a shoestring budget.
White flight, for better or worse, is over, and coffeeshops and charter schools are in. They ease the way for middle class white professionals to recolonize the urban space their parents and grandparents once abandoned. What was once decried as a racist betrayal of America’s cities is being slowly reversed, but in ways that reproduce and perpetuate racist inequalities through a panoply of means: the educational system, urban planning, public subsidies, the housing market, and so forth.
Where gentrification is concerned, the fundamental issue is housing—property taxes and rents—and the Beltline is ultimately not the driver of change. Neighborhoods in Atlanta like Cabbagetown (which was principally the home of white working class families, before its tiny mill homes were renovated by pretentious hipsters) and Candler Park have already been almost totally gentrified, and areas such as Reynoldstown and East Atlanta are well on their way to being made over by a mostly college educated, mostly-but-not-entirely-white group of new residents. The property market follows the signals sent by people with the jobs and the family wealth necessary to purchase homes in the $200,000+ range—a pittance in California, perhaps, but a pretty good chunk of change for working class and middle class families in Atlanta. This is where Reynoldstown and East Atlanta are at, regardless of the Beltline. These are the areas where young people and families seeking a more diverse, urban experience and access to good food and music go when they don’t want to move to the suburbs, and prefer a home closer to downtown and hip destinations like Little Five Points. The Beltline will likely expedite this process in many areas.
The truth is that market-rate housing will never provide adequate shelter for everyone. This is the unspoken fact that underlies all discussions of gentrification. Neighborhood change unfolds through many processes, such as the provision of public education, police protection, housing loans, media depictions, and so forth, but the ability of individuals to actually access decent housing will always be primarily determined by market forces in a capitalist society. This is why the federal government stepped in to subsidize working class and middle class homeownership through FHA loans during the New Deal of the 1930s, and ever since—because a lot of people would not have the financial wherewithal to borrow the kind of money necessary to pay for a home in a totally free market. This is also the rationale behind public housing, since the market does not create houses or apartments priced at the level that people at the bottom of the wage scale can afford. It is simply not profitable to build and manage such properties for people at a cost that those of the most modest means can afford in a capitalist society. (Tropics of Meta has also addressed this issue before, in discussing the broken windows theory and the fate of public housing projects like St. Louis’s Pruitt Igoe, which were crippled by a lack of public financial support to supplement the meager amount tenants were able to pay in rent.)
Until the problem of housing is solved, projects like the Beltline will inevitably disadvantage and exclude those who are less privileged than the newcomers who, presumably, will follow in the path of new developments. Government-subsidized public housing is the only way to remedy the inequities of a system that depends on property taxes to support public education and other services, and makes ability to pay such levies a precondition to membership in a community.
Old-fashioned public housing does not appear to be on the Beltline’s menu of projects, but there is a promise—and right now it is only a promise, particularly for low-income renters—of new housing developments expanding the number of housing options to Atlantans. The Beltline says it will spend $240 million to create 5,600 units of affordable owner-occupied and rental housing, which would be “the most significant investment in affordable workforce housing in Atlanta’s history.” Critics of the project might do better to vigilantly monitor this process and push for the greatest possible resources to be allocated to working people, rather than dismissing the entire project as “racist” and “white supremacist.”
What about the Rest of the TIA?
It is important to keep in mind that the Beltline is separate from the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), though this measure, if passed, will allocate a great deal of money to expedite building light rail. Beltline supporters insist their project will go forward whether or not voters approve the TIA, although a failed referendum would set the process back.
A look at the final list of projects approved by the Atlanta Region Transportation Investment Act Roundtable shows that many of the individual items are actually road projects–either enhancing existing roads or building new infrastructure. In fact, according to one count, over 140 of the projects are defined as “roadway,” while only 22 are “transit” (bus or rail). The remaining few are a mix of “bike/ped” and “aviation.”
For a package that many people assume is meant to bolster Atlanta’s mass or public transit options, that looks like a bad deal–a bait-and-switch, even. Building roads has been the idee fixe of the federal government since the Great Depression, and laying down endless miles of asphalt is just the kind of pork barrel spending that Republicans and Democrats both love. Even the small-government, tax-cutting, no-spending Tea Partiers like Oklahoma’s James Inhofe sheepishly admit that they’re fine with government spending as long as it’s for transportation (i.e. cars) and defense.
So is Atlanta being sold a mass transit package that mostly tinkers around the edges of our abundant freeways?
