The Beltline Impact

The Beltline Impact - How a Georgia Tech student changed Atlanta forever

The Beltline Impact

Updated in September 2016 to include construction progress. Read more about the BeltLine in the New York Times: “A Glorified Sidewalk, and the Path to Transform Atlanta

Ryan Gravel wrote his Georgia Tech master’s thesis, Belt Line – Atlanta: Design of Infrastructure as a Reflection of Public Policy, never dreaming (well, maybe a little) that it would actually go anywhere. But it has, and it’s taking Atlanta along with it – to a place that’s more physically active, more economically prosperous, more creatively engaged, and more community-oriented than before.

Scroll down to come along with us as we explore the many facets of Atlanta's game-changing BeltLine…

The BeltLine Impact

By Karina Timmel Antenucci

Over the years, there have been a number of proposals for parts of the old 22-mile railway corridor that encircles Atlanta.

It could have become a truck route in the 1950s. In the ’60s, the original plans for MARTA included part of it.

The next decade brought ideas for a parks system on the eastside track.

An overview map of the Atlanta Beltline
An overview map of the BeltLine. Credit: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

Then with the Olympics pending in the 1990s, a “Cultural Ring” was proposed for the belt of industrial land that would have focused on supporting the arts and artist housing — but it didn’t generate enough steam to get built before the 1996 event, so that idea, too, eventually fizzled.

Ryan Gravel
Learn more about the BeltLine founder:
I-285 and a Trip to Paris: The Story of Ryan Gravel

What made Georgia Tech alumnus Ryan Gravel’s (B.S. ARCH, 1995; M.ARCH and MCRP, 1999) graduate school thesis idea stick?

“A big part of it was timing,” says Gravel, founder of Atlanta BeltLine and local urban designer.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, the city center was still losing population. In the ’90s, the city was stable and growing again, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that it was really starting to generate a lot of new growth in the communities along the railway loop.

The development pressure was intense at that point during the recession, and the city was looking for ways to maintain quality of life.”

What’s more, Gravel’s thesis idea was packaged in a way that incorporated the entire abandoned railway system and combined both light-rail transit and multi-use trail systems to generate economic growth and protect or enhance quality of life in 45 historic neighborhoods throughout the central city.

Simply put, it included everyone in its vision.

“People fell in love with the idea, and I think the origin from academia helped. If it had been a proposal from City Hall or private developers, it would have come with baggage, but because people could see it was just an idea, they could trust that it was just being proposed as something to do or not to do,” Gravel says.

So how is the Atlanta BeltLine doing now, all these years later?

Pretty well, it seems. Gravel’s idea has had a profound effect on Atlanta since its groundbreaking, with major impacts in three areas in particular — economy, health, and transit. 

Continued below: "Healthier Habitat"

Healthier Habitat

Catherine Ross, director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Tech, has completed various projects for Atlanta BeltLine Inc., including a landmark health impact assessment.

“It really has changed how we think about urban revitalization. Typically, we wouldn’t link health with the urban-redevelopment process. That’s new,” Ross says.

“We now have a 21st century prototype for creating healthy cities.” Ross explains that while a lot of other areas have green space, they may not have thought about investing in green infrastructure first, like the BeltLine has.

quote: We now have a 21st century prototype for creating healthy cities.

For example, significant effort has been put into water resources management, including managing storm water, groundwater capture and recapture, and limiting impervious surfaces to reduce runoff.

All this has had a positive impact on the environment of the neighborhoods along the loop.

Old Fourth Ward pond
Clear Creek Basin serves as a storm water run-off reservoir. Photo Credit: Rob Felt/Georgia Tech Institute Communications.

Another big priority all along the BeltLine has been the development of green space and parks that provide people with “social capital,” an enhancement of quality of life through physical activity and the ability to interact that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

“The BeltLine focused on mobility of people in a way that’s different — mass transit serving multiple needs versus singular transit with automobiles.”

Ross’ Health Impact Assessment estimates that once the BeltLine has been completed in 2030 an additional 15,000 people will have immediate access to it. This is in addition to the approximately half a million people who currently live and work within a mile of it.

What’s more, Ross believes the BeltLine will naturally have a positive impact on health within Atlanta’s southeast, southwest, and westside planning areas, which currently have higher mortality rates for chronic diseases linked to lack of physical activity.

Southwest 5K
Runners in the Southwest 5K race. Photo credit: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.

