By Maria Saporta
First of two columns on the Chattahoochee River
Remember 17 years ago when the Atlanta BeltLine was just a glimmer in Ryan Gravel’s mind?
Now imagine the Chattahoochee River as reinventing the western edge of Atlanta in the same way the BeltLine has transformed our communities.
The two stories are strikingly similar.
When writing his Master’s thesis at Georgia Tech, Gravel envisioned converting railroad tracks and former industrial zones around the central city into new parks, trails, transit and mixed-use developments.
Meet Jodi Mansbach. She moved to Atlanta from Chicago one week after the 1996 Olympics. She had a paper map showing a large river close to the central city.
But when she asked people how to get to the riverfront in Atlanta, “everybody looked at me like I was crazy,” Mansbach said. “But that idea stayed with me.”
She went to Georgia Tech and did her “captstone/options paper” – similar to a thesis – about the portion of the Chattahoochee River that’s in the City of Atlanta.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago when a group of environmentalists, enlightened developers and urban enthusiasts launched Chattahoochee Now.
The organization’s board includes Mansbach as chair; Serenbe’s Steve Nygren; GreenStreet’s Walter Brown; Bruce Morton of West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Jon Anderson Lanier of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation; Katharine Wilkinson of BrightHouse; among others.
It brought on Shannon Kettering as its executive director, and the organization has been building partnerships with other related organizations, such as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
“We are focused on the land and the place-making along the river,” Kettering said. That’s how Chattahoochee Now differentiates itself from the other groups by focusing on how people can enjoy the river.
“That’s the piece that’s been missing,” Mansbach said. “We want to explore how the river inspires us, how it suits us, how it can be a resource. We want people to experience the river in new ways.”
But first people have to be able to find the river.
Last year, Chattahoochee Now hired the BeltLine’s Ryan Gravel to do a visioning piece for how the river could change Atlanta.
Gravel previewed the vision at the new Dad’s Garage Theatre on March 2 with a title sure to lure people in: “Where the F+++ is the River?”
A more acceptable title is “Discover your hidden riverfront” or “Vision 53” – a vision for the 53 miles of the Chattahoochee River as it travels through the Atlanta region south to Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Coweta County.
Gravel said cities across the United States are revitalizing their water ways and their riverfronts.
“We often say we don’t have a waterfront in Atlanta. We do. It’s just different,” Gravel said. “Atlanta’s riverfront is wild, expansive and limitless. We need to see our river differently. We need to see it. And we need to be able to get there.”
That means you shouldn’t have to go to Sandy Springs or Roswell to get to the Chattahoochee. The river is actually only a few miles from downtown, but it’s barely accessible to the public for the entire stretch that goes by the City of Atlanta.
Chattahoochee Now is looking to ignite a grassroots movement that would create a 5,000-acre park with protected green space along the river. There are four near-term goals: 20 new ways to reach the riverfront; 20 new ways to have fun along the river; 20 new ways to meet along the river; and 20 new stories of Atlanta’s riverfront.
“We want you to discover the river,” Gravel said. “What if you could walk to the river? Let’s change the way we think about who we are. Atlanta is a city with an amazing waterfront. Discover your city has a waterfront.”
A Georgia Tech studio, sponsored by the Georgia Conservancy, came up with a bunch of ideas including building a series of recognizable viewing towers along the river so people would realize how close it is to the center of town. Also, plans to create greenways and blue ways on the west side could create a web of trails and paths to the Chattahoochee.
“We can have connectivity with the BeltLine, Proctor Creek, the Silver Comet trail. All these things are connected,” Gravel said. “The river becomes that kind of connective tissue.”
Chattahoochee Now also is seeking ideas from the public on how to bring more life and focus to the river – a lantern parade on boats; rubber ducks; musical events along the river. All ideas are welcome.
“We want to build a groundswell with several levels of awareness. Think Streets Alive along the river,” Mansbach said. “A lot of cities that had turned their backs on their rivers have been rediscovering their rivers. Some small cities have made waterfronts out of trickles.”
When an out-of-towner was taken to see the Chattahoochee, he reacted with surprise: “Now that’s a river.”
Thanks to vision of Chattahoochee Now, one day we may discover what has been in our backyard all along.
Next week: A couple of developments threaten the economic and environmental potential of land next to Atlanta’s Chattahoochee River.