Innovative initiatives with a new ‘old’ trail spurs interest in a former Atlanta rail route and brings in residents and travellers.

SINCE a new urban trail opened last month in a former rail corridor in Atlanta, the United States, it has drawn crowds of joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists to take in the spectacular views of the skyline and neighbourhoods that were once seen only by train.

Hundreds of trees have been planted along the paved 14-foot-wide (4.2m) path, while artists have added works such as windmills made of bicycle parts and colourful murals on concrete overpasses.

The path, known as the Eastside Trail, is part of a US$2.8bil (RM8.52bil) plan to transform a 35km 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 US, 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,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “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% 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 totalled more than 30,500km 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 3.2km-long elevated park. McMahon said it cost US$150mil (RM456mil) to build and has generated US$2bil (RM6bil) in new construction. Chicago is undertaking The Bloomingdale Trail, a 5km, elevated linear park and trail on a former rail line.

Such projects are “sparking real estate sales and energising 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 (3m) 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 (ABI), a non-profit organisation that is an offshoot of the city’s economic development authority, works with myriad groups and agencies. Its roughly US$20mil-plus (RM61mil) budget includes new tax revenue above 2005 levels from a BeltLine corridor tax district – expected to generate US$1.7bil (RM5.19bil) over 25 years – and government funds and private donations.

In addition to the 3.6km 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 US$1.3mil (RM4mil) in public art.

However, the grander vision of light rail seems farther off after area voters recently rejected a transportation referendum that included US$600mil (RM1.83bil) for transit projects such as the BeltLine.

The ABI has gotten some public-relations black eyes, too. The board overseeing the project voted last 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 in question, 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 US$775mil (RM2.36bil) in private redevelopment completed or underway within 800m of the trail since 2005. And, he said, the positive response to projects like the Eastside Trail will help build on the US$41mil (RM125mil) 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% 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 mum 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 neighbourhoods, 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 major league Braves came to town. A magnolia field that was prominently just right of centre field still stands.

The trail also passes a 2,000,000sq ft (190,000sq m) 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 US$27mil (RM82mil). 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 neighbourhoods that were long separated by railroad tracks.

“There are communities in some parts of the BeltLine within 60m and hardly no one knows each other,” he said.

Two Urban Licks, a popular Atlanta restaurant, used to have a 6ft tall (1.8m) 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”. − AFP