To be fair, the mass transit projects are the bigger ticket items, while plans to widen a street or improve an intersection in Gwinnett County cost a lot less than laying down new rail lines. Two pieces of the Beltline, for instance, will cost well over $500 million, as compared to a road project costing $14 million. Of course, as a great American politician might put it: $14 million here and $14 million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
The TIA also plans to fund a series of improvements to MARTA tracks, platforms, and stations, which do add up to a good chunk of funds. It should be noted that the TIA in no way contributes to the operating budget of MARTA, as far as we can tell, and thus does not directly benefit transit riders by curbing the rise of fares or otherwise improving service. On the other hand, capital improvements for MARTA’s infrastructure may defray costs that the system would eventually have to take on itself, resulting in an indirect benefit. One interesting project allocates $30 million dollars to a “passenger information” and “wayfinding” system, which would hopefully improve the current service for finding out about schedules and planning trips—a system so bad it cries out for a humanitarian intervention by information design guru Edward Tufte. (TripPlanner, it is not.)
All that being said, the TIA is simply not a project for funding MARTA. Progressive activists may argue that bolstering and enhancing MARTA should be our one and only focus in terms of transportation, and using a regressive sales tax to make the urban poor pay for bike paths in the suburbs is not just morally wrong, but politically unwise for anyone who hopes to channel greater financial and political support into the city’s basic public transit system in the future. With its $8 billion price tage, the TIA may be sucking up all the oxygen available for transit funding for the foreseeable future, and MARTA advocates are understandably worried. They see misaligned priorities and, indeed, a transfer of wealth from working people who depend on MARTA bus and rail service to suburban commuters and in-town gentrifiers who like the idea of catching a ride on the Beltline, from one hipster colony to another. These strategic and ethical concerns merit consideration from progressives as we look at the Beltline and the TIA, especially if we understand taxation and transit to be essentially a zero-sum game—that is, money for light rail today means no money for MARTA tomorrow.
But Is It Bread?
The debate about TIA and the Beltline comes back to one of the oldest political problems in the book: the choice between getting half a loaf or “no bread.” Every law, every government program or policy decision involves a maddeningly complex array of moving parts, as the 2009 debate over healthcare reform revealed. We can argue over whether a project includes too many compromises, or concedes too much to the opposition. Do we get enough of what we want in the deal? This discussion of the pros and cons of the Beltline raises a deeper question, though: not whether we’re getting enough bread (“half a loaf”), but whether what we’re arguing over is bread at all. In other words, critics of the Beltline force us to ask not whether the project does enough good, but whether it does good at all.
The answer has to be yes. The Beltline’s intent is to create a denser, greener, more accessible Atlanta, and its work has already begun in new parks and greenways through pieces of its future corridor. In the African American community of Peoplestown in South Atlanta, a beautiful new park has risen, in an area where too many homes lay empty, with the windows boarded up. Neighborhood parents and children play amid the colorful dinosaurs and art installations. A burned out old barn sits in the background, next to a new-ish apartment building and high ridges of dangling kudzu. The Beltline vision includes many such projects, including a Parks and Recreation-esque quarry that will be transformed into a space bigger than the epic Piedmont Park, Atlanta’s premier public space.
The upcoming referendum on TIA is not a choice between this grab bag of projects and an ideal plan to improve and extend MARTA. It is an up-or-down vote on fixing these roads, building those bike paths, and—the biggest item of all—connecting in-town neighborhoods in North, South, East and West Atlanta through light rail. I’m willing to pay one cent extra of sales tax to fund a flurry of road, bike, bus, and rail projects, even if the buy-in for the suburbanites is that many of the projects go to counties outside Atlanta’s urban core.
We also need regional transit. One project will create commuter rail between Atlanta and Griffin, in Spalding County. Do suburban commuters deserve another way to get to work? Activists deride the TIA as a “white supremacist” giveaway to the suburbs, but this new rail line will serve suburban Clayton County, which has a majority African American population. Rail will also be extended from MARTA’s current Lindbergh stop in Northeast Atlanta to Emory University and the CDC, which will, yes, benefit the affluent scientific, educational and managerial workers who will most likely use the service—but they aren’t the only people who work at Emory and the surrounding areas. If our goal is to get cars off the street, and if we are serious about curbing sprawl or reducing carbon emissions, then we should not let calculations of class war be our only consideration.
From my perspective, anything that gets people out of their cars is good: light rail, streetcars, bike paths, and greenways. They may not directly or explicitly serve the cause of racial justice or economic equality, but in the absence of bigger solutions for such issues, these projects remain valuable in their own right. I find it hard to believe that building bike paths and light rail to connect in-town neighborhoods that are otherwise ill-served by MARTA is a terrible thing. The project will link the arms of MARTA’s limited, cross-shaped transit network with a loop, making it easier to get from the East Side to South Atlanta, the West Side to North. It connects neighborhoods of widely divergent class and racial character, from upscale Midtown to gentrifying East Atlanta to working class black neighborhoods in the West and South. The very forces that might increase property values in more modest neighborhoods are the ones that can help working people get to jobs in another part of the city without driving a car. In terms of access to transit, the Beltline is hardly “no bread.”
