“Some things are made for us and come along at the right time,” Morris said in his first interview since being named as the Beltline’s new CEO. “And then our job is to not screw it up.”
Most recently, Morris served as deputy secretary of transit for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. At the same time, he also chaired the development committee of a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening neighborhoods and families in the Research Triangle through the creation of affordable housing, homebuyer education and counseling, and community building.
His career has revolved around community planning, urban design, transit-oriented development and creating public spaces — in cities all over the country and western Europe.
Morris also served as president of the American Society of Landscape Architects from November 2002 to October 2003.
“I’m committed to the belief in making a difference in the built and natural environment, making those work well together,” Morris said. “My goal in life is to create great places for people.”
Somewhere along the way, Morris became integrally involved in the “memorial” business. He was hired to help design the Oklahoma City National Memorial after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which killed 168 people. The memorial is best known for a field of chairs for each person who died.
Morris then was hired to help design the Columbine High School memorial to remember the victims of the May 1998 shootings in Colorado.
Later Morris became involved with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, where an earlier autocratic design effort failed because the public had not had a voice.
“The public realm is so vitally important to the people who own and possess their community that we are obligated to find ways that will respect and reflect the unique aspects of their community,” Morris said. “If you are true to that process, the right answer will emerge.”
That’s the philosophy Morris will bring to the Atlanta Beltline — which he describes as “an incredibly audacious project.”
But Morris said it is important to make sure each mile is defined by the personality that is unique to that neighborhood and yet connected to the rest of the Beltline by “elements of unity” that will link the entire project — the arboretum, the multipurpose trails and the necklace of “jewels, these gems — the parks — where every so often we come together.”
Morris was one of five finalists to be the next president of Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Brian Leary left the position last August after a controversy over some expenditures. Lisa Gordon, the organization’s chief operating officer, has been serving as interim CEO.
Morris was selected as the new executive by the ABI board on June 12.
“In the short two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve realized that the Beltline unites us in a way that’s not intrusive,” Morris said. “What’s so compelling about the Atlanta Beltline is that we agree that this is something that is ours collectively.”
Although Morris said he is “committed to the full vision of the Beltline” and that he believes “in all the pieces,” he also wants to make sure it’s an open process. He said he believes in the notion of planners and designers serving as facilitators and guides as communities develop the vision.
“As we go forward, it will be necessary for us to commit to a much more engaging process,” Morris said, mentioning several constituencies including the business community and the neighborhoods. “It’s a collective investment.”
Morris also is delighted to be part of Atlanta’s resurgence of its central city.
“I have memories of Atlanta as the center of sprawl,” Morris said.
Now, Morris said, all the indicators and demographics favor people returning to urban areas, and “there’s a mindset of change that wants to restore that great set of bones.”
And yes, the former rail corridor known as the Atlanta Beltline could be considered as part of those bones — a vision that he believes can stimulate great investment in the city through the combination of trails, green space, development and transit.
“It’s a multilayered and aspirational vision,” Morris said. “All the elements in the vision can be achieved by 2030. It’s important to be opportunistic, and it’s important to diversify. We need to be open to public-private partnerships.”
Morris, who just turned 53, said unequivocally that Atlanta has now become his new home.