Turning Abandoned Rail Corridors Into Economic Drivers

Repurposing old rail corridors provides transportation, recreation and affordable housing opportunities.

Historically, railroads have divided communities, with poorer neighborhoods often clustered adjacent to railroad tracks. In fact, to live on ‘the other side of the tracks’ quite literally meant living in an undesirable part of town. But over the decades more and more former railroad corridors have been converted into trails used for transportation and recreation and now people are clamoring to live by those tracks.

People walking on the boardwalk at the High Line Aerial Park in New York City

Photo courtesy of NYC Go

Repurposing from rails to trails is transforming the country’s landscape and enhancing community livability from coast to coast. Currently, there are more than 24,000 miles of rail-trails nationwide with another 8,000 miles ready to be built. Nearly 2,400 individual trails knit the country together from Maine to California as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

The repurposing of abandoned railroad right of ways into recreational trails is really nothing new. The Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been advocating for and supporting rail-to-trail development since 1986. RTC’s website (https://www.railstotrails.org/) is filled with everything trail developers may need — webinars, academic studies, trail development and funding guides, membership opportunities and a toolbox covering a variety of topics.

RTC’s current focus is moving beyond individual trail development and to the creation of trail systems. “Our goal is to have it be commonplace that any community sees a trail network as a path to great sustainability, health and economic prosperity,” explains Liz Thorstensen, RTC’s vice president of Trail Development.

The Great American Rail-Trail

One of those massive trail systems is the Great American Rail-Trail that will eventually link 12 states and the District of Columbia in a coast-to-coast trail system. The nation’s first cross-country, multiuse trail will span more than 3,700 miles. It’s currently more than 53 percent complete with 150 existing trails connected to the network and 88 gaps still to be completed. Upon completion, more than 50 million people will live within 50 miles of a portion of the trail and millions more will make the network a destination. RTC studies estimate that the Great American Rail-Trail will generate nearly $230 million in visitor spending, $104 million in labor income and $22.8 million in new tax revenue. It’s estimated that over a 10-year period more than 25,000 jobs will be created in restaurants, hospitality, professional services, healthcare and manufacturing.

Overhead shot of a tram riding on a rail line in an urban area

Courtesy of RTC

Trails cross jurisdictional lines and their impact does as well. More than recreational, rail-trails are economic drivers. And in order to maximize economic benefit; community partnerships and collaborations are crucial.

“We are focusing on connecting more deeply with the economic and development side, the tourism side and health side. We’re also connecting with planning and housing sectors. Connecting with those practitioners brings their expertise to make systems happen. We’re also focusing on connecting with more diverse folks not traditionally involved in the past, but who are impacted,” says Thorstensen.

People riding their bicycles in a city trail

Courtesy of RTC, National Park Service Iowa

Collaborations help inform communities what people need and what is “bubbling up and emerging.”

“We’re seeing investment in trails and systems growing,” Thorstensen explains. “It’s more than something people want. People demand these amenities. People want this and communities are investing to make it happen.”

Council Bluffs, Iowa

The Great American Rail-Trail runs through the length of Iowa and Council Bluffs is one stop along the way. The city’s repurposing of an old rail line into a multiuse trail is an impetus to economic development.

The First Ave. Trail project isn’t really a description of its Council Bluffs’ location, but rather its goal. First Ave. is an acronym that stands for Furthering Interconnections, Revitalization, Streetscapes, Transportation and Aesthetics for a Vibrant Economy. The First Ave. trail connects downtown Council Bluffs with nearby Omaha, Neb.

First Ave. Trail Project in Council Bluffs, IA

Courtesy of City of Council Bluffs

When completed, the 3.2-mile trail will feature a variety of public green spaces, accessible seating and plazas reminiscent of railroad architecture. Late last year, the project received a Laurels Award for Access and Mobility from Omaha by Design. More than simply a trail, it is a linear park that is expected to spur development of a number of high-density and mixed-use projects.

