The Atlanta BeltLine Needs You – Now More than Ever
By Rob Brawner
Rob Brawner was recently named Executive Director of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, the nonprofit organization that was created in 2005 at the behest of then-Mayor Shirley Franklin to galvanize Atlanta’s corporate, philanthropic, and nonprofit leadership behind the community’s vision for the Atlanta BeltLine, which was sparked by Ryan Gravel’s 1999 Georgia Tech master’s thesis.
I sometimes fear we will forget how we got here. Having worked for the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership since full-time staff were first hired in September 2006, I have had the privilege of seeing this amazing vision evolve from words and pictures to tangible, transformational places that are connecting people in previously unimaginable ways.
With 1.3 million annual users on the Eastside Trail, $3 billion in private economic development within the Atlanta BeltLine planning area, catalytic investment in the Westside Trail underway, and a palpable cultural shift towards walking and biking, we could easily be lulled into believing the success of the Atlanta BeltLine was and is a foregone conclusion.
The reality, though, is that the Atlanta BeltLine doesn’t just happen. A decade into the largest redevelopment project in Atlanta’s history – not to mention the years of work and organizing that led to the 2005 adoption of the BeltLine Redevelopment Plan – our collective accomplishments, as important and transformative as they have been, are far outweighed by what remains to complete the Atlanta BeltLine on schedule by 2030.
In terms of funding, we have raised nearly $450 million for the project which is estimated to cost $4.4 billion to complete. In order to fully connect the Atlanta BeltLine’s 45 diverse neighborhoods, more than 15 miles of corridor need to be purchased from railroads and other landowners, and significant investments need to be made in trail and transit construction. The acquisition and development of many hundreds of acres of new parks – including Westside Park, which promises to be Atlanta’s largest – are still unfunded.
Lagging affordable housing production – a national problem requiring bold solutions – threatens the Atlanta BeltLine’s vision of creating mixed-income communities that lift up residents of all socio-economic levels.
Fortunately, we have great examples from the Atlanta BeltLine’s past that can serve as models for its future. What is needed?
- Inspirational vision: The vision in Ryan Gravel’s thesis – echoing others who had contemplated new uses for the railroads’ belt lines circling the City – was the first to attract a significant following. Equally important, it inspired additional layers – including trails, parks, and public art – that make the Atlanta BeltLine what it is today. At this critical juncture, we need compelling visions to follow through on addressing important social issues like equity, affordable housing, and access to economic opportunity if we are to deliver on the Atlanta BeltLine’s full promise.
- Leadership: The world is full of great ideas that never get done. The Atlanta BeltLine evolved from a community movement to unprecedented redevelopment because then-Mayor Shirley Franklin made the Atlanta BeltLine a priority for her administration and worked collaboratively with the Atlanta Committee for Progress, private sector leaders like Ray Weeks and philanthropists like Jim Kennedy and Arthur Blank to recruit the right people, secure critical early funding, and do the challenging work that led to the passage of the BeltLine Redevelopment Plan, the creation of the original Five Year Work Plan to guide early priorities, the establishment of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. to implement the project, and the acquisition of the Bellwood Quarry as the foundation for the future Westside Park.
Similarly, Mayor Kasim Reed’s leadership in advancing the Atlanta BeltLine has been substantial. During his tenure, his administration and the City have made significant investments to ensure the Atlanta BeltLine is completed. He has fulfilled the commitment to deliver the Atlanta BeltLine to southwest Atlanta, winning $18 million in federal funding for the Westside Trail. His resolution of the funding dispute with Atlanta Public Schools has ensured financial predictability for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. Perhaps most importantly, his advocacy and collaboration with state leaders and Atlanta City Council have given Atlanta voters the opportunity this November to secure the future of the Atlanta BeltLine through the MARTA sales tax and transportation SPLOST referenda. Together, these investments will catalyze the expansion of transit, provide $66 million in funding to purchase all of the remaining right of way for the Atlanta BeltLine, and invest many millions more in complete streets, multi-use trails and other infrastructure that increases access to the Atlanta BeltLine.
The Atlanta BeltLine needs private- and public-sector leaders to continue stepping forward now and over the next 15 years in order to fully realize this bold, world-class vision.
- Partners: If not for strong partnerships with PATH, the Trust for Public Land, Invest Atlanta, and the Atlanta BeltLine TAD funding partners: City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and Atlanta Public Schools, we would not have achieved early milestones like Historic Fourth Ward Park, the West End Trail, the Eastside Trail, and Boulevard Crossing Park that made the Atlanta BeltLine real. Countless other partners including MARTA, Trees Atlanta, Park Pride, state and federal agencies, and housing and workforce development organizations have been highly engaged in delivering the Atlanta BeltLine vision in collaboration with Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership. We will need all of these partners and more going forward.
- Community support: The Atlanta BeltLine’s greatest asset is its broad base of community support. If this project were not embraced by the community from the beginning, we would not be here today. Residents will go to the polls this November with the opportunity to support substantial funding for the Atlanta BeltLine, and next November, residents will decide on a new Mayor and City Council members who will play critical roles in keeping the Atlanta BeltLine on track.
There are hundreds, probably thousands of people and organizations – far too many to include here – who have played a role in bringing the Atlanta BeltLine vision to life. And that’s the point. It takes all of us – government, philanthropy, business, non-profit, community, and institutional partners working together in a collaborative, coordinated, and often selfless manner – to pull off something as big and bold as the Atlanta BeltLine. As Robert W. Woodruff often said, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
We have an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the country and the rest of the world that a bold project like the Atlanta BeltLine can be a model for economic and equitable development. Given the billions of public and private dollars that will be invested in the project, we have a moral imperative to deliver the Atlanta BeltLine in a way that creates mixed income neighborhoods, access to economic opportunity, and conditions for better health for all of Atlanta’s residents – and we have a responsibility to work with the community to deliver these benefits.
Whether you are a voter or an elected official, a donor or a volunteer, a corporate leader or a community organizer, a public policy expert or a private-sector employee, Atlanta native or recent transplant, of any race, age, or gender – the message is the same.
Now more than ever, the Atlanta BeltLine needs you.