Alex Garvin: Urban planner whose 2004 study shapes Atlanta BeltLine
By David Pendered
Alex Garvin died last week as an advocate of two issues shaping Atlanta — the Atlanta BeltLine and efforts to ease the shortage of housing.
As an urban planner hired to evaluate the proposed BeltLine, Garvin produced in 2004 a plan for the BeltLine to add 1,401 acres of parkland to Atlanta and to pay for planned transit and trail systems with taxes on new development alongside the corridor. Aspects of the funding plan outlined in “The BeltLine Emerald Necklace: Atlanta’s New Public Realm,” add to issues of housing affordability and displacement of existing homeowners the city is seeking to address.
As a director of a non-profit housing council in New York, Garvin consulted on the council’s report, “Hidden Housing.” It calls for the conversion of basements in houses into apartments as a way to increase the supply of housing. The proposal to raise the number of residents in existing neighborhoods is as controversial there as similar proposals were in Atlanta this year, based on comments in the council’s report about past reactions to basement proposals.
Garvin’s death was announced by Yale University, among others. A Dec. 22 obituary in The Washington Post reported Garvin had died at his home in Manhattan on Dec. 17 of “an undetermined progressive illness that affected multiple systems,” attributing the information to his brother.
Garvin, 80, had touched major developments in a career that spanned more than five decades. Published accounts of his works highlight his interests in his native New York City. Yale commemorated Garvin’s 50-plus years of teaching at Yale College and Yale’s influential School of Architecture and plans a celebration of life in the Spring.
Yale’s report notes that Garvin served as managing director of New York’s effort to prepare a bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. After the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, Garvin oversaw the effort to rebuild the area in his role as vice president for planning, design and development of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Yale cited Garvin’s work with Atlanta’s BeltLine and initial master plans for Tessera, Texas and Hinton Park, Tenn.
In Atlanta, Garvin struck all the right notes with his proposal for the BeltLine, starting on the second page: “This report is dedicated to Frederick Law Olmsted.” Olmsted remains a revered land use planner in Atlanta. He came to the post-Reconstruction Atlanta to consult on the seminal 1895 Cotton States Exhibition. Noted developer Joel Hurt hired Olmsted to design one of Atlanta’s first suburbs, Druid Hills, according to reports on georgiaencyclopedia.org.
Garvin’s study on the BeltLine provided Atlanta with a potential cultural connection to Boston, and all that’s suggested in the heritage of that center of New England. Garvin wrote that the BeltLine could be Atlanta’s version of Boston’s Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace park, which Garvin proclaimed to be “Olmsted’s masterwork” and described as a “splendid linear park that successfully integrates portions of the cities of Boston and Brookline…”
In his transmittal letter to the Trust for Public Land’s office in Atlanta, his client for the BeltLine study, Garvin wrote:
“Frederick Law Olmsted produced similar reports for park boards across the country during the nineteenth century. These reports and parks that emerged from them are the inspiration and the model for ‘The BeltLine Emerald Necklace: Atlanta’s New Public Realm.’ Olmsted always began his work by examining the ‘capabilities and the limitations of the site.’ As you will see, we have followed his lead.”
Note to readers: To read Maria Saporta’s story about her conversation with Alex Garvin during his visit to Atlanta to speak at an event hosted Aug. 15, 2019, by Central Atlanta Progress and the Urban Land Institute’s Atlanta chapter, click here.