Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith resign from BeltLine Partnership board over equity concerns

By Maria Saporta

Two prominent board members of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership turned in their resignations Monday saying not enough emphasis is being given to the issues of equity and affordability.

The two board members are: Ryan Gravel, an urban planner to initially proposed the concept of the BeltLine in his Georgia Tech Master’s thesis; and Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity.

They sent their letter of resignation (see below) to the chairman of the Partnership – Mike Donnelly, an executive vice president with Wells Fargo Bank.

Ryan Gravel

Ryan Gravel sitting along the Atlanta BeltLine (Credit: File/facebook.com)

The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership is the private sector organization responsible for fundraising, advocacy and affordability along the 22-mile corridor encircling the central city.

It works with the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the public entity that is part of the City of Atlanta and is responsible for implementing the complex project – including trails, parks, economic development and transit.

“I believe in the BeltLine,” Gravel said in an interview Monday afternoon. “I believe it can be for everybody. I don’t believe it’s too late. I want to be constructive, and I want to build the BeltLine that we’ve been talking about.”

Gravel said the vision for the BeltLine has been one of inclusivity – making sure its success does not prevent people of all income levels from being able to live on all parts of the 22-mile corridor.

“It is not about being anti-BeltLine,” said Smith, who was part of the interview via a speaker phone. “It’s about being pro-Atlanta and making sure that the BeltLine does its part  so everybody can prosper. It’s time to elevate our concern.”

Nathaniel Smith

Nathaniel Smith

The letter explained one of the most critical issues: the lack of progress on the issue of affordability.

“While there have been success stories that we can be proud of, our coalition’s progress has not been commensurate with the scale of the challenges at hand,” said the letter signed by both Gravel and Smith. “The recent announcement of $7.5 million from TAD bonds, for example, will likely support fewer than 200 affordable units out of ABI’s obligation to 5,600 – it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the need. As the economy roars back to life and growth in the city accelerates, this work is increasingly urgent and we feel strongly that our attention must be channeled directly toward it.”

In a statement, Partnership Chairman Donnelly said:

“Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith submitted a thoughtful, gracious resignation letter to the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership today. The organization values its relationship with Ryan and Nathaniel.  While we are disappointed they have decided to end their service on our board of directors, we are hopeful that our long relationship with each of them will endure in new ways. 

We spoke with both Ryan and Nathaniel today, and we know this is a difficult decision that neither of them came to easily. They each confirmed that they remain supportive of the Atlanta BeltLine and the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, and we are committed to continuing to work with them and others to advance the equitable development issues that are critical to our mission and the overall success of the project. We will be meeting with Ryan and Nathaniel as soon as possible to continue the work together of addressing these important challenges.”

Gravel and Smith also brought up the issue of governance. One of their concerns was about the way the Partnership’s previous executive – Chuck Meadows – was let go from the organization.

“The concern I had with Chuck’s transition is that it happened so suddenly,” Smith said. “It was done by the executive committee. They did not come to the full board – a board that was diverse in its thinking. If you say the BeltLine is about community engagement and community voice and about equity, we have to live by those values. We can’t say that and do something else.”

Both Gravel and Smith said despite resigning with a heavy heart, they felt they needed to shine a spotlight on the issue before it’s too late.

Ryan Gravel

Ryan Gravel

“I know there are a whole lot of things we can be doing,” Gravel said. “The issues around affordability and equity are complex, and there’s no silver bullet. It’s also very urgent, but I don’t see a sufficiently urgent response.”

Gravel also said the BeltLine is being built because of the public’s vision and support early on. “There’s needs to be a bigger, broader voice to get that vision,” he said.

Smith agreed.

“Ryan and I – we both are seasoned veterans of the BeltLine,” he said. “It was Ryan’s vision that brought us here in the first place. You need outside voices and a level of accountability for the organization. You need someone who is willing to tell the truth.”

By resigning from the Partnership’s board, both Gravel and Smith said they would be able to be independent and become even more involved.

The last concern they mentioned is the emphasis the Partnership has placed on fundraising, over and above its other priorities, such as affordability.

“This is an incredibly complex project, and it’s hard to point fingers,” Gravel said. “The outcome and the end result is that we are not doing enough. There are a lot of things we should be doing. The board should be much more aggressive and involved on this issue. The Partnership has always given much more attention to fundraising.”

