ATLANTA — Kudzu smothers the old steel tracks. Broken bottles, chairs and grills litter the gray wooden crossties, and rusty chain-link fencing flanks each side. But the derelict railroad that circles the city may have a bright future -- one bustling with joggers, cyclists and commuters.
Atlanta's civic leaders envision the bleak alleyway as a lush "emerald necklace" of trails, parks and public transit, a jewel that could transform a poster child of sprawl into the archetypal city of the 21st century.
The massive redevelopment plan -- known as the Beltline -- would convert the 22-mile loop into a paved trail and streetcar line linking 45 historic neighborhoods and creating more than 1,200 acres of parkland. The proposal has captured the imagination of many in the city and has sparked a rash of real estate deals.
But formidable political and financial hurdles will need to be cleared for the project to move forward.
Among them is a vote by the Atlanta City Council on Nov. 7 on whether to establish a tax district designed to raise nearly $1.7 billion to fund the Beltline. If approved, property taxes collected on new developments in the district would be earmarked to pay for the parks, transit and trails. Total cost of the project is estimated from $2 billion to $3 billion.
The Beltline has a good chance of becoming reality -- eight of Atlanta's 15 council members are sponsoring the legislation.
"The Beltline would make Atlanta a new kind of city," said Alexander Garvin, professor of planning and management at Yale University and president of Alex Garvin & Associates, a New York design team. "The transformation would be staggering."
Garvin, who analyzed the Beltline's green space potential last year, has been impressed with the vision of Atlanta's officials. "No other city has this momentum," he said.
Atlanta's opportunity is unusual. After the Civil War, the city built a railroad around its industrial outskirts, enabling freight trains to transport the South's cotton to the world.
Atlanta is now framed by highways, which lead to suburb after suburb. Of the 4.7 million people who live in metropolitan Atlanta, fewer than 500,000 live in the city.
With Atlanta's metropolitan population predicted to increase by 2.3 million by 2030, the city's mayor, Shirley Franklin, has identified the Beltline as a way to steer economic development toward the urban core.
An unlikely coalition of city officials, private investors, community leaders and environmental groups have rallied behind the Beltline, an idea first proposed by an architecture student at Georgia Tech.
Ryan Gravel, who developed the concept for his master's thesis in 1999, works for the Beltline Partnership -- a steering committee set up by the mayor -- honing the physical design of the loop and helping to build public support.
Gravel says that every time he tours the Beltline he notices shifts in the urban landscape: a new row of town homes near Enota Park, a sleek restaurant in Old Fourth Ward. "The growth is already coming," he said. In the last year, he's seen new single-family homes sprout up in derelict commercial lots, selling for as much as $300,000.
But the Beltline faces many unresolved questions.
In September, a panel of transportation experts issued a report saying that large portions of the loop -- particularly the low-density, low-income neighborhoods in the west -- do not have sufficient ridership to support trains or trolleys.
Nevertheless, conservation groups are racing to secure land ahead of developers.
"This is one of our top national priorities," said James Langford, Georgia's director of the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation group that recently paid $4.4 million to secure 4 1/2 acres around the Beltline. "We have to jump in and purchase this land before it's too late."
Langford said the Beltline created an opportunity for a new public realm. "Suddenly, we would have a connected green system that we could add to for the next 100 years," he said.
The race between environmentalists and developers highlights the different -- often competing -- visions of the Beltline. Some enthuse about the green trails and public transport, while others focus on adjacent development. Many residents realize that their concept of the Beltline differs from their neighbors' idea.
"This is the most important planning event Atlanta has ever had," said Liz Coyle, a resident of the Virginia-Highland neighborhood who set up the Beltline Neighbors Coalition, which hopes to curtail mega-development. "If we do not get it right, it will be chaos."
Last year, a suburban real estate developer, Wayne Mason, bought 70 acres of the northeast portion of the Beltline corridor. He pledged to donate half the land to the city but residents are concerned about what will happen with the remaining 35 acres.