Citing Equity Issues, Founder of Atlanta BeltLine Leaves Board

We speak with Ryan Gravel to understand why the urban planner is leaving the project that has been his life’s work for almost two decades.

Ryan Gravel, founder of the BeltLine

Courtesy Facebook

Yesterday, the founder of the Atlanta BeltLine, Ryan Gravel, who first proposed the concept in his master’s thesis back in 1999, stepped down from the Board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership (ABP).

The ABP is a private-sector organization that absorbed the more grassroots organization, Friends of the BeltLine, back in 2005 in order to raise capital for the project: a proposed 22-mile parkway encircling the city of Atlanta. Issues of affordability and equity have drifted to the backdrop of the Partnership’s concerns, however, and fears that the development of the BeltLine could negatively impact Atlanta’s most vulnerable communities prompted Gravel’s departure. Gravel, along with fellow boardmember Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, handed in a letter of resignation ​to the chairman of the ABP, Mike Donnelly, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo Bank.

The BeltLine is only one of many large-scale urban projects popping up across the nation in the wake of the High Line’s success. However, as happened in the course of the High Line’s development, these grassroots projects all too often become conduits of private interests—generators not only of greenspace and economic revitalization but gentrification and displacement. To learn more about the resignation, and its broader implications, Metropolis corresponded with Gravel over email.

His letter of resignation can also be found, in its entirety, at the bottom of this post.

Vanessa Quirk: You’ve been working on this project from the very beginning—it’s been a huge part of your life for almost two decades. Why have you chosen to resign from the board now?

Ryan Gravel: First, I haven’t always been on the board, and the board will remain strong without me—I’ll always be there for anything they need. But for a lot of reasons, I need to focus on reminding people that the Atlanta BeltLine is for everyone. That’s the vision that we rallied around well over a decade ago and that our incredible grassroots movement was built on. Accountability to that vision has been one of our biggest challenges since that time, mostly because it’s hard. And although we’ve made a lot of progress and have accomplished a lot toward those outcomes, the rapidly recovering economy and incredible new growth in the urban core of Atlanta has made those challenges more urgent. Our follow-through with policies to ensure that growth benefits everyone—especially those on the lower end of the economic spectrum—has not been commensurate with the need. I would love for the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership to take a stronger lead on these issues, but there are many other ways to approach it. My resignation, along with Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, comes as a constructive next step toward generating more attention and urgency to these goals.

VQ: In your letter of resignation, you say both investments and policies must become more intentional and urgent in providing for vulnerable communities. What would this look like? What has been preventing this up to now?

RG: The main thing preventing the most equitable outcomes is that while many of the needed investments and policies are known, actually implementing them is often very difficult. We’re having a hard enough time just building the physical project, which is itself an investment for equity because of the communities it serves and the economy that it generates. Our challenge to go beyond that construction and make sure that its benefits accrue to the people who made it possible in the first place, requires that people speak up. I’m willing to speak up.

VQ: You also mention the need for accountability. Why is this important and how can it be achieved?

RG: The Atlanta BeltLine is a unique infrastructural undertaking because its vision was built by the people of this city. They took a kernel of an idea from my 1999 master’s thesis and made it into the expansive vision for urban transformation that you see today. More than vision, they made it possible, literally. They empowered and eventually obligated their elected officials and others to put the nuts and bolts together so that it could become real. But you don’t build a $4 billion infrastructure project with a grassroots movement. So the agencies and organizations that we created to implement our vision must be accountable to it. It’s that simple.

VQ: Why do you feel the ABP must be more proactive in providing affordable housing?

RG: All we have to do is look at the lack of affordability in other cities like San Francisco and New York—similar pressures are at play here. It’s a national problem as people flock back into cities. Seeing that, we could sit around and do nothing, or we could try to fix it. And we are—the Atlanta BeltLine brings both attention and tools to help do that—those efforts are well documented. But because of the scale and urgency of the problem, we have to be creative and look beyond conventional strategies. Our models for creating affordable housing seem inadequate. We need to innovate beyond subsidies and zoning, and unleash the private sector to help solve the problem. I don’t know what that looks like exactly, but I’m confident we can figure it out if we try.

VQ: When ABP absorbed Friends of the BeltLine in 2005, it set about raising private money for the acquisition of new parks and trails. How did this negatively impact the direction of the project? And do you see parallels between this direction and that of other similar projects around the country?

RG: Land acquisition was essential in the early days of the Atlanta BeltLine. We wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. And frankly, not only do we still have quite a lot of land to acquire, there are related challenges with the increased value of land. So in my mind, the role of the Partnership shouldn’t be to tackle one task or the other. This is not an either-or. It’s about doing both—and a lot more. We have to. I’ve just decided that I need to put all my energy toward equity. This is important to me because the commitments that I made personally over the last 15 years were not to abstract populations, but to my own friends and neighbors—people that I love. I want to do everything I can to ensure that the implementation of the project is accountable to them.

I talk and write a lot about these issues and similarly transformational infrastructure projects cropping up all over the country. They include the High Line (New York), 606 (Chicago), Lafitte Corridor (New Orleans), Bayou Greenways, (Houston), Underline (Miami), and the grandmother of them all, the revitalization of the Los Angeles River. They are redefining the future of cities, leveraging existing assets to support interesting, diverse collections of communities. They’re transforming historic barriers into public meeting grounds and they’re working. They are changing our way of life. But they also share similar challenges and opportunities around equity, and if we want these places we love to remain lovable for everyone, we have to get ahead on these issues.

VQ: Are you at all worried that by resigning you will —instead of encouraging the Board to get in touch with grassroots efforts and be more deliberate in pursuing equitable development—in fact be freeing them up to do the opposite?

RG: Not at all. I am confident that the ABP board remains committed to these issues. They are an essential part of our work going forward, and I’m sure they will remain a strong part of a growing coalition of voices going forward. We need them.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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

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