“The BeltLine is creating spaces with clean and green infrastructure and good air quality, where you have the ability to walk and use your bicycle, saving you trips by car — it creates opportunities to become more physically active,” she says.

Continued below: "A Transit-ional Trail"

A Transit-ional Trail

Transit was at the heart of Ryan Gravel’s thesis in 1999. 

The original concept was to build public transit that linked to the MARTA system in all four quadrants of the city.

Since that time, Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the City of Atlanta, and MARTA have worked collaboratively to advance transit on the Atlanta BeltLine — and in the city — through various planning studies.

While private development can move quickly, transportation may be (ironically) the slowest-moving impact piece of the puzzle because numerous city planning studies must be done and approval must be obtained from several government entities.

November 2014 marked the groundbreaking of the Westside Trail’s construction, preparing the corridor for a streetcar, in addition to building out the walk-run-bike concept.

In December of 2015, the Atlanta City Council approved the Atlanta BeltLine/Atlanta Streetcar System Plan — a 50+ mile streetcar system throughout Atlanta, including 22-miles of streetcar along the Atlanta BeltLine corridor.

In 2016, construction on the Eastside Extension began. This section of the BeltLine incorporates trails and surface roads, and has been designed to accommodate future transit.

rendering of light rail on the Atlanta BeltLine
A rendering which shows possible design elements for the BeltLine's transit and trail. Courtesy of Perkins + Will Architects.

Kari Watkins
Kari Watkins

Kari Edison Watkins, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech, who has served on the Atlanta BeltLine’s technical advisory committee as a public transportation expert since 2014, is eagerly waiting to see what happens as the BeltLine comes together.

“I look forward to the next couple of sections of the trail — Westside and Eastside Extension — opening,” she says. “As it does, we’re going to see more people using it as a transportation corridor, not just a recreational corridor.”

A quote from Kari Watkins

An advocate of “bikeability,” Watkins says she is most excited about the BeltLine because of its connectivity for both bikes and for transit.

“Having a streetcar network that connects into the city and around the Beltline will help so much without having to drag your car out every time you want to get from point A to point B,” she adds. “And the majority of those biking would prefer to be on a trail instead of navigating difficult city streets.”

She lives near the Eastside Trail and bikes it with her family.

Continued below: "Economics 2.0"

Economics 2.0

The greatest economic impact and development growth thus far can be seen along the Eastside Trail that begins in Midtown near Piedmont Park and travels down through Inman Park and the Old Fourth Ward.

Heather Hussey-Coker, special projects coordinator of Atlanta Beltline, Inc. and also a Georgia Tech alumnus (MCRP, 2010), says that last year alone more than a million people used just that two-mile stretch.

“We have a very long history of development projects in Atlanta over-promising and not delivering, but from day one this trail was actively used and very successful,” she says. 

Local government has seen a major return on its investment already, 13 years prior to the BeltLine’s projected completion.

Brian Leary
Brian Leary

Brian Leary, president of the Commercial and Mixed Use Business Group at Crescent Communities in Charlotte, who previously served as president and CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc. and was a classmate of Gravel’s at Georgia Tech, says you’d be hard pressed to find a better ROI for a major city initiative.

“Based on the return Atlanta is getting on the BeltLine, a pretty modest investment has been made by the city on this project,” he says.

“It’s still a big number, but when you look at it in the scale of investments routinely made by cities and compared to the billions of dollars being spent on sewers, for example, it’s not.”

Then there’s private-sector buy-in.

There has been “tremendous” investment by investors, developers, and even small businesses, Leary says.

“It’s hard to capture all the value of what that means. … It is the single biggest, most powerful urban idea in the United States. Period.”

While big multimillion-dollar private-sector developments such as Ponce City Market have certainly had a huge impact on the revitalization of buildings and areas surrounding the BeltLine, there has also been a profound opportunity for small businesses of all kinds to open up shop and create new concepts that bring customers to these communities.

One such idea was the BeltLine Boil, an event in Historic Fourth Ward Park put on by a local concert producer. “Since the earliest days of the BeltLine development, it became obvious the trail was connecting communities in town like never before,” says Josh Antenucci, partner and concert producer at Rival Entertainment.

“The backside of neighborhoods became the front side of a new corridor. When that happened, we became inspired to create events that spoke to the communities and promoted the people within those communities.”

Beltline Boil
The 2015 Atlanta BeltLine Boil. Photo credit: Jon Whittaker.

The economic impact of this single event was three months of promotion to support local businesses, restaurants, and charities.