Here is a copy of the letter that Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith sent to the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership’s board chairman Mike Donnelly:

September 26, 2016

Dear Atlanta BeltLine Partnership Board, Mike Donnelly, Chair,

It is with the upmost respect that we submit our resignations from the Board of Directors of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, (ABP). We are supportive of the organization’s work, optimistic about the project’s future, and committed to remain active in its implementation for the people of this city. At this critical moment, however, we feel compelled to concentrate our efforts more directly on making sure that the Atlanta Beltline lives up to its promise and potential, and specifically, that its investments and supporting policies become more intentional about who they will benefit. We know you agree that its advantages must accrue to everyone, especially those who are otherwise most vulnerable to the changes it brings. We fear, however, that without more urgent and deliberate attention to these communities, we’ll end up building the Atlanta Beltline without achieving its vision.

That vision came from a big, diverse coalition of neighbors and local partners who defined what the Atlanta Beltline is and who it is for. Because our movement was inclusive from the beginning, over the years there have been many people working hard to ensure affordability and economic opportunity for everyone. We were a part of that effort, but even so, today we see the project’s success most threatened by inadequate attention and accountability to those outcomes. And while there have been success stories that we can be proud of, our coalition’s progress has not been commensurate with the scale of the challenges at hand. The recent announcement of $7.5 million from TAD bonds, for example, will likely support fewer than 200 affordable units out of ABI’s obligation to 5,600 – it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the need. As the economy roars back to life and growth in the city accelerates, this work is increasingly urgent and we feel strongly that our attention must be channeled directly toward it.

The departure of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership’s Executive Director, and the explanation offered both at the Board meeting on July 21 and in meetings since, have put us both in difficult positions between what we believe is inadequate attention to equitable outcomes and our own personal and professional commitments for the project. They have also highlighted the urgency to include the broader public in how these issues are addressed, and related to this, have helped illustrate to us an internal dissonance within the Partnership that has been present since its beginning.

By many accounts, when ABP absorbed Friends of the Belt Line back in 2005, the project lost a conduit for the grassroots, sometimes rabble-rousing voice of the people who had given it life in the first place, who had shaped its community momentum, and who are personally attuned to its social and economic impacts. ABP primarily refocused instead on raising private money for the acquisition of new parks and trails. This was also essential and urgent work, especially at that time. It literally laid the groundwork for much of the success we see today, and we should all be proud of that. Over time, however, this direction has proven uncomfortable with the uncertainty that often comes with community advocacy. We see our resignation, therefore, as a constructive first step in the correction of this historic mistake.

We believe that the primary accountability for the Atlanta Beltline is not to private funders, civic partners, or to organizational leadership, but to the people of Atlanta who have given the most to make

the project possible. If they had not believed in a vision for our future, and if they had not worked so hard and insisted on its implementation, we certainly would not be building it today. In fact, if not for the underserved, “blighted” communities of south and west Atlanta, the Tax Allocation District would not have been allowed under state law and the idea would be gathering dust on a shelf. There’s little doubt our movement of city-wide, life-affirming change would have died a long time ago.

Understanding this accountability is essential, because we believe that who the Atlanta BeltLine is built for is just as important as whether it is built at all. Our earnest hope, therefore, is that our resignation not be construed as a lack of support for the project’s continued implementation or a lack of confidence in ABP’s vital role going forward. Rather, we hope it is the beginning of a more robust and effective coalition of voices that can ensure that the project’s full, inclusive vision is realized. Only then can we call it a success. This will take all of us, and so as we move ahead, we look forward to continuing to work with the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and others to achieve it.

With respect and thanks, please receive our resignations.

 

Ryan Gravel

Founding Principal Sixpitch, Inc.

Nathaniel Smith

Founder and Chief Equity Officer The Partnership for Southern Equity

cc: Rob Brawner, Executive Director, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership

Old Fourth Ward and BeltLine

The Old Fourth Ward on the east side of Boulevard is an example of unaffordable and high displacement. (File/Credit: brownfieldrenewal.com)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

32 replies
  1. Chad Carlson says:

    “We believe that the primary accountability for the Atlanta Beltline is not to private funders, civic partners, or to organizational leadership, but to the people of Atlanta who have given the most to make it possible.”Report

    Reply
  2. Chuck Burleson says:

    I believe Smith and Gravel deserve much credit for standing up for what is right and just and speaking for those whose voices are seldom heard and interests seldom regarded.Report

    Reply
  3. JerryJackson1 says:

    70 Peachtree Streets going North in Atlanta. Not a single one going south. Not a single one. By the time the Beltline goes thru SW Atlanta many of the ole time residents will be either dead or forced off their land with the highest water bills in America. ……………….. and expanding the Atlanta Streetcar ……………. really …………….Report

    Reply
  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    Both acted like prima donnas rather than do the tough job of pushing for change from within.
    It will be interesting to watch what Gravel does now since he has been a one trick pony and now he abandons his trick.Report

    Reply
  5. Joe Seconder says:

    Although I do not know the inside story with Ryan’s decision, I truly believe people need to be a part of the system and remain so, to provide greater influence. If board meetings are held using Roberts Rules of Order, a point of order can be make, agenda items proposed, seconded, discussed and voted upon for the public record. Now that is lost. What has been gained, aside from a news story? And how can this action lead to effective change?Report

    Reply
  6. John R Naugle says:

    Greetings from Atlanta: City of Peace. Kudos to Ryan and Nathaniel for taking a social-action stand which honors the Gandhi-King peace legacy and further insures the Beltline, a.k.a. “The Peace Train” is developed for all citizens, and not just those who jockey for monetary gain.

