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Moments Moments Season 1

Ryan Gravel’s Moment wasn’t conceiving the BeltLine, it was when others embraced it

By Chris Schroder

Though written 70 years apart, two books that will have the greatest impact on Atlanta’s history both sat on shelves gathering dust until friends of the authors dared them to submit the manuscripts to someone who could take them to the next level.

Margaret Mitchell at first denied having written a novel when MacMillan editor Harold Latham asked to see the rumored manuscript. When a friend chided her as not being serious enough to have written a novel, she collected a portion of the book she had finished nearly five years earlier and agreed to meet Latham at the Georgian Terrace Hotel lobby. After reading part of the book on the train to New Orleans, the editor shipped it back to his New York office, which offered Margaret a $500 advance and 10 percent of royalties three months later.

In December 1999, Ryan Gravel submitted his architectural master’s thesis conceiving the 22-mile BeltLine to his Georgia Tech advisory board. In the summer of 2001, two of Ryan’s associates urged him to take the bound volume that had been sitting on his bookshelf and ship it to Atlanta city government officials. City Councilwoman (later president) Cathy Woolard took up its cause, gathering the support of Mayor Shirley Franklin, who helped set up a tax-allocation district to fund the BeltLine’s development.

Seeing the map of the BeltLine today, wrapping around 45 under-developed Atlanta neighborhoods, I thought Ryan would say his Moment was when he looked at a map of the city, saw the 1860s-era railroad tracks outlined and had an “ah-ha” moment. He says he’s often asked if the idea came to him all at once, but it actually marinated slowly, sparked during his senior year in college when he rode trains all over Paris and later when he returned to the traffic-clogged streets of metro Atlanta.

“My moment was in 2003, when I realized we might actually build the BeltLine,” he said. “I was at a meeting of the Atlanta Regional Commission where I overheard these two women talking about the project and how it would connect the city and what it would mean for the city … They had taken ownership of it. It wasn’t my project … it was their project. What was amazing about it was that I could start to imagine that – to see that we would actually build this. When the public owns a vision and wants it to happen, they can make it happen.”

I remember the moment I first read about the BeltLine in a December 2004 AJC article. Despite having gazed curiously since childhood at those same mysterious, abandoned railroad tracks each time I drove over them, I never had seen what Ryan saw, over time. “This is a stroke of genius,” I thought when I read the article. That word is often overused, but I believe it applies in this case. George Bernard Shaw said geniuses don’t see more than other people do, “the man of genius understands the importance of the few things he sees.”

When I met Ryan a few years later at a breakfast networking meeting, he had just started working for Perkins+Will, which was once the largest client of my PR firm. “I’m an Atlanta native,” I told him. “I think the BeltLine is the best idea I’ve heard for Atlanta in my lifetime.” He reacted with the same humility he exhibits today, even though he travels extensively to cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Rotterdam and Johannesburg that seek his inspiration to re-connect the dots of existing infrastructure in their urban centers.

Much as Paris was redesigned – at the time critics called it the “destruction” of the old city by Georges-Eugene Haussmann in the 1860s, creating the wider boulevards that are so much a part of its charm today – it will take a lot of investment and patience on our parts as Atlanta builds out the BeltLine over the next few decades.

Ryan volunteered and later worked for the city’s Bureau of Planning – which partnered with Atlanta BeltLine Inc., a governmental entity managing the now $2.8 billion BeltLine – but now his creative range is much better deployed at an international design firm such as Perkins+Will, which was chosen in 2010 to oversee the BeltLine’s design.

I downloaded Ryan’s original thesis online at Georgia Tech. It’s worth a read: an excellent demographic, geographic and structural history of Atlanta with an architect’s eye for the future. My wife Jan and I greatly enjoyed the free three-hour BeltLine Bus Tour, and biking along the first mile of the BeltLine’s paved path along Peachtree Creek. I look forward to showing my descendants the “new” parts of Atlanta that will be revitalized in the coming decades thanks to Ryan’s – and the city of Atlanta’s – embracing a moment of genius.

Thanks to their efforts, when tourists get off the plane in Atlanta in future years, their first question won’t be, “Where is Tara?” It will be, “Where is the BeltLine?”

Next week in Moments: Josh Starks, who briefly contemplated suicide, making international headlines when an Atlanta musician heard about it on the radio.

Video by Reid Childers of Schroder PR.