“And the immediate return for the neighborhoods was the spillover to their restaurants, bars, and shops that increased business as a result of the event,” Antenucci adds. “It’s my goal to continue following the development and create new events that are relevant to those communities and aligned with the mission of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership.”

Leary, who lived in Atlanta for close to 25 years — most recently near the BeltLine’s Northside Trail — says its economic success couldn’t have happened without the unequivocal support of the city.

“To those outside Atlanta, one of the biggest surprises is how well the city established the project and partnered with other nonprofits such as Trees Atlanta, the Trust for Public Land, and most importantly, the Path Foundation,” he says.

“This partnership resulted in the establishment of two organizations: Atlanta BeltLine Inc. [the entity overseeing the planning and execution of the project, which works closely with City of Atlanta] and the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership [a non-profit organization that is privately funded to provide broad-based support].

How well the organization and the idea has been structured, organized, and capitalized is a success story worth replicating … in the City of Atlanta, they were committed to this keystone economic development and deserve the rewards they are reaping today.” 

Continued below: "The Story of Ryan Gravel"

I-285 and a Trip to Paris: The Story of Ryan Gravel

By Ann Hoevel, Georgia Tech College of Architecture

In 1991, as a college freshman, Ryan Gravel was an Atlantan in need of a BeltLine.

Gravel was raised in Chamblee, Georgia, a suburb north of Atlanta. “We grew up on I-285, basically driving everywhere,” he recalls. By the time he took the highway that led to Atlanta and Georgia Tech, Gravel says, he was pretty much a loner.


BeltLine founder, Ryan Gravel. Photo credit: Rob Felt/Georgia Tech Institute Communications.

He chose Tech’s School of Architecture not only because it was a great program in a great university, but also because he thought Tech was a big school where he could "kind of disappear.”

“I wanted to be a number and get lost and figure out who I was,” he says.

At the same time, Gravel was fascinated with architecture and cities — subjects that have a lot to do with people and community. A study abroad program to Paris, France, brought all his disparate ideas into focus.

“It changed the way I saw the world,” he remembers of his senior year semester in Europe.

“The way to school, for example, was a 45-minute trip for me and my roommate. We walked on the street and would see people from our community. We saw the same people working in the restaurants and getting prepared for the day, the women in the ticket booth in the Metro, the people on the train. Transit and walking like that is very social, it’s a community. You see people you know.”

Within a month of arriving in Paris, Gravel lost 15 pounds and was in the best shape of his life.

But coming back to Atlanta meant getting back in his car, all by himself.

“When I got home from Paris, I took a job at an architecture firm, and I was back on I-285, all day,” Gravel says. “It was also a 45-minute commute, but I didn’t see anybody. You get in your car, you face forward, hundreds of thousands of people are around you but there’s no social interaction.”

Cue the “ah-hah!” moment: As Gravel drove to and from work, he thought about how different his life was in Atlanta than it had been in Paris.

It dawned on him that while transit and walking are very social commutes, highways create an isolated way of life that doesn’t allow for diverse, personal interaction.

“Infrastructure is more than just moving people from point A to point B or conveying water to a sewer. It’s literally the foundation for our economy, our culture, our social life. It enables things to happen or precludes things from happening,” Gravel explains.

His interest turned to obsession. He went back to Georgia Tech for his dual Master of Architecture and Master of City and Regional Planning degrees (M.ARCH and MCRP).

For his thesis, he proposed a repurposing of land and physical assets in Atlanta that could also change the cultural perspectives of its inhabitants. It was the beginning of the BeltLine.

“Architecture education teaches you to think creatively about problems and solve them in a different kind of way,” he says. “Tech was great. Obviously, I wouldn’t be here today without that experience.”

Gravel says School of Architecture professor Richard Dagenhart was his true mentor, and his thesis advisors, Randy Rourke and Chris Nelson, left indelible marks on his work.

Nelson, a leading voice in demographics and planning, is a huge fan of the BeltLine, Gravel says.

“Who would have thought we would actually do it,” he says. “That’s the most amazing thing about (the BeltLine). It’s doing what we always said it would do and I guess that’s kind of surprising in itself. The scary thing is that we’re not done yet and we have a long way to go. It can still go wrong.”

Gravel says his biggest fear is that the people and communities whose grassroots efforts made the whole thing possible won’t be able to stay to enjoy the BeltLine’s benefits.

Moving forward, policies concerning investment incentives, affordability, and equality will be critical, he adds. “Otherwise we can’t call it a success.”