“It connects neighborhoods, businesses, schools, parks, and will be safe and usable for pedestrians and cyclists of all ages and abilities,” Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh commented at the trail’s 2021 groundbreaking.

Addressing Potential Gentrification

Trails’ economic, lifestyle and sustainability benefits make it desirable to live close by them. But there are concerns that the pressure to develop housing in those trail-adjacent areas could be gentrifying neighborhoods and driving away long-time residents. RTC conducted a study to examine the question of neighborhood change and gentrification (rtc.li/gentrification-study). The study acknowledges that in communities where housing pressures are already acute, there is some indication of gentrification. But rail development doesn’t have to be a pre-curser to gentrification.

The RTC study’s summary reports that “The findings suggest that there is a not a universal correlation between trails, housing-cost pressures and indicators of gentrification, at least after three years of trail opening. However, intentional, and proactive approaches to promoting housing stability and addressing gentrification concerns are important to creating equitable and inclusive trail infrastructure in communities.”

Earlier this year, the Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative created a literature briefing of academic research concerning urban trails and the development of affordable housing. The briefing provides an overview of strategies to guide and inform communities and developers. Strategies to Preserve and Build Affordable Housing Near Green Amenities and Urban Trails (https://www.railstotrails.org/ build-trails/housing/) looked at planning, partnerships, policies and programs. And while each community faces different circumstances, assets and pressures; the report provides objective reviews of different approaches.

Ensuring robust community participation is crucial to success.

At the forefront is adequate and inclusive planning. “Ensuring robust community participation is crucial to success and efforts such as resident capacity building, developing high-capacity community organizations and engagement from local elected officials can help plans succeed,” the briefing specifies.

The briefing looked at a number of frequently used approaches and found varying levels of success. It noted that Inclusionary Zoning ordinances that mandate a specific number of affordable units in new housing developments, may be moderately successful but are probably insufficient to meet all community needs. Addressing zoning restrictions and allowing for greater density or ‘upzoning’ also met with mixed results. In some communities it led to lower rents, but in others it contributed to increased land prices and didn’t result in more affordable housing. Rent Control is another option with varying success. In general, it does increase the probability that renters will stay in their units, but it may increase rents elsewhere in the city.

Sometimes developers and community groups create Community Benefit Agreements as a means of encouraging affordable housing. Since these agreements are non-legally binding, they can lack the means to adequately enforce stipulations or track progress. The most effective agreements are those between developers and well-established Community Development Corporations.

People taking notes during a community meeting

Courtesy of RTC

On the other hand, programs that focus more on the individuals living in the communities show more promise. Community Land Trusts have been shown to slow a number of measures of gentrification and positively impact racial diversity, stable income levels and housing prices. Limited Equity Cooperatives promote shared homeownership and are “cost-effective strategies to preserve affordable housing and can help low-income residents build wealth.”

Overall, the most successful endeavors are those that rely on public-private collaborations and utilize a variety of funding sources.

Richmond, California

Richmond, CA, is a traditionally diverse community that sits in the San Francisco Bay area. A need for affordable housing for seniors brought together city leaders, the Community Housing Development Corp. and developer Eden Housing. Together they worked to develop the 79-unit Miraflores Senior Apartments. The project was a true public-private partnership. The city remediated the site, donated the land for $1 and provided a loan. A variety of funding and loan options were tapped. In fact, Miraflores was the first project to receive funding from the California Department of Housing and Community Development’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program. Part of that state funding included the development of a linear park with paths connecting Miraflores to the nearby Richmond Greenway — a three-mile rail-trail that provides green space, recreation options and public art in the dense and generally underserved community. Plans are underway to create homeownership options in the area.

Of course, each community is unique and often the larger the trail system project, the more complicated the challenges and solutions can be.

The Atlanta Beltline

The Atlanta Beltline is a 22-mile loop of the city that uses former railway corridors to link 45 communities. Begun in 2005, the Atlanta Beltline is frequently recognized as a model of urban renewal, economic development stimulus and trail system creation. The key elements of its initial development plan were improved greenspace, transit options and economic development. It soon became apparent that housing was an important aspect as well.

