Skaters at Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark, Atlanta's first public skatepark.

Marc Mauldin

What’s ‘the Country’s Best Smart Growth Project’? You’ll Be Surprised

Hint: It began as an architecture student’s graduation thesis. Now people are suggesting it could transform the culture of an entire city.

In most places, Ryan Gravel would disappear into the crowd. In sensible leather sandals and plain collared shirt, the middle-aged architect is as unassuming in his appearance as he is careful in his words. He thinks in full paragraphs, nuanced and detailed, and speaks softly in the measured tones of a librarian. But on the Atlanta BeltLine—a 22-mile loop of trails, transit and parks under construction around the core of Atlanta—Gravel is a rock star.

On a recent sunny afternoon, just a few miles east of downtown, throngs of people had come out to stroll, skate and cycle along this stretch of pavement, the Eastside Trail of the BeltLine, which Gravel helped create. He is widely credited with the success of the project—in what has now become a nugget of local lore, Gravel’s 1999 graduate thesis provided the original blueprint for the massive urban redevelopment plan—and many Atlantans know him by face and by name. “Amazing idea, sir!” a helmeted cyclist proclaims, whizzing by. “I love it, Ryan!” echoes another rider.

Gravel is unabashedly pleased with the way Atlantans have embraced his idea, and they have done so in a way he could not have predicted. Gravel’s initial proposal was to create a circular network of transit, leisure paths and parks out of the abandoned spaces that, decades before, had been industrial rail lines. He argued that such an investment would connect disparate neighborhoods, help stabilize communities, and drive economic development. Now seven years into its estimated 25-year rollout, the BeltLine has already begun to take shape in many sections around the city in the form of parks, paths and art installations, and Gravel says the public transit components are coming soon. The project has also grown to encompass a strategic effort to increase access to affordable housing—an innovative feature of a project that carries the specter of gentrification in its success.

Indeed, the project has already begun to deliver the kinds of returns any city would welcome. The BeltLine has boosted the city’s economy: Since 2005, the BeltLine’s management team says the project has brought almost $1 billion in new development to Atlanta. The project has begun to generate the growth its early proponents said would eventually help it “pay for itself.” By 2030, the venture is estimated to create some 30,000 permanent jobs and more than $20 billion in new economic development, its planners say.

The BeltLine isn’t the only such revitalization project undertaken in a big city—New York had the High Line first, Los Angeles is restoring its L.A. River and Chicago broke ground on the Bloomingdale Trail (also known as the 606) this summer—but Atlanta’s is broader than any comparable project and has attracted wide praise. Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council has called the BeltLine “the country’s best smart growth project.”


Growing up in Atlanta’s suburbs in the 1980s, Gravel had a front-row seat to the consequences of urban sprawl. In 1960, the population of Atlanta hovered at about 1.5 million, and a full third of its residents lived in the city’s 100-square-mile core. In the accelerated sprawl of the last 50 years, however, the metro Atlanta area has matched the size of New Jersey, and its population has more than tripled in size—to over 5 million people—fewer than one-tenth of whom live inside the city limits. In 2002, when Smart Growth America published its Sprawl Index, evaluating U.S. cities in terms of residential density, neighborhood mix of uses, strength of downtown, and the accessibility of streets, Atlanta ranked in the bottom 4 out of 83. The study cited “below average conditions” including “a poor mix of home and jobs,” poor street connectivity, and fewer than 4 percent of commuters using transit.

By the mid-’90s, Gravel was living downtown, studying architecture and city planning at Georgia Tech. During his senior year, he spent a year abroad studying in Paris. Each day, Gravel recalls, he walked to the market along a desolate road under a defunct railroad trestle along Paris’s eastern flank. It got him thinking. “I had been studying infrastructure as a way not only to shape the physical city, but to impact our cultural perspective. There is a relationship between the two: between the physical city, and the cultural,” says Gravel.

Years later, when he returned to Paris as a graduate student, he found that the boarded-up, abandoned strip had been transformed into the Promenade Plantée, a bustling hub of artists’ studios, ateliers, cafes and new greenspace. “It changed the whole way that I see the world,” he says.

Gravel came home to Atlanta with fresh eyes. “I was sort of mesmerized by the industrial land here, and the abandonment, and the railroads all through,” he says. He crafted a thesis that pulled together economic development, neighborhood conservation, the redevelopment of industrial land along former rail corridors, along with a new transit addition to add flesh to Atlanta’s existing skeletal public transit network, MARTA.

