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A Chat With The Guy Whose Thesis Birthed the Beltline

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In case you've forgotten: The Atlanta Beltline began as a Georgia Tech student's thesis, a lofty idea hatched way back in 1999. It's been a long haul since then, but three legs of the trail have now been completed, bursts of development are happening along the eastern corridor and, just last week, the Beltline folks released a strategic plan aiming to have the entire project done by 2030. The Beltline even has its own police precinct now. With all that said, what better time to check in with Ryan Gravel, the aforementioned Tech student who dreamed this whole thing up. Now a senior urban designer at Perkins+Will, Gravel is still involved in the project and is even writing a book about it. He also happens to be a believer in Atlanta's future — one he's helped make a little brighter.

So how has your life changed since "the thesis" started to become a reality?

The thesis was the easy part. Since then, I've changed jobs several times to support the project's integrity and the communities that made it possible. It's been a pretty crazy ride — a lot of hard work and not always fun, but continuously rewarding. I've met some amazing people as we've gone full circle from vision, to grassroots advocacy, planning, design and construction. I've had the chance to share the idea with people as far away as Rotterdam and Johannesburg. It has also changed my personal life. Today I live with my family in a loft on Krog Street. I can ride my bike to work at Perkins+Will in 15 minutes. We can ride or walk with our kids to the park, restaurants or the grocery store. When Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market open next year, it's going to be an entirely new way of life.

How much of a hand do you still have in the project?

I'm on the board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership. Also, Perkins+Will was hired four years ago to begin some of the design work for the corridor. Design really matters to the success of the project. It helps ensure that the system will actually work for people — that they can get where they're trying to go. We're also working on some beautiful redevelopment projects in Midtown, and as the economy rebounds, I'm looking for similar opportunities along the Atlanta Beltline. Beyond Atlanta, I'm connecting with people around the country that are working on similar transformations: grassroots-oriented infrastructure projects that are not only changing the physical form of their cities, but also challenging the way we think about them — what our cultural expectations are for the places that we live. My ideas about what all this means will be captured in a book that I'll finish up in 2014.

What are your thoughts on how things are progressing so far? How has the vision changed?

This is the great story of the Atlanta Beltline. It's always changing. But the original vision that we built with the public is still at its core. It's organized around neighborhood conservation, transit, trails, and economic development. It has now expanded into something we could never have imagined in the beginning — hundreds of acres of new parks, thousands of units of workforce housing, public health and employment initiatives, a linear arboretum, public art and preservation efforts to name just a few. The idea continues to grow. I just got off the phone the other day with some people who want to put farmer's markets all along the loop and I shared an old idea I had about having a farmer's market train to make stops in every neighborhood.

The Beltline folks just released their long-term plan. What are you impressions?

For full disclosure, P+W had a hand in the development of that report. It's great, because for the first time there's an actual plan to finish the whole thing. I'm sure it will change and develop as we move forward but it's really helpful to focus everyone's efforts towards a common goal. And of course we're always looking for opportunities to build it faster — like the mayor's recent proposal for a public-private partnership. If citizens, who made the Atlanta Beltline to come to life and continue to own its vision, are involved in a meaningful way, an idea like that could work. I think if the T-SPLOST vote in 2012 demonstrated anything, it's that people in the city of Atlanta are willing to pay for sound investments in the Atlanta Beltline and other transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects. They voted for it. The rest of the region was not given that same choice and they rejected it.

What are your thoughts on how to best connect the proposed Beltline transit with job centers in Midtown and downtown?

For starters, let's not forget about MARTA. It already connects the Atlanta Beltline corridor directly into Downtown and Midtown, as well as to Decatur, Buckhead and the Airport. And when the Atlanta Streetcar starts rolling down the street this spring, it's going to be a lot easier to imagine a network of new lines overlaid with MARTA to form a fairly robust system. (The PATH Foundation's) existing trails into downtown will be joined by new connections like the Proctor Creek Greenway and the Silver Comet's extension. One of the most exciting headlines for 2013 are the buffered bike lanes on Ponce de Leon connecting the Atlanta Beltline into Midtown. Let's give a shout-out to the Georgia DOT for that. Thanks also to the city for its 10th Street cycle track and other upcoming improvements to the network. The Atlanta Beltline was never intended to solve all of our problems — it's a catalyst to get the ball rolling, and it's working.

Do you put any stock into the idea of an "intown renaissance?" How would the Beltline factor into that, if so?

Of course. How could you not? Anybody who's been around for 20 years can see it plain as day. The Atlanta Beltline is just a mechanism that helps ensure that change happens "for" us, rather than "to" us. But to get the best outcome, we have to make sure that we do it right, including transit investment in the near-term and a sophisticated approach to public space and cultural development. We'll get there. To me, a more interesting question is whether the people of the entire metropolitan area will come together around a common vision for their future like intown neighborhoods did a decade ago with the Atlanta Beltline. The politics look pretty daunting. The current Braves stadium debacle really highlights our willingness to act in individual self-interest rather than in common support of our region. Until we can change that, I suspect we will all suffer — and frankly, we'll deserve it.

How do you feel when people say the Beltline's the best thing to happen to Atlanta since the Olympics?

Personally, I think the Olympics obscured a trend that was already happening in Atlanta. It was amazing — it put Atlanta on a global stage. But the repopulation of the urban core had already begun, and the infrastructural investments for the Games were relatively minor. In my mind the last truly visionary thing that happened in this region was the construction of MARTA's rail network. We may not have properly expanded it or supported it politically, but it's irreplaceable. I was just in Seattle for a transit conference where they're still regretting their decision in the 1970s to opt out of the federal money that subsequently came to Atlanta to build MARTA. With all of Seattle's other transit investments, they'll never have enough money to build a system like MARTA because it's too expensive. People around here don't seem to appreciate its value as the backbone of any future transportation network.

Compiled by Curbed Atlanta contributor Tyler Estep

· All recent Beltline coverage and discussion [Curbed Atlanta]
· Officials: Beltline Should Wrap By 2030, Pending $891 Million [Curbed Atlanta]
· Ryan Gravel is Remaking Atlanta [Esquire magazine, 2006]

[Photo courtesy Ryan Gravel; Beltline corridor photo via A Is For Atlanta]

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