Moreover, the creation of new access to transit is not exactly a death-ray of instant gentrification. If it were, then the poorer neighborhoods already served by MARTA would have been riddled with Citarellas long ago. The introduction of rail transit in Atlanta since the 1970s has not turned everything it touches to white, bourgeois enclaves. Activists such as Terence Courtney insist that the Beltline will create far inferior access to transit and many fewer jobs than adding only to the existing framework of MARTA, but creating new parks, bike paths, and rail will inevitably put people to work—and help get them to work. It seems beyond short-sighted to maintain that beautifying the city and creating new ways to get around without a car is nothing but a class and race war against poor people of color.
Some leftist opposition to the Beltline may be rooted in an anxiety about the changing demographics of in-town Atlanta. The city is one of a handful of places in the United States, along with Memphis, Detroit, Newark and other cities, where black political power has been able to gain a real foothold, thanks to both the advances of civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s and the white abandonment of urban American during the same period. The middle class residents who are changing Atlanta neighborhoods are not just bougie gentrifiers, and they are not all white—but the white, Hispanic, Asian, and indeed black middle classes who move into Reynoldstown or Castleberry Hill may alter the political dynamics of the city when they eschew suburban and exurban life to return to the city. Pundits have been asking for years now if Atlanta will “remain a Chocolate City,” particularly after the contentious 2009 election in which now-Mayor Kasim Reed faced a potent challenge from a white candidate, Mary Norwood, whose base of support lay in affluent Buckhead. A time may come when Atlanta no longer has a black majority, and any projects that facilitate gentrification may hasten the day that the city cannot be counted on as a redoubt of progressive black politics. But ensuring that Atlanta maintains a particular demographic configuration should not be our primary consideration when thinking about urban planning, economic development, and environmental issues.
We often lament that Americans don’t do “big” projects anymore—a system as extensive as New York’s magnificent subway would be nearly impossible to pull off today, if the travails of the proposed 2nd Avenue subway line are any indication. The Beltline is one such big project. The TIA itself contains a vast number of programs, of which the Beltline is only one part—and the Beltline consists of myriad initiatives for housing, transit, and public amenities. Any New Deal liberal will likely feel his or her heart stir at the thought of all those shovels digging into the earth and all those housing units being built and refurbished. Progressives should also remember that the Beltline is not just transit or housing or even gentrification, but also parks–those few democratic spots in the American landscape that remain open to all, charging no cost of admission. The project may not do everything we want, but it represents a drastic improvement over the status quo of Atlanta’s notoriously impoverished public space. Atlanta could be more than a poster child for traffic and suburban sprawl.
I will be voting for the TIA referendum in July, and I hope the Beltline is able to continue its work regardless of the outcome. In all development, some will benefit more than others, and some may even be hurt. It is too cavalier to say “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette,” but we also have to decide whether the prospect of gentrification means ruling out any kind of neighborhood improvement that might increase property values. The homeless people who have been living along the abandoned rail lines that the Beltline plans to use will clearly not benefit; they are already being forced out of their hideaway in the liminal shadows of urban Atlanta, as Creative Loafing has reported.
But then again, the Beltline is not the cause of homelessness, and to score it for making these individuals’ lives worse is to miss the point. People sleeping along old train tracks is not an arrangement we should be working to sustain. The Beltline also did not create the insane system of property taxes that makes safe neighborhoods with access to grocery stores, decent schools and other “amenities” inaccessible to many of the urban poor and working class. Renters are subject to rising rents, and even working class homeowners find themselves shuffled around according to the whims of people with greater means—the middle class who fled the cities in the 1960s and 1970s, and who have begun to migrate back since the 1990s. This is a function of the way we support state and local government and schools through levies on property values, as well as the lack of any real effort to ensure good public housing in American history, which could redress the economic dynamics that drive gentrification. To pin all these broader problems on the Beltline and vote down the TIA in July seems wrongheaded if we really want to reduce traffic, increase density, and promote a future with fewer cars—for everyone.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Carl Abbott, Greater Portland: Urban Life and Landscape in the Pacific Northwest (2001)
Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution (1999)
Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005)
Clarence Stone, Regime Politics: Atlanta, 1946-1988 (1989)