Following several years of hype, apprehension, and ultimately construction, the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail segment opened to the public in September 2017. Beginning at Hunter Hills, ending in Pittsburgh, and cutting through several neighborhoods along the way, including Westview, West End, Oakland City, and Adair Park, the paved walkway has significantly changed the areas surrounding it, yet it’s notably less populated than the Eastside Trail, despite expectations of an influx of residents and commercial investment.
This begs a simple question: Why? And another that’s more complex: After two years, is the Westside Trail—a project described as the most significant infrastructural investment in the area since MARTA—living up to expectations?
To help answer those questions, three locals with unique perspectives on the Westside Trail’s genesis and its impact were interviewed for this story. Their takes are mixes of optimism and concern.
There are a few obvious reasons for the trail’s relatively sparse patronage, as compared to its Eastside counterpart.
Spanning about three miles, the Westside Trail is in a much more residential area, and the demographic is very different than the Eastside Trail, which has younger, whiter, and more affluent people in the immediate vicinity. As observers note, this has convinced more businesses, retail shopping, and restaurant options to take chances between Piedmont and Inman parks, both before and after the pavement was dry.
There’s also the fact that the Eastside Trail has been up and running longer. Dedicated by former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in October 2012, it was the first plot of Atlanta’s old railway corridor to be converted into a walkable path, and now has the benefit of being closer to significant developments like Krog Street Market, Ponce City Market, Inman Quarter, SPX Alley, and other places that tend to draw consistent crowds.
Even among people who weren’t expecting the Westside Trail to immediately change the fortunes of long-overlooked and underserved Southwest Atlanta communities, there are signs that things aren’t exactly where they were expected to be at this point.
That’s especially clear when you look at anecdotal examples of housing prices in the area. With one West End home near the Beltline priced at $650,000 back in July (it’s no longer on the market), and today a 1,500-square-foot Oakland City house asking almost $350,000—something unthinkable not long ago—the assumption that the Beltline would add massive value to everything in its vicinity could seem to be true.
That’s been the case for some folks—as housing-price outliers suggest—but not all.
Being the first of the alcohol-serving “Malt Disney” lessees to open in Lee + White, the folks behind Monday Night Brewing got an early understanding of the Beltline’s potential with the opening of their Garage location in September 2017. Monday Night cofounder Jonathan Baker isn’t complaining, but he’s honest about what he’s seen so far. “One thing that’s been surprising is the lack of adoption of the Beltline itself,” Baker tells Curbed Atlanta. “We see the traffic, but it’s people driving [vehicles]. I’ve never seen a sustainable amount of traffic on the Westside Trail.”
Baker says the Westside Trail has met his personal expectations, although he acknowledges that his may be different from others.
“I wasn’t expecting it to turn into the Eastside Trail overnight,” he says. “You just don’t have that urban density.” But as a business owner, he says, things have been going well, with beer sales comfortably beating their projections. “In that sense, it’s been better than expected. And a large part of that is because the neighborhoods are so loyal to local businesses. We didn’t know that going in.”
Baker says he and Monday Night’s two other cofounders were intentional about establishing relationships with the community around the Garage, going to neighborhood meetings, introducing themselves, and learning about the area. “These are tight-knit communities,” he says. “They know each other. There’s a low margin of error.”
Angel Poventud, a well-known cyclist and community activist who lives in Adair Park and works as a train engineer, agrees. The Westside Trail is a few feet from Poventud’s backyard, and he’s closely watched the path’s implementation and the community’s response to it.
“With very few exceptions, there’s this idea that this wasn’t built for me,” says Poventud. “If you think about my [area], eight years ago we had 46 black-owned West End properties. Now we’re down to like 12. To a large degree, [the Beltline is] something that was seen as an improvement or benefit, and a lot of people might resent it. Why am I gonna use this thing that’s affected me so negatively?”
From a functionality standpoint, Poventud has a few other qualms with the Westside Trail, mostly regarding connectivity and communication.
“We didn’t figure out how to combine the southern parts of the Westside Trail, and that’s gonna haunt us,” he says. “There are people who know Monday Night Garage exists, and Kroger City Center exists, but they don’t know those things are connected. And that’s probably the biggest missed opportunity. Until you fix that, the trail won’t take off, no matter what you do.”
