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Buckhead's PATH400 Leader Talks Funding, Future

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Denise Starling, Livable Buckhead executive director, shares tales from Atlanta's other ambitious trail project

As the executive director of Livable Buckhead, Denise Starling has a lot on her plate. Which is how she wants it.

Founded in 2011, the nonprofit is involved with commercial recycling, clean commute options, and other programs at the intersection of business and the environment. But what the organization is best known for is PATH400 — a 5.2-mile paved trail (eventually) paralleling the Georgia 400 right-of-way through Buckhead, from the start of the highway to Sandy Springs.

The ambitious path project has made dramatic progress in a relatively short amount of time. Livable Buckhead is well on its way to complete funding, now just $9 million away from the total cost of $27 million. With three segments already delivered, and two more in some level of development now, things are full-steam ahead.

Fittingly, Starling's background includes working on an array of transportation and environmental issues in Buckhead. In 1999, she took the role as executive director of the Buckhead Area Transportation Management Association (BATMA). When Atlanta City Council Representative Howard Shook launched a community-wide effort to create a greenspace plan for Buckhead, Livable Buckhead was launched to lead implementation. BATMA’s commute-focused programs folded into the new organization, and Starling made the transition to help build Livable Buckhead into a nonprofit with a laudable core mission: to ensure the community’s longterm vitality.

In this week's segment of Field Note Fridays, we get the scoop from Starling on how things are going with PATH400. And what Atlanta can expect to see from Livable Buckhead in the future.

CURBED ATLANTA: PATH400 opened to great fanfare last year and has been blazing ahead ever since. While no segments opened in 2015, many have already or are expected to come online this year. What's been the secret to the quick implementation?

DENISE STARLING: Local seed funding and partnerships! Thanks to the support of the Buckhead CID, we were able to make significant progress on the project design before approaching foundations for funding. Given our status as a young nonprofit, that was critical because it allowed us to solidify the vision for PATH400 before we had to go out and sell it.

That partnership is just one of many — 24 at last count — that have played a role in moving this project along so quickly. The most notable partner, of course, is PATH Foundation. Their extensive construction expertise paired with our knowledge of the community has really been the "secret sauce." Add an excellent design team, an outstanding contractor, plus the support of governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

CURBED: How has the response from the community been, and how much usage is the trail seeing?

STARLING: People who have gotten out on PATH400 really love it. We constantly hear good things about how beautiful it is and how much everyone enjoys the feeling of walking in the middle of the woods while they’re still within view of the Buckhead skyline. As the weather has improved, we’ve seen more and more people getting out on PATH400 — walking their dogs, pushing strollers, exercising with friends during their lunch hour — and that will continue to ramp up as spring really takes hold.

Not everyone loves PATH400 (although I think it’s just a matter of time before they do!) When we first began work on the project some people were concerned, and there are still some who live near segments that haven’t been designed yet who are apprehensive about the project. That’s understandable. But I’m confident that as we proceed with the design process and we work with those neighborhoods to address their concerns that they will become more comfortable with PATH400. We saw a similar change of perspective among people who live along the portion that has already been built. Initially there were some concerns, but we have listened to their needs and communicated openly with them, and that has made a big difference.

CURBED: PATH400 secured a major victory when the DOT announced it would provide a dedicated right-of-way through the new Ga. Highway 400/I-285 interchange. How did that come about and are there any indications of how it will be accomplished and when it will be completed?

STARLING: It sure was a major victory! But the seeds for it were planted in the great relationship that we established with GDOT as we got PATH400 off the ground. Two members of the GDOT staff who were involved in the early stages of the project ended up in critical positions — one at Sandy Springs and the other as the project manager for the interchange project. They had already bought into the vision of PATH400 as a critical link in a regional trail network, so it took very little convincing to keep them from throwing up a giant roadblock at the Ga. Highway 400/I-285 interchange. It was pretty funny when we went with PATH Foundation to "the big meeting to convince them" and they walked into the room and said, "OK, the chief engineer has told us to incorporate it, so let’s talk about how to do that!" Honestly, I was almost disappointed it was that easy.

CURBED: Recently an agreement was struck with Sandy Springs about continuing the path northward from Buckhead. Can you explain a little more about that?