A tram riding along the Atlanta Beltline in downtown Atlanta, GA

Photo by Nancy Pierce

Georgia State University Urban Studies Professor Dan Immergluck has taken a closer look at the Atlanta Beltline and its impact on existing neighborhoods. His research shows that in recent years there have been significant demographic shifts in the city. Specifically, Atlanta is becoming less diverse and wealthier. He cites gentrification as a possible contributor and notes that home prices near the Beltline have risen faster than in other areas of the city.

He concludes “Although the Beltline was designed to connect Atlantans and improve their quality of life, it has driven up housing costs on nearby land and pushed low-income households out to suburbs with fewer services than downtown neighborhoods.”

Kids walking on a trail that is part of the Atlanta Beltline in downtown Atlanta, GA

Photo by John Becker

Atlanta Beltline Inc. (ABI) takes the conundrum of urban renewal, trail-system development and affordable housing seriously and has set a goal of creating 5,600 units of affordable housing by 2030. To date, ABI is at 56 percent of its goal. To help map out a course to meet that goal, ABI brought together various stakeholders and experts in the ABI Affordable Housing Working Group. The Group developed a list of recommendations and tactics to reach 5,600 units in the Beltline Tax Allocation District and even more in the broader Atlanta Beltline Planning Area. The recommendations are a combination of public-private partnerships, incentives, zoning and ordinance revisions, land purchases and support programs for existing long- term residents.

Dennis Richards serves as ABI’s vice president of Housing Policy and Development. He’s tasked with helping ABI meet its ambitious affordable-housing goal while staying true to its vision for green space and economic and transit opportunities. Richards says it all comes down to equitable development.

The Beltline is enhancing mobility and connecting 45 communities.

“At its core, the Beltline is enhancing mobility and connecting 45 communities and some of those communities have been historically disinvested in. The average family is saddled by not just the cost of housing, but the cost of transportation. What the Beltline is doing is giving individual access and closer proximity to jobs that can be created on the Beltline. It’s giving them access to multi- modal transportation, thereby reducing the cost they could potentially be spending on a vehicle and thereby raising their standard of living.”

ABI is intentionally and aggressively using a variety of tools to create affordable housing along and adjacent to the Beltline. ABI works closely with Invest Atlanta to provide gap financing, as well as advocacy and policy work. The city has had an Inclusionary Zoning ordinance since 2018. And perhaps the sheer size of the Beltline project might be a benefit. The multi-phase nature of the project allows opportunities to grow capital for potential housing and utilize a variety of best practices.

“We do have opportunities — especially on the Southside and Westside — to acquire properties in markets where trail infrastructure is still in planning and in markets that are still emerging. We can acquire the land for a fair price before the trail infrastructure is completed. Once that trail infrastructure is in place, the Beltline is where people want to be. It is becoming beachfront in our city,” Richards explains. He adds that ABI has acquired over 60 acres and invested more than $38 million in land acquisition.

But Richards notes that ABI can’t do it alone. “We’re not real estate developers, but we can work with developers to ensure that certain multifamily development properties have certain set asides for affordable workforce housing.”

Richards has some advice for communities that are considering developing trail systems, no matter the size. He recommends to begin by defining the primary market area and embarking on an “extensive listening tour” to ensure community engagement and capture feedback.

“Once you get that feedback, then create sub master plans that account for a community’s desires. Use those plans to work with local planning and zoning offices to ensure appropriate land use and zoning requirements are established in those areas. And finally, if the capital is available, be bold and acquire large blighted and brownfield properties adjacent to your greenspace development. That will ensure that equitable development occurs in those impacted communities,” Richards advises.

Repurposing old railroad right of ways into vibrant trail systems requires planning, community engagement, collaborative partnerships and innovative best practices combined with a focus on equity and inclusion. The results are rail to trail systems that offer a variety of affordable housing options, promote economic and transportation opportunities and enhance the quality of life for all residents.


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