That’s a position shared by West End native Bem Joiner, who coined the “Atlanta Influences Everything” phrase you’ve probably seen on T-shirts around town.
Joiner cites the ability to get from Westview to Metropolitan Avenue as an example of the Westside Trail’s effectiveness. “Three years ago, this was a harder walk,” he says. “People made that walk before, but I don’t think they’ve experienced that walk with the Beltline and felt the difference.”
Sometimes called the “unofficial” mayor of Atlanta due to his influence on culture and civic engagement among the city’s hip-hop creatives, Joiner no longer lives in West End but pays weekly visits to his sister who does. And he says longtime residents, who may be skeptical due to lack of Beltline outreach, don’t know what they’re missing.
“On the Westside [Trail], you can bike, walk, and do things where you don’t have to worry about overlapping into someone’s personal space,” Joiner says. “But one of the reasons is that it’s not utilized consistently, and it seems to be utilized more by the Westside gentrifier than the Westside ‘resident.’”
Lee + White is currently the trail’s biggest attraction. As anyone who’s visited can plainly see.
The property has filled with several options for visitors to enjoy food and drink, but especially drink, with no less than five beverage-centered hangouts operating within a few feet of each other (the entire Lee + White property is 426,000 square feet.) It also provides plenty of (currently free) parking to anyone who wants to check out the trail before or after patronizing its tenants, serving as a key access point.
“Usage is growing,” Poventud says. “I’m on it every day. I see my Adair Park neighbors. Some days I see more people on the Southside Trail—which is dirt and rugged—than the paved part, which is ready to go. Which is crazy to me.”
Joiner says there’s at least one “old Atlanta” explanation for the slow adoption. He thinks natives are more familiar with lesser-known paths and “cut-a-ways,” which only locals would know and use, because they existed long before anybody cared enough about residential foot traffic to make it more inviting. “If you’ve been there over 30 years, however you walk around that area is how you walk it,” he says. “You’ve already created some sort of pathway.”
One group that’s showing interest in using the Westside Trail, lending Joiner optimism about its potential, is Atlanta’s intown youth.
“They’re riding their bikes, playing, chasing, enjoying themselves, using it the way it was intended to be used,” he says. “And they end up in an area where people don’t look like them, and it gets awkward. And you have to know in ‘old Atlanta,’ these two sides would have never mixed.
“The Beltline is a new access point that’s creating new instances of interaction that I don’t know if we’re ready for,” Joiner says. “Yes, we are a city of neighborhoods, and you can have pride, but we’re cut off from one another, via our neighborhood. So it’s rare that someone from West End would interact with someone from Midtown, unless it was intentional. You don’t make a mistake and interact; Atlanta’s not set up that way.”
Looking ahead, Poventud likes to remind others that the Eastside Trail was not an overnight success, as he sees it.
“As someone who’s been in Atlanta 14 years, I know things take time,” Poventud says. “Eastside opened in 2012. Back then, we only had two [trail-connected] spots to get food: Parish and Paris on Ponce. That was it, nothing else. My M.O. is just lead people out there. It won’t happen without taking people by the hand into the corridor.”
He’s concerned about the lack of bike lanes on Metropolitan Avenue, along with “server farm” data centers opening all along the Westside Trail. But even with those worries, Poventud is excited about things to come, and thinks the Westside is well-suited for prosperity, without the overwhelming impact of the Eastside. “Lee + White has exceeded my expectations,” he says. “Pittsburgh Yards, a spot that had been abandoned for decades, is opening next month, but wouldn’t have been on the verge of opening without the Westside Trail.
“Have we come a long way? Yes,” says Poventud. “Are we finished? Hell no.”
Baker, who walks the Westside Trail occasionally, says he’s also positive about the future, and thinks that things generally are off to a good start. “I’m a patient man,” he says. “I still think we’ll get there.”
And Joiner, who calls the trail’s walkability underrated, doesn’t think enough people have experienced the ease that the Beltline can bring to Westside pedestrians. And though he sees potential for “some dysfunction and cultural misunderstanding” in the short term, he also believes the trail will create new places for interaction.
He adds, with a laugh: “Wait until we start figuring out how to barbecue on it.”