Converting a 22-mile railroad loop into the Atlanta BeltLine, an urban amenity of transit, parks, trails and art that will link 45 Atlanta neighborhoods, is a herculean task. Fred Yalouris, the BeltLine’s director of design, knows “herculean” — and not just because he’s spent most of his life as an archaeologist.
The Maine-bred former college dean arrived here two years ago, on the heels of a decade spent working on the “Big Dig,” a Hydra-headed public works project that took downtown Boston’s highway underground. (He was responsible for the parks, streets and such that now lie on top of it.) Anyone who, upon completing that job, would look expressly for an equally complicated one clearly loves a challenge.
Yalouris – who heads a staff of five and 30 to 45 volunteer professionals, to whom he’s supremely grateful – says he can’t wait to get to work in the morning, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s a hands-on administrator.Actually, feet may be the operative extremities: Yalouris, 61, walks the BeltLine all the time.
Knowing the territory is critical to understanding the project. For instance, when Yalouris arrived, the master planning was under way, with 10 teams working on individual sections of the loop.
“At first I thought, why 10 plans? That’s a study in masochism,” he recalls. “But there are 46 nodes with vastly differing conditions (topographical, social, etc.). The only way to progress a plan is to break it up into manageable parts.”
In February, the BeltLine turned a corner in its development. Its selection of the Atlanta office of Perkins + Will and New York firm James Corner Field Operations as leaders of its design team signaled the shift from planning the environment of the corridor to designing the corridor itself.
Although the work has barely started, you can expect that coherence will be a core value, one that is both aesthetic and functional. Because the BeltLine is a phased, 25-year project, devising a map for future development is a critical hedge against hodgepodge and builds in efficiency in maintenance. The team will develop a manual of sorts, detailing everything from streetscape standards to entrance path dimensions and soil specifications.
“The BeltLine is going to be built out in a multitude of contracts,” Yalouris says. “We need standards on which to build, so that if we do it now or in 15 years, it’s the same plan.”
But he promises there will be room for individuality. Although the structure of the train stations will all be the same (“simple, elegant, I hope, and recognizable as transit stations,” he says), each stop will be a focal point for art, and some elements will be customized to reflect the neighborhood. Artists will participate on the design team and have a hand in creating designs for functional elements.
The BeltLine project encompasses the construction or expansion of nine parks contiguous to or near the corridor. Again, Yalouris’ footwork has given him a fine-grained view of the possibilities. “Atlanta’s topography is amazing,” he says. “We’ve leveled and covered it, but there is still a lot there we can bring back.
“The stream system is one of Atlanta’s greatest assets, but it’s one of the most abused. Proctor Creek, for example, is covered in trash and the banks are concrete, but when you step back and see it, it’s a diamond in the rough. We don’t have the wherewithal to daylight all the streams — it’s very expensive — but we will do what we can.”
Yalouris describes himself as “an Olmsted kind of guy.” (Think Druid Hills and Piedmont Park.) He dislikes what he calls “overdesigned” parks but is all for contemporary amenities or improvements. The Fourth Ward Park will include Atlanta’s first skateboard park, and the renovation of Stanton Park in Peoplestown will make it Atlanta’s first zero-energy park.
Says Yalouris, who has spotted possibilities for pocket parks on his many walks: “I like to see the BeltLine as a linear park through which the train will delicately pass.”
Some will take issue with the “delicately” part. Residents of neighborhoods in northeast Atlanta rejected the BeltLine’s proposal for their section; they were particularly incensed by the density of proposed construction at the corner of Monroe Drive and 10th Street. Some disillusioned residents call the BeltLine a real estate project in disguise.
Yalouris maintains that it’s a matter of finding a balance among competing needs, agendas and requirements. “The bigger challenge is to get people to embrace the whole project,” he says. “The BeltLine’s biggest asset is its totality. We need to get people thinking about the collective good.”
One final note. J. William Thompson, former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine and an Atlanta ex-pat, says that touring the BeltLine completely changed his attitude about Atlanta’s future. As an antidote to sprawl and an ingenious way to revitalize the city, it is, he says, “a fabulous opportunity. I hope that Atlanta has the political will and money to complete it.”
Like Thompson, I feel that the BeltLine could be a game-changer for Atlanta. Look for more about the project in future posts.