Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Bet that Financed Atlanta's BeltLine Pedestrian-Bicycle Transit Loop

View of construction from the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail (Marc Merlin)
Although Atlanta's BeltLine, a pedestrian-bicycle-transit loop circling Georgia's largest city, was a vision described by Ryan Gravel in his master's thesis while a student in architecture at Georgia Tech in 1999, what made it a reality a dozen years later was some visionary creative financing.

Where to find the money? There was no way on Earth that the City of Atlanta would be able to come up with the billions - yes, billions - of dollars that it would take to make the BeltLine happen. And there was no way in Hell that the State of Georgia - which had never deigned to give Atlanta's struggling transit system MARTA a dime - was going to pitch in to help out.

The solution, called a Tax Allocation District or TAD, involved placing a bet on the BeltLine's success.

The property around the proposed BeltLine route was not being put to much use - which is part of what made Gravel's idea feasible in the first place - and, as a consequence, was not generating much tax revenue. Yet, school systems, among others, had claim to the meager taxes that were being collected.

If the BeltLine turned out to be successful, the property values in its vicinity would increase significantly. No one had claim to the corresponding increase in property tax revenue, at least not yet. The TAD was a way for the BeltLine to stake that claim.

Since the way school systems are funded was implicated in this kind of financing scheme, there were legal hurdles that had to be jumped. It was decided that TADs required an amendment to Georgia's constitution, which in turn required the approval of its citizens in a statewide referendum. TAD supporters were mobilized and the amendment passed, although not by very much.

All it takes is a walk along the Eastside BeltLine Trail today to witness the amount of renovation and new construction completed or in progress to see how handsomely the TAD wager has paid off. The TAD wager also stands as a reminder that all sorts of creativity have to be brought to bear to make visions for large-scale public projects like the BeltLine a reality.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The TV Tower that Saved Atlanta's Freedom Park

This bit of Atlanta history is a departure from my usual blog posts about movies, politics or science.

Building at the base of the WSB-TV Tower (Marc Merlin)
Ever wonder what's at the base of the broadcast tower that looms over Freedom Parkway near the Carter Center? Well wonder no more.

Many Atlanta residents who arrived here in the last twenty years or so may not be aware of the critical role that the WSB-TV Tower played in keeping a stretch of interstate highway from taking over the land that The Path and Freedom Park occupy today.

Original plans had called for the complex that includes the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum and the Carter Center (completed in 1986) to connect with the rest of Atlanta by an interstate spur, in part elevated, which was to run to the downtown connector in one direction and to Ponce de Leon Avenue near its intersection with Clifton Road in the other.

Opposition to the project was fierce - the powers that be wanted to put a freeway through a white neighborhood for a change - but supporters of the Ex-Pres-way, as it came to be called, included both President Carter and his one-time UN-ambassador, Andrew Young, who had served a term as mayor of Atlanta after leaving the Carter administration and was a force in local politics to be reckoned with. After several years of protests and legal challenges, the tide seemed to be turning in favor of the interstate proponents.

WSB-TV Tower with guy wires (Marc Merlin)
Then it occurred to some clever adversary that the guy wires from the WSB-TV broadcast tower would cross over the proposed roadway and that any ice falling from them as a result of winter storms would pose a hazard to the traffic passing below. Addressing this problem frustrated progress on the interstate plan, adding another considerable delay.

By the early 1990s most of the legal obstacles to the original project had been cleared, but its backers realized that time was running short if the city was to be fully prepared to handle the crowds expected for the 1996 Olympic Games. So, believing that any sort of road was better than none, they relented and agreed to an alternate plan, the shorter, street-grade parkway that, along with The Path and Freedom Park, we use and enjoy today.

The seemingly pointless tunnel that bestrides the parkway just south of the Carter Center stands as a reminder of this, the best-known of Atlanta's "freeway revolts," and as an ever-present defender against winter ice falling from the guy wires of the WSB-TV Tower above.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

European Space Agency Goes Green on the Red Planet

ExoRover 'Bryan' shows off his eco-friendly chassis at the unveiling of the new ESA Mars Yard in Stevenage (ESA).
01 April 2014 - Stevenage, UK - The opening of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Mars Yard” today was celebrated as an important step by ExoMars, a joint endeavour between the agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, in their effort to send a rover to the Red Planet in 2018. The European Mars rover, also unveiled, is designed to drill beneath the surface of the Red Planet searching for signs of life. It's been dubbed 'Bryan' by its creators - earlier versions were named Bridget and Bruno.

ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, Colin Paynter, on hand at the Stevenage site of Airbus Defence and Space for the unveiling, also took the occasion to make the announcement that significant components of the European rover would make use of recycled materials. Referring to the dire warnings about climate change announced yesterday by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Mr. Paynter explained, “in light of the urgency for all of us to work diligently toward carbon-reduction goals, ESA has committed to create a rover whose chassis will be constructed largely from cardboard and plywood.” Acknowledging that this would add significantly to the engineering challenges posed by the already technologically daunting mission, Paynter assured the audience saying, “I think our people are up to the task.”