STARLING: The original 5.2 miles of the PATH400 project went as far north as Loridans Drive, just below the former toll plaza. At the time that was a logical place to stop because the Lowrey Stevens cemetery and former McClatchey School lands presented the opportunity for a park, which would have been a destination point for people using the trail. We always saw the opportunity for PATH400 to provide much-needed regional connectivity, but we had our hands full getting the first part underway and wanted to stay focused on making that a success.

Three years later, the time is right for us to take advantage of the opportunity to connect Atlanta’s northern suburbs to the growing regional trail network via PATH400. The agreement with Sandy Springs takes the project from Loridans up to the Ga. Highway 400/I-285 interchange, where PATH400 is already incorporated into plans for improvement. This connection crossed both City of Atlanta and City of Sandy Springs territory so it will be a joint effort between the two cities, Livable Buckhead, and PATH Foundation.

CURBED: What was the impetus for the creation of PATH400? Was the Beltline a motivation for the idea?

STARLING: The impetus was the need to connect small greenspaces throughout the community. As we were developing a parks master plan for Atlanta City Council District 7 it became clear we needed to add 106 acres of greenspace just to get the community to an "acceptable" level of greenspace acreage per capita. Given the fact that this is Buckhead, it wasn’t feasible for us to assemble enough contiguous acreage for a large park. Even if the land were available, it would be prohibitively expensive.

So we settled on a network of smaller parks throughout Buckhead — what we now call the Buckhead Collection. But you can’t have a network without a connection, so we went in search of a way to link the greenspaces and found all of this underutilized, publicly owned land running right through the heart of Buckhead. And PATH400 was born! Of course the Beltline is part of the idea — connectivity to it is a critical selling point for PATH400.

CURBED: How has been securing land along the highway right-of-way been?

STARLING: Most of the land we need was already owned by GDOT. After a lot of work and many meetings, we were able to get an agreement with GDOT to allow the City of Atlanta to use the land. There are some areas where PATH400 crosses onto private property, and each of those discussions has been different. But the great news is that to date, all of the property for the project has been donated. We have only had to pay Atlanta Public Schools and MARTA, because they are required to get fair market value for their properties.

CURBED: Some neighbors were unhappy to have the public path pass so closely to their residences, and the path was not illuminated at night to discourage usage. The Beltline has now begun to raise funds to add lights. Is that something we may see on PATH400 in the future, or is neighbor opposition too great?

STARLING: We discussed lighting at length during the design process, and the neighborhoods were very clear about not wanting lighting because it gave the message that the trail is open at night. I don’t expect that decision to change, given our proximity to single-family homes. This is a significant difference between us and the Beltline.

CURBED: What’s the latest news on PATH400? And when should Atlantans expect to see PATH400 complete from the Beltline to Sandy Springs?

STARLING: The project’s construction timeline is entirely dependent on fundraising. We need to raise $9 million to complete the $27 million original concept. If we were to receive a $9 million check in the mail tomorrow, we could finish construction in two years. That’s not in the cards, however, so our goal is to keep bringing in funding to allow us to have at least one portion of the project under construction at all times.

If we do that we should be able to complete it by 2020, but that end-date is very fluid. The great news is that people don’t have to wait until it’s finished to enjoy it. We’ve got more than half a mile complete now and will have a full, contiguous mile complete before the year is out. The extension to Sandy Springs will be federally funded, which slows things down a bit because of the additional steps required.

CURBED: PATH400 is just one of Livable Buckhead’s initiatives. What else can we expect to see from the organization?

STARLING: An easy way to describe it is that you’ll see Livable Buckhead at work indoors, outdoors, and nearly everywhere in between.

Indoors we are building our Buckhead Recycles program where we work with commercial office buildings to divert recoverable materials from landfills. We’re also working with 40 Buckhead buildings that are participating in the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge and reducing their energy consumption.

Outdoors, you’ll see us adding more greenspace to Buckhead. We’ve still got about 70 acres of parks that we need to put in place, and we’re working on a handful of those right now. And everywhere in between, we’re working with employers to encourage their employees to use commute alternatives like teleworking, carpooling and transit. We reduce 18 million miles of travel each year, which saves commuters money and helps reduce traffic in Buckhead.

And I can’t forget our food truck program – great food is priority No. 1 for a livable community, right?! We bring some of Atlanta’s best food trucks to Buckhead every Tuesday during warm weather, and we’ll restart that in April.