Don’t miss previous 2013 Moments: Jay Smith, Jennifer Johnson, David Geller, Cynthia Jones Parks, Lee Katz, Keegan Federal, Brandi Helvey, Alwyn Fredericks, George McKerrow, Wright Mitchell, Shawn Wilson, Bill Bolling, Tracey Jackson, Fran Tarkenton, Drey Mingo, Andy Cash, Fred Northup, Wendy Binns, Ann Curry, Bill Clarkson, Alicia Philipp, Dennis Creech, Meredith Leapley, Raymond King, Jerry Farber, Larry Gellerstedt, Sally Bethea, Ken Thrasher, Herb Nelson.
Don’t miss previous Moments from 2012: Solon Patterson, Charles Ackerman, Santa Claus, Mark McDonald, Frank Skinner, Tom Murphy, Matt Arnett, Kasim Reed, Alana Shepherd, Charles Driebe, Hank Aaron, Kevin Rathbun, Larrie Del Martin, Mike Luckovich, Dan Matthews, Arthur Blank, Doug Hertz, Thomas Dimitroff, Jenny Levison, Brad Cunard, Joe Roberts, Plemon El-Amin, Bob Williams, Gary Price, John Dewberry, Bill Tush, Milton Little, Hope Arbery, Bo Jackson, Lisa Borders, Tom Key, Bob Voyles, Joyce Fownes, Joel Babbit, John Pruitt, Noel Khalil, Chuck Leavell, Bill Nigut, Eveylyn Winn-Dixon, Steve Nygren, Chris White, Josh Starks, Ryan Gravel, Shirley Franklin, Sam Massell and Clark Howard


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  1. Don Broussard August 21, 2012 3:34 pm

    Not to put too fine a line on it, but Gravel’s thesis was for two masters degrees, one in city planning and one in architecture. The Beltline is a city planning project involving all the major elements of transportation, land use, and architectural design. In fact, it is city planning at its best so lets not be shy about calling it that. I like this series by Chris Schroder. Ryan Gravel is a most deserving subject.Report

  2. Tico August 3, 2013 6:28 pm

    I learned of the Beltline project before relocating to Atlanta and felt encouraged to buy a home in one of the neighborhoods.  Property values should go up as the Beltline revitalizes the adjacent areas.  The bus and walking tours are very educational and as a result I added the Eastside Trails to my exercise regimen.  Last Sunday, I walked a round-trip on the entire stretch along with other walkers, runners, joggers, strollers, kiddie-rickshaws, dogs, skates and bikes – it was soooo funnnnnnn!!!!!!  Also, I’m exploring at least 2 ‘new’ areas per week during my walking exercises.  Thanks, Mr Gravel – you did good!!!!Report

  3. moliere August 5, 2013 10:47 am

    Ms. Franklin unfortunately did not do anything more than allocate the TID for the Beltline. She did nothing to promote the project to overcome the significant political resistance to it – which by the way exists on both the far right and the far left – and also did not do enough to address the long term financing and governance issues to actually get this project done. Franklin did operate in a more hostile political environment than Reed did, but other than her successful deal to address the sewer problems, she didn’t really attempt anything bold or challenging with either the council or the state or federal governments the way that Reed has with the emphasis on law enforcement, dealing with the APS scandal (where Franklin was largely absent), reining in pensions (again which Franklin ignored), the stadium issue, the T-SPLOST, the streetcar, the Savannah port and actually moving forward with the Beltline. Reed has even been astute enough to distance the city from Fulton on crime and other issues, which also separates the Beltline from MARTA. The amazing thing is that Franklin actually set her mayoral ambitions low – “Mayor Pothole” indicating that she would focus on basic infrastructure and governance issues as part of some failed attempt to win the respect of the GOPers in North Fulton and the suburbs who really will never approve of anything that Atlanta does until its leadership is from a different party or race – and didn’t even accomplish that. That proves the old axiom that if you shoot for the stars you will at least land on the moon, but if you only shoot for the moon  you won’t even get off the ground. Franklin it seems was content to merely be Atlanta’s first female mayor, and didn’t accomplish pretty much anything her entire second term. When you consider how Sonny Perdue was similarly out to lunch, that left a huge leadership void in Atlanta and Georgia during the most critical time: two huge recessions and economic restructurings that hammered the city and the metro area. 
    It is already a given that after Governor Deal is re-elected, he is going to take on a lot of issues that would be unpopular with his tea party base (with all that entails) on transportation, education and other issues. That is part of the reason why he is getting a primary challenge, although I don’t know how effective a guy in the insurance industry representing a small city with a very high unemployment rate will be in challenging the governor. He benefits from so many of the GOP’s top guys running for Senate and some of the 2nd tier candidates running for House seats being vacated by the Senate aspirants. But the same will happen with Reed. He has largely kept publicly quiet about the Beltline other than putting it into T-SPLOST (one of the things that contributed mightily to its demise … it was a favorite whipping boy of the conservative crowd) but after he gets re-elected look for Reed to finally institute a stable funding source for the project, whether it is a property or sales tax increase or – to implement a long advocated idea from Creative Loafing – increasing the tax on parking (since Atlanta can’t institute a commuter tax without permission from the legislature that they are never going to get).
    By the time Reed leaves office in 2018, the Beltline project will be well under way with a stable funding source. So the failure of T-SPLOST will have only set that project back a couple of years. Meanwhile the suburban folks who voted down T-SPLOST largely because of the Beltline won’t have anything to show for it but a bunch of toll roads that will mostly be used by people passing their communities and businesses by.Report


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