    We all know the saying, ‘Stand for something or fall for anything.’

    Mahatma Gandhi: Man of the Millennium (Years 1000-2000) says it better:
    “The future depends on what you do today.”

    Dr. King’s wisdom & power is also seen in their service-action:
    “There comes a time when one must
    take a position that is neither safe,
    nor politic, nor popular, but he must
    take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

    Just a few short days ago, on Sept. 21st, the United Nations International Day of Peace was observed by 200+ Nations of Mother Earth and billions of our Global Family’s sisters and brothers. Ryan’s and Nathaniel’s decision indirectly reflects the elevating statement of Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General which was made on the International Day of Peace:

    “The people of the world have asked us to shine a light on a future of promise and opportunity. Member States have responded with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development… It is an agenda for people, to end poverty in all its forms. An agenda for the planet, our common home. An agenda for shared prosperity, peace and partnership.”Report

    Reply
  7. JeffNorberry says:

    This is very sad news. I can’t help but think that these board members could have been more effective on the inside. I hope they are able to find a way back to a place of leadership in the project rather than working from the outside. Mr. Gavel’s dream has been long in coming. Let’s hope this decision does not hasten it’s demise.Report

    Reply
  8. WestATL99 says:

    @JeffNorberry – It’s important to understand time is of the essence, the Beltline is being developed at a rapid pace. Spending time inside trying to become effective very likely would have been a waste. Once the die is cast…Report

    Reply
  9. JakeWegmann says:

    To an outsider like me, it sure seems like a noble, principled stance taken by Smith and Gravel.

    And to Burroughston: if Gravel is a one-trick pony, then the magnitude of the trick that he’s pulled off is epic. We should all be so lucky to have devoted half a lifetime towards a grand civic project that brings people together and changes the way they think about their city. Bravo to him.Report

    Reply
  10. Sondra Rhoades Johnson says:

    It’s a balancing act We need more like the two of them to speak up and work toward making Atlanta a livable city for ALL. Affordable housing is a part in f that equationReport

    Reply
  11. Ashley Anderson says:

    Perhaps not being beholden to the restrictions of board meetings will allow them to criticize more freely ABP’s bent towards the interests of private developers and big money? In any case, this is a resounding endorsement of the “beltline is not being made for poor people” harumphing that a lot of people have been doing.Report

    Reply
  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    WestATL99  Not at all. Gravel did what disgruntled politicians do after they discover they have no power – they take their football and go home.Report

    Reply
  13. urban gardener says:

    A thorough review of the affordable housing fights regarding the Beltline would be very informative and is long overdue. If the articles are archived somewhere, the best source is APN’s in-depth coverage. They were the only organization at those meetings covering the fights over the City’s / ABI’s reduction in unit requirements at the outset. Given the long, grinding and losing fight documented by APN, these two guys walking away is just the latest footnote. The Beltline quit being about transit about a year or so after the process really got going. It’s been the develiopment wolf in transit-sheep’s clothing ever since… I said at the first public meeting that Cathy Woolard pitched the idea in 2004 that if we only got a greenway path out of the whole thing I’d be delighted, (and that my organization should make a contribution to the development fund), as i didn’t really see a train coming out of it all. Twelve years later, in the end i’m still thinking the same thing, only now how many folks have been priced out of their abodes. Sigh.Report

    Reply
  14. niche1 says:

    Seems like the Atlanta Belt Line has become what The Chelsea High Line is– a grassroots development initiative that has been taken over by real estate vultures.Report

    Reply
  15. Burroughston Broch says:

    Jake, look at his CV on Linkedin. He finished his graduate work in 1999 and that is when he mooted the Beltline. Then there is a curious gap until 2007 when he arrives at Perkins+Will; he focused on the Beltline there. Then he leaves and forms his new firm in 2015; the new firm focuses on the Beltline.
    One idea does not a career make.Report

    Reply
  16. Burroughston Broch says:

    The Beltline was always intended by those in control to go the way it’s going. There was never any intention to create another Atlanta Housing Authority instead of making money.Report

    Reply

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