Gravel founded his own design firm, Sixpitch, and wrote the book, "Where We Want to Live," which he published in 2016.

“It tells the story of the BeltLine, but it connects it to all these other projects happening around the country and the future of cities and all this,” he says. “It’s fun.”

Continued below: "Below the Belt"

Below the Belt

By Fletcher Moore, Institute Communications

Certain feats are so devoid of appeal that only a select few will suffer through them. Such is the case, in this year of 2015, as regards traversing the entirety of the incomplete Atlanta BeltLine.

Nevertheless, I joined the fraternity of belters in early July, piloting my commuter bike along its spotty length, and though I’m proud I did, future circumnavigations will await further construction.


Watch this video to get an overview of his trek.

Originally proposed in 1999 in the master’s thesis of Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel, the BeltLine project is one of the great municipal ambitions of the early 21st century. It’s Atlanta’s version of the Big Dig of Boston fame, but without the massive cost overrun or the jokes.

quote from fletcher moore

Conceived as 22-mile-long band of pedestrian and bicycle paths, flanked by light rail, the BeltLine ultimately aims to improve the human landscape of a city known for its knots of multilane highways jammed with epic clots of steel, glass and rubber, shrouded in gasoline exhaust fumes.

But the BeltLine ain’t done yet, unfortunately. Not even close. So for the time being, doing the whole route means a whole lot of pain. The current course takes the would-be BeltLine daredevil down some fearful paths.

For example, the Westside trail is currently under construction, forcing me to brave the perils of Northside Drive, stretches of which not only lack sidewalks but are packed with maniacal drivers. I’ve biked in Atlanta regularly for many years, and I’m proud of the carapace I’ve built up when it comes to contending with cars. But even so, there are plenty of roads in the city I won’t risk, and Northside above 17th Street is one of them. I walked in the ditch, pushing my bike for a good half mile.

Marietta Boulevard between Blandtown and Bankhead is another sort of pain. Five lanes (three southbound and two northbound) with no sidewalks or walkable shoulders, this daunting highway serves pedestrians by sheer default.

Left with no other option (like the BeltLine), non-driving residents in the area simply lay claim to the outer lanes, like moving squatters.

The most heartbreaking pain lies south of that point, however. It’s no secret that the English Avenue region — The Bluff — is among the most blighted in Atlanta. To see it firsthand from the saddle of a bicycle is shocking, and more than a little discomforting. 


An abandoned apartment complex along the undeveloped section of the BeltLine. Photo credit: Rob Felt/Institute Communications.

I won’t dwell on the empty houses and rotting apartment buildings, many clearly inhabited in spite of the plywood nailed over the doors and windows.

The misery of this place cannot be carried by words alone — it would be educational for everyone to take a spin through the area and come to grips with its staggering poverty and the realization that this is our city, not some faraway third-world slum.

But I have good news. What you see when you ride the BeltLine today is not just the catastrophic choices Atlanta has made in years past.

The embryonic BeltLine is a study in contrasts: the devastated Atlanta of the past and the Atlanta of the future.

The Eastside trail — the longest finished section of the path — is everything anyone could want out of a city: beautiful, filled with happy people, and lined with flourishing businesses.

Quote: The embryonic BeltLine is a study in contrasts: the devastated Atlanta of the past and the Atlanta of the future.

The Southwest trail, while not quite a jewel of the same order, is nonetheless a peaceful island in a roiling sea, and it will only improve as it is connected to more parts of the city.

And those connections are coming.

When the Westside trail is finished, it will not only enrich the lives of those in the community, but given the spur to Bellwood Quarry, it will draw people from all over the city into the Westside and, yes, even into the Bluff.

Like a profusion of antibodies fighting off an infection, all that human activity will bring new life to dead and dying neighborhoods. And when it comes, I’ll suffer the remaining gaps to get there. The pain of my recent venture serves only as a reminder of what Atlanta stands to gain.

Continued below: "Credits"

Credits

Writers: Karina Timmel Antenucci, Ann Hoevel, Fletcher Moore, Margaret Tate, Jennifer Tomasino

Photos: Atlanta Beltline, Inc., Rob Felt, Billy Gantt, Christopher T. Martin, Rod Pittam, Matthew Rond, Jon Whittaker, Toni Marie Young

Videography: Adam Karcz, Fletcher Moore

Digital Design: Brett Lorber, Katharine Russell, Jennifer Tomasino

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