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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
Founding Principal Sixpitch, Inc.
Founder and Chief Equity Officer The Partnership for Southern Equity
cc: Rob Brawner, Executive Director, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership