By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

Bond market updates, community engagement and the master planning process were among the ongoing discussions at Atlanta BeltLine Inc.’s last 2008 quarterly briefing Oct. 16, along with updates on planned projects and partnerships.

The meeting, held at the Atlanta Public Schools auditorium on Trinity Avenue, convened with BeltLine President and CEO Terri Montague announcing, “The good news is, despite not having bond funds for two years, we have been able to get roughly $270 million in projects under way. We feel very, very pleased and excited about that.”

She mentioned the Oct. 15 groundbreaking of Historic Fourth Ward Park on North Avenue and the first-phase opening of the West End Trail on Oct. 18.

Despite current economic troubles and budget cuts, she defended the project, saying the BeltLine can counteract the downspin by stabilizing neighborhoods, addressing traffic issues and encouraging smart development.

Montague then discussed the progression of the transit planning.

“We are aggressively pursuing transit right of way,” she said, noting the first segment purchased in the northeast corridor at the end of last year.

But she said there is an immediate challenge. To close on that acquisition of roughly 66 acres, accounting for 4.5 of the 20 miles of BeltLine corridor, “we ended up taking a short-term loan. That loan matures, meaning it must be paid in full, on Oct. 31 of this year. So we have some pressure right now, at a kind of difficult time, to raise $45 million.”

She said bond proceeds, at the approval of the City Council and the community, will be used to retire the debt. “Our challenge now is: Can we get into the marketplace?” she said. “We are moving forward under the assumption that the city will own that property free and clear.”

Montague also cited the re-engagement of the Georgia Department of Transportation in securing right of way in the southwest corridor. Although discussions are still early, “we are optimistic that we will be able to come to some sort of an arrangement where the city gains control of that corridor as well.”

In terms of green space, Montague said the BeltLine has more than 220 acres under city control. The Trust for Public Land has additional land the city hopes to acquire soon.

She also discussed the first round of the environmental impact study, an 18-month process conducted in conjunction with MARTA that began this summer. The study will identify the alignment of the transit system and potential rail stations and try to minimize harm to natural and human environments.

“We know that the BeltLine transit will be a rail-based technology,” Montague said. “But within the rail-based family, there are a number of different options.”

She said the study will help determine the best technology in terms of noise, speed and cost. The first public meetings were held in August, drawing about 800 comments.

That part of the project is moving quickly because of a major federal transportation bill.

Valerie Wilson, the executive director of the BeltLine Partnership, said: “The foundation and corporate community are still very enthused about this project and still willing to invest their dollars in this project. That is a good thing for us. We are right now at $29.4 million towards our $60 million goal. We are about to really kick off the campaign again.”

The finance director, Richard Lutch, gave a bond market update. He said bonds are requiring a higher yield, which results in less money for the project. Another issue is a greater supply of bonds than demand for them.

Lutch said the short-term market is slowly coming back, and the BeltLine was hoping to issue bonds by the end of October.

When the first round of tax allocation district (TAD) bonds goes to market, up to $120 million will be generated for projects and planning.

Montague segued into a discussion about the BeltLine Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which the City Council recently approved. Fifteen percent of every bond issue for the BeltLine goes into that trust fund, which provides money for down payment assistance and development. The first dollars will become available in early 2009.

Community engagement advocate Rukiya Eaddy discussed improvements to the BeltLine public involvement process, including expanded outreach efforts. “We have made quite a few changes,” she said. “Early lessons from our midcourse evaluation, along with community feedback, caused us to realize challenges and opportunities to better progress our community engagement efforts.”

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