It wasn’t until years later, while he was working as a junior architect, that the idea began taking shape. Gravel mentioned his thesis to some of his co-workers. “They thought it was cool,” he says, particularly because they lived in some of the neighborhoods along the old railway. “And they were equally frustrated with Atlanta’s lack of good transit or a high-quality public realm.” Together, Gravel and his colleagues drafted some concept maps and a pitch letter that they sent to the mayor, the governor, regional planning agencies and everybody else they could think of. “We got some letters back saying, ‘Good luck with that,’” Gravel recalls.


It was luck that landed the letter on the desk of Cathy Woolard, then the freshman chair of the city council’s transportation committee, just as she was looking to expand her group’s focus beyond the city’s famous airport, Hartsfield-Jackson, and better address Atlantans’ day-to-day transport needs. She called Gravel’s group in for a meeting to talk about their plan. “I loved it, so I just said, ‘O.K., well, I don’t have any idea how to make this happen, but let’s figure it out,’” Woolard says. “And I pledged to Ryan that I would use my office to make it happen.”

Woolard became city council president in 2002, gained a few staff members, and with their help, put the BeltLine into Atlanta’s comprehensive development plan. Over the following years, her office raised $23 million in funding for the project. The influx of investment has already completely changed the appearance of the city’s historic Fourth Ward, the neighborhood that recently saw the opening of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail. A 17-acre plot of land that was a sea of old, abandoned asphalt is now the Historic Fourth Ward Park, site of a new 15,000-square-foot skate park, a two-acre reservoir with footbridges and fountains, and an outdoor amphitheater.

The new development spurred by the BeltLine has driven up property values in adjacent neighborhoods. Dan Immergluck, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning, found that residential properties within a quarter mile of the BeltLine’s projected path have, in some places, increased in value by 30 percent in the three-year period ending in 2005—and that was before any part of the project had even been completed.

But the new growth has also brought new challenges. Rapidly increasing property values run the risk of pricing out some of the most vulnerable members of the community, such as low-income residents and seniors living on fixed incomes, putting entire neighborhoods at risk.

Valarie Wilson, executive director of the BeltLine Partnership, says the issue has been central to the project’s mission since its inception. She says that of roughly 30 other large-scale infrastructure projects nationwide—including New York’s High Line and L.A.’s river revitalization—only the BeltLine featured affordable housing as a key pursuit before it broke ground. Of the many organizations and initiatives that exist tangentially to the BeltLine, two of them are explicitly focused on affordable housing: the BeltLine Affordable Housing Trust Fund (BAHTF) and the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative (ALTC). The former will have access to an estimated $240 million over the course of the BeltLine’s 25-year development. But the BAHTF has restrictions on where its funding can be applied, and, crucially, it does not yet have a way to ensure that the affordable housing it helps create will remain permanently within reach of low-income residents. To that end, the nonprofit ALTC was formed not only to build affordable housing, but also to “sustain that affordability, and make sure that it doesn’t go away,” says Wilson. But where the BAHTF lacks permanent affordability, the ALTC lacks funding, and Wilson hopes “to create a better working relationship [between the ALTC and BAHTF].”

Some of the BeltLine’s most potent criticism comes around this question of long-term affordability—and, indeed, gentrification. The National Housing Institute notes that residents of low-income neighborhoods near the BeltLine have been skeptical of the project’s aims, based on Atlanta’s long history of “urban development implemented at the expense of African Americans.”

 

“[The BeltLine’s goal] is to make neighborhoods and communities better. This is for people who’ve lived through the worst of times in those neighborhoods to now be able to live through the good times in those neighborhoods,” says Wilson. “It’s a huge priority for us.”

Gravel says the ALTC has taken a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. “I think [the affordable housing initiatives] need to be a lot more aggressive. I think it’s good that we’re doing what we are, and I don’t want to make light of what we’re doing, but I think we need to be doing more,” he says.

Ultimately, Gravel wants the impact of the BeltLine to improve quality of life for people all around Atlanta, and inspire grassroots movements in other communities. “I met a guy from some dinky little town in southeastern Kentucky, in the mining hills, and they’re doing something!” says Gravel. “There’s something [in every place]. Get involved. What it takes is a group of people to start talking about an idea and then think, ‘Wow, this is cool, let’s see if we can get anybody else interested in it.’ Before long, you have a movement.”

Eve Bower is based in Atlanta, where she is an Abe Journalism Fellow with the Social Science Research Council. She is the author of a forthcoming book about the rare earth mineral industry.

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