Upper Westside Improvement District completes master plan, weighs in on BeltLine and Buckhead cityhood

The Upper Westside Improvement District has a freshly minted master plan that could bring trail and green space connections to Buckhead’s Channing Valley and Wildwood neighborhoods. And it’s weighing in on big topics that affect all of Buckhead, including the Atlanta BeltLine and possible cityhood.

A map of the Upper Westside Improvement District, from its website.

The organization is a community improvement district: a group of commercial property owners who tax themselves to pay for projects related to beautification, transportation and public safety. The Buckhead Community Improvement District is a well-known CID that has operated for over 20 years in the central business area around Lenox Square.

Upper Westside is Buckhead’s “other,” lesser-known CID. Formed in 2016, it is roughly bounded by I-75, Northside Drive, West Marietta Street and Marietta Boulevard. The northeast corner of the CID’s territory crosses I-75 into Buckhead, centered on the “Collier Village” area around Howell Mill and Collier roads, where redevelopment has long been planned.

The CID has completed some projects in the Buckhead section, most prominently a beautification of the I-75 ramps at Howell Mill with plantings and signage, which finished in fall 2019. Pedestrian safety is the focus of other projects, including a 2019 widening of the sidewalk and narrowing of driveways at the Fellini’s Pizza at Howell Mill and Collier, and last year’s installation of a flashing pedestrian beacon at Howell Mill and Channing Drive.

The Upper Westside CID installed this pedestrian beacon on Howell Mill Road at Channing Drive in 2020. Credit: Upper Westside CID

Looking ahead, the CID has completed an “Upper Westside Masterplan” that lays out a wide variety of improvement ideas, created in part through community input, that it intends to carry out over years to come. Green space and pedestrian safety figure into some of the Buckhead projects proposed in the master plan. One item is a trail connection between Underwood Hills Park and the Tanyard Creek Trail. Another is creating publicly accessible green space in a Georgia Power easement between Howell Mill Road at I-75 and Tanyard Creek Park and the BeltLine’s Northside Trail. More pedestrian and bicycle improvements to Howell Mill are also on the list, among many other items.

Meanwhile, the CID is also advising on such other plans as Atlanta BeltLine Inc.’s Northwest Trail, whose highly anticipated route through the area remains on the drawing board.

Buckhead.com asked CID Executive Director Elizabeth Hollister for more details on those efforts and more.

Elizabeth Hollister, executive director of the Upper Westside CID.

What sort of input is the CID providing to Atlanta BeltLine Inc. about the Northwest Trail? Does the board have a preferred route through the area?

Upper Westside CID is passionate about seeing the northwestern quadrant of the BeltLine completed. We were thrilled when BeltLine brought PATH Foundation on board to complete the Northwest Trail Study, given PATH’s 30 years of trail-building experience and deep knowledge of the area, including the trail around Bobby Jones Golf Course, Tanyard Creek Trail and Whetstone Creek Trail. The northwest quadrant of the BeltLine loop planning and design has lagged because of the lack of abandoned railroad corridors to easily repurpose. Among its challenges are topography, utility operations of Georgia Power and [Atlanta] Department of Watershed [Management], busy roads to cross — not to mention a highway — and expensive land prices.

Upper Westside CID is working to get the word out about [Atlanta BeltLine Inc.’s] study, and we look forward to celebrating their selection of a trail alignment. We do not have a preferred alignment, but hope the one BeltLine selects can be delivered quickly. Our organization aims to create a network of trails through this CID, so wherever the BeltLine goes, we will build bike and pedestrian facilities which tie into it.

How does the little corner of Buckhead’s “Collier Village” fit into the big picture of the CID?

Collier Village is a critical node of commercial activity in the northern part of our CID. Our first investment there was to landscape the interstate ramps. We partnered with councilmembers to install police cameras; we partnered with the neighborhood and local businesses and installed a pedestrian flashing beacon to improve visibility of the existing crosswalk at Channing Drive; and we’ve been working with property owners to improve the sidewalk network.

Through the extensive public engagement process of our recent Upper Westside Improvement District Masterplan and in a Howell Mill study we conducted in 2019, we heard strong community desire to improve the neighborhood retail feel by making the area more walkable and bikeable. Currently, the zoning in that area requires each site that develops along Howell Mill Rd to build a 10-foot sidewalk, a landscape strip, and 5-foot raised bike lane. That is a great first step, but it is slow-going and only creates a patchwork of good sidewalks. We would like to speed up those walkability improvements. We are in the process of applying for a grant to pilot improved streetscapes on a larger section of Howell Mill Road just south of Collier Road.

A new sidewalk at the Fellini’s Pizza shop at Howell Mill and Collier roads was an Upper Westside CID project completed in 2019. Credit: Upper Westside CID

Do you have any conversations with the Buckhead CID about bigger-picture neighborhood issues?

We check in with each of the other CIDs periodically to learn how they are tackling the challenges in their districts and share best practices. I greatly respect [Executive Director] Jim Durrett and all the incredible work Buckhead CID is doing. That said, community improvement districts are geographically bounded. Since Buckhead CID does not share a boundary with Upper Westside CID, we haven’t had opportunities to collaborate on projects.

What is the status of the new master plan?

Upper Westside Improvement District Masterplan was adopted by City Council this fall. Our CID is focused on improving transportation, green space, and quality of life in our district. The document is a roadmap for our advocacy and capital project planning. We are also interested in any additional project ideas from the community. Send them to us via our website here.

A portion of the CID would be within the proposed Buckhead City. Does the CID have a position on cityhood? Would there be any practical changes to the way the CID functions if the proposal succeeded?

The CID does not support Buckhead becoming a separate city. Secession of Buckhead would throw the city into disarray and create instability in the region, which is not good for business. If the City’s bond ratings go down, then it will be even harder to fund transportation improvements. Buckhead’s residents have valid concerns that need to be addressed, and with new leadership at City Hall, there will be fresh ideas on how to solve them. Many of Buckhead’s concerns are shared by other Atlanta residents, and resolving their issues will benefit the whole city.  

If Buckhead were to split, it would definitely present a challenge to our CID, which spans across the proposed boundary. Currently our CID is set up under [the] City of Atlanta.

The term “Upper Westside” has received some local criticism as branding oriented towards developers and gentrification rather than something grassroots. Why did the CID choose that term and what is your take on that concern?

Our CID fully encompasses six neighborhoods and touches four more. We include parts of Buckhead and West Midtown and go as far west as Marietta Boulevard. We needed a name that was much larger than any existing local jurisdictional boundary and could grow with us as our boundaries grew. Upper Westside gives us that flexibility. Our goal is not to absorb these neighborhoods and rebrand them; on the contrary, our organization is focused on sharing their names and history and calling them out through wayfinding signage and art. Our latest project is a pocket park in Blandtown — look for the new, large-format “BLANDTOWN” letters at Huff Road and Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard.

Anything else you would like to add?

Our CID is incredibly grateful to the residents, businesses, and property owners in and around our district for their feedback during each of our studies and our master plan. One thing that we heard loud and clear during the master plan, and especially at the height of COVID, is that art is a critical component of quality of life and a great avenue for sharing neighborhood history and identity. While we are hard at work on transportation and green space projects, we have been incorporating art into many of our efforts. One of our most popular projects was painting signal cabinet boxes last summer. We’ve got a sculpture in the works with a local artist and long term desire to work on the Collier underpass and the I-75 bridge for art opportunities.