By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on July 13, 2018
Atlanta BeltLine Inc. stands at a critical juncture — at a time when its leadership is in a state of flux.
Brian McGowan, president and CEO of the city agency since September, has accepted a position to become CEO of the Greater Seattle Partnership and will be stepping down from the BeltLine in mid-August.
McGowan’s departure comes at a time when the BeltLine is determining its transit future and how it will meet its goals for affordable housing. And he is leaving early into Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ tenure as mayor — giving her and the ABI board the responsibility of finding new leadership for the BeltLine organization.
“Any organization is bigger than any individual,” McGowan said during a lengthy interview during the afternoon of July 10. “I had thought I would be in this job for two to three years at the most. It would have taken me another year. I wasn’t able to complete what I intended to complete. I do regret that.”
McGowan, however, is working at a critical pace to complete as much as he can before he leaves.
The BeltLine is expected to buy another two miles of an abandoned CSX rail line by the end of July, which would mean that it would own about 18 miles of the 22-mile circular corridor.
The remaining four miles are part of an active rail line, and McGowan said that will be the one place along the BeltLine where the multiuse trail will not be in the same corridor as transit. The trail likely will be built along expanded sidewalks while the transit will be located in the existing right-of-way of the rail corridor, which would require an agreement with the railroads — either CSX or Norfolk Southern.
Transit along the BeltLine is a major area of focus right now given that the City of Atlanta passed an extra half-penny sales tax for MARTA in 2016 that is anticipated to generate $2.5 billion in funding.
MARTA and the city have been working on a project list for the “More MARTA” funding, and that is expected to be approved by the MARTA board in September.
The draft list anticipates having a light rail line on the southwest portion of the BeltLine connected by a crosstown link to the existing Atlanta Streetcar, which would extend to the Eastside Trail and head north toward Lindbergh. That would represent having transit on nearly half of the BeltLine corridor.
But a group — BeltLine Rail Now — is arguing for the More MARTA funding to build transit along the entire 22-corridor. It is being led by Ryan Gravel, who conceived of the BeltLine project in his Georgia Tech master’s thesis, and Cathy Woolard, who was an early advocate for the BeltLine.
During a meeting of BeltLine Rail Now at Zoo Atlanta on July 10, Gravel urged the city and MARTA to make transit on the entire BeltLine a higher priority than a light rail line to Emory University, which only recently was annexed into the city.
Robbie Ashe, MARTA’s board chair, said the agency supports transit on the BeltLine.
“Rail on all 22 miles of the BeltLine is a priority — and an important one,” Ashe said.
“That’s the goal that’s being pursued. We also want light rail that connects to other areas in the city. We live in a world of finite resources. My view of the world is — how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Ashe said MARTA and its partners are looking at other sources of revenue for transit along the BeltLine.
The BeltLine has put together a task force headed by former MARTA general manager Keith Parker to study the transit issue and make recommendations to the BeltLine and Mayor Bottoms.
McGowan said the question of transit on the BeltLine is a question of how much and when. As currently contemplated, the “More MARTA” funds would built out transit on nearly half of the corridor.
“I think the expectation that this $2.5 billion should fund all 22 miles of the BeltLine is unrealistic,” he said. “Transit has to work as a system. You have to spend money on these cross-town connectors. Eventually there should be transit all along the BeltLine. I don’t think we need to do it all at once.”
Affordable housing has been another thorny area for the Atlanta BeltLine.
When the project was conceived in 2005, there was a goal to build out 5,600 affordable housing units within the BeltLine Tax Allocation District by 2030. So far, only 1,600 units have been built within the BeltLine TAD, a geographic area that does not cover the entire corridor.
The BeltLine, under McGowan, has put together an affordable housing task force with Invest Atlanta, the Atlanta Housing Authority and the city’s housing division working with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and other nonprofits.
“We would need to add 300 to 400 affordable housing units per year to reach the goal of 5,600,” said McGowan, adding that the task force will be releasing a report in the next few weeks that will chart a strategy on how to add that many units a year.
But McGowan said the area of focus should be on the BeltLine Overlay District, a zoning area that encompasses about a half-mile on either side of the entire BeltLine corridor.
“The overlay district is what matters,” McGowan said. “That should be well beyond the 5,600 (affordable housing) units. I want to see 10,000 or more in the overlay district. There should be affordability all along the BeltLine.”
Before McGowan leaves, the BeltLine also will be releasing a survey of Atlanta residents, the first since 2006.
“Some of the initial impressions [from the survey] is people want to see the entire BeltLine built faster,” McGowan said. “There’s some frustration with the pace of progress, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”
Sometimes during the interview, McGowan seemed to forget he was leaving.
“We have spent the last eight months resetting the BeltLine,” McGowan said. “We are 12 years into a 24-year project. We have spent about $600 million of what was supposed to be a $5 billion project.”
(About $3 billion of that price tag was the cost of adding transit along the BeltLine.)
Because of the recession and a lawsuit against the BeltLine TAD, McGowan said it has collected only half of the TAD revenues that were anticipated.
“We have to rethink how we are going to reach our goals on housing and how we approach transit,” McGowan said. “We have options. We could extend the life of the TAD beyond 2030. We could create a public-private partnership — a P3 — to complete the transit. It’s something we are looking at right now.”
McGowan then would catch himself, remembering he was leaving for Seattle.
“The new CEO can pick the ball up and run with it,” McGowan said, adding he would have needed another year to reset the organization and refocus it to its original mission. “We lost sight that this was about connecting neighborhoods.”
Angel Poventud, an early BeltLine advocate and citizen activist, was disappointed by McGowan’s departure.
“Leadership at the BeltLine is as important as any leadership in the city,” Poventud said. “Brian opened up the organization and cleaned house. He changed the direction and focus of the machine.”
But Poventud is worried about the future.
“We need leadership from our mayor. This is her moment to shine,” he said. “We’ve got 60 days to find leadership. If we don’t find leadership, we’re doomed.”
John Somerhalder, chairman of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., plans to have a specially-called meeting in the next couple weeks to figure out the next steps.
“The good news is that we are in a position where the organization is strong and the project is strong,” Somerhalder said. “We can take the time to find the exact right leader for the future.”
Somerhalder, working with the mayor and Atlanta BeltLine’s board, said he would like to take the time to talk to the various stakeholders, including Woolard and Gravel, to have them provide input for the next phase of the BeltLine’s leadership.
“It’s really important to make sure we have a leader who can implement our plans on affordability and someone who can make sure the transit plan is built,” Somerhalder said. ”This is a critical time. But every period is critical.”
Douglas Sams and Amy Wenk contributed to this story.