When Terri Montague moved from Baltimore to Atlanta to lead the largest redevelopment project in the country, she saw decades of neglect firsthand. Transportation routes separated neighborhoods. Annual walkable cities lists put Atlanta near the bottom for its dependence on cars and lack of sidewalks. Most civil servants drive out from the city center where they work until they can afford to buy a home, which can be miles away. Commutes that used to be half an hour turned into two-hour ordeals. Unchecked urban sprawl disproportionately affected African American communities here, leading to soaring asthma rates and epidemic juvenile diabetes.
Such interrelated problems can’t just be fixed merely by planting a few trees and extending bus routes. For Montague, environmental sustainability is part of a larger smart growth movement. “People don’t live in silos,” she says. “The wave of the future is to plan and grow with more integration across disciplines. We’ve got to get rid of the silos.”
Developing a concept
Montague, 43, is president and CEO of the quasi-governmental organization Atlanta BeltLine Inc., which is leading coordination and planning for the massive BeltLine project. When completed around 2030, the BeltLine will connect Atlanta by creating green space, trails, transit, and new development along 22 miles of historic rail segments that encircle the city’s urban core. The BeltLine will primarily affect African American communities, particularly along the loop’s southern and western sides. “It will also feature extensive new public transportation routes to ease travel for the city’s quarter million daily commuters,” Montague says.
The $2.8 billion project began as a 1999 Georgia Tech student thesis that was championed by the city council, studied for feasibility, and supported by Mayor Shirley Franklin. It currently includes plans for 1,300 acres of new parks and green spaces, 28,000 new affordable homes, acres of environmental remediation, job centers, and landmarked sites all linked by an electric light-rail system along a historic rail corridor. In order to accomplish all this, Montague must convince traditionally underserved communities that the ambitious project will be achieved with their input.
The Atlanta BeltLine’s motto is “Atlanta connected.” “There are many dimensions to that,” Montague says. “It’s reaching across what are, right now, distinctive neighborhoods and communities. I think that distinctiveness will be celebrated, but it will be more accessible.”
“The BeltLine is a big concept that will forever change the face of Atlanta. It will knit together those neighborhoods that were disconnected by geography, railroads, segregation, and federal highway development,” says Carl Patton, president of Georgia State University and an early adviser to the project. “A lot of the success I think we’re going to see with the project is the way Terri has organized the process so far, her ability to work with the city council, with community groups, the lending community, the bankers,