By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.net

Buckhead residents filled all the chairs in the McRae Auditorium at Piedmont Hospital on Oct. 6 for the BeltLine’s Peachtree/Piedmont final draft master plan review, and most attending were not any happier than they were at previous public information meetings on BeltLine plans.

Several in the audience voiced the opinion that they had attended a year’s worth of public input meetings with the same consultants and city and BeltLine staff, only to again be presented the same plans they had seen and in some cases rejected.

For instance, representatives from the Brookwood Hills neighborhood wanted to know why alternative PATH Foundation trail routes through a nature conservancy the neighborhood owns remained on the maps for consideration when the BeltLine study team had been told many times that those options were unacceptable.

The answer is that now all of the transit and some trail alignments have become part of an environmental impact statement (EIS) being conducted principally by MARTA with Atlanta BeltLine Inc., and everything apparently is back on the table for consideration.

That study, which reportedly began with public input sessions in August, will consider the social, environmental and economic effects that could result from BeltLine trails and transit implementation.

Jonathan Lewis, a planner with the city’s Department of Planning and Community Development who has led the northside master planning process, which includes the lower area of Buckhead, said the Oct. 6 meeting was the final session of the study group. But he said neighborhood and other interest groups could schedule private meetings with BeltLine planners over a two-week period in December.

Lewis said the BeltLine Master Plan will go to the Neighborhood Planning Units for consideration in January, then to the City Council and mayor’s office for approval. He said there will be a two-stage adoption process: First the plan will be adopted without the implementation process or projects costs, then it will go back a year later for approval of the implementation plan and costs.

The more than 70 residents in attendance Oct. 6 were told the EIS will settle where transit and trails will go as part of the BeltLine. Lewis said that without $10 million more in funding, the study group cannot pare down the options.

Peachtree Hills representative Frank Summers complained that the study group “has spent a year going through this, and a year later we still have the same items in the plan.” He said the EIS does not include opportunities for public input.

The group was told that construction of the Tanyard Creek Park and Atlanta Memorial Park trail is to begin in October, but no agreement apparently has been reached with CSX to run the PATH trail under the CSX rail trestle in Tanyard Creek Park to make the connection to the Ardmore Park trail. CSX apparently has approved a preliminary design proposal, however.

The majority of the meeting was spent talking about planning for future redevelopment along both sides of Peachtree Road in the area around and north of Piedmont Hospital, including new street networks that the planners said would be put in place with new development to provide access options. They presented a 20-to-30-year vision for developing both sides of Peachtree Road along the Peachtree Creek flood plain.

All of the plans were outlined as the credit crisis roiling the financial markets could deal a multimillion-dollar blow to the BeltLine project.

BeltLine officials are ready to sell $120 million in bonds to kick-start the effort to build the 22-mile loop of transit, trails and parks. But the financial crisis has weakened the bold market, making it more expensive to borrow the money. The increase in bond rates could raise the cost of financing the deal by millions of dollars.

While BeltLine leaders would like to sit on the sidelines and wait for the market to improve, BeltLine Inc. faces an Oct. 31 deadline for paying $45 million to Gwinnett County investors Wayne and Keith Mason to finish the sale of the key rail right of way in northeast Atlanta, including through Piedmont Park.

That BeltLine bond issue is the first of many planned over 25 years that are expected to raise $1 billion. The bond issues would be backed by property tax increases anticipated from development along the route.