This article was first posted as an op-ed in the Atlanta Business Chronicle: Ryan Gravel Viewpoint: Speak up now if you want transit on all of the Beltline
(ideas.) I travel all over the world to talk about the Atlanta Beltline. From Singapore to Sandy Springs, the broad vision that frames our story allows it to fit easily into discussions on everything from affordability to stormwater management. Cities everywhere are struggling with change and many see the Atlanta Beltline as an inspiring urban regeneration project that intentionally engages challenges like gentrification and economic opportunity to both deliver the best project outcomes and catalyze more comprehensive and systemic change.
One observation I have made on these trips is that Atlanta is not alone. Our struggle to manage growth-oriented change comes in context of mass global urbanization. From The Bay Area to The Bluff, you can feel the adrenaline of both growth-stoked euphoria and growth-induced fear. Ours comes with a local flavor, of course, but it’s important to see our challenges in the light of larger and powerful forces – change is coming, and not-changing is not an option. In fact, regional planners are projecting the metropolitan area to grow by 2.5 million residents by 2040, and the City of Atlanta expects the population of the urban core to more than double during that timeframe.
The economic, social, and political forces unleashed by this growth will amplify all of our challenges. If we want them to, however, they can also fuel the creative solutions we need to build the Atlanta we want. In my travels, I describe how the Beltline is shaping Atlanta’s physical form, and more importantly, how it is changing the way we think about Atlanta and what our expectations are for living here. It is generating a renewed optimism about the city’s future and transforming our reputation for traffic and sprawl into something more hopeful – just last month, a delegation from Charlotte acknowledged their surprise that Atlanta has done something worth emulating.
Eavesdrop in any Beltline coffeeshop and you’ll hear all about it. For a growing segment of the city, the Atlanta Beltline shapes where people live and work, who they date, and where they hang out at night. I get stopped out there all the time by young people who tell me that it’s the reason they stayed in Atlanta after college or the reason they moved here in the first place. It gives them confidence that Atlanta will continue to move forward – that it is worth investing their career in this place and it is a good fit for raising their family.
This kind of hopeful identity is what civic leaders dream about. It’s not a contrived slogan or a four-point-plan. It’s a positive and authentic expression of this unique place in the world. This newfound identity has real value – intangible, perhaps, but with a clear and affirmative impact on everything from business development to talent retention. It fuels the growth of local companies and makes the city attractive to others – I’ve heard from more than one person that the Beltline is central to Amazon’s interest in Atlanta for its mammoth second headquarters.
You don’t have to look far to see evidence of that affirmative impact – the Atlanta Beltline has generated well over $4 billion in private investment. You also don’t have to look far for the consequences of slow project delivery. For all of its good, more than a decade has passed since promises were made for transit and affordable housing. As a result, the Beltline is beginning to choke on its own success. We’re seeing uneven outcomes because we’ve only built part of it. To make sure that we achieve our full vision, we have to fast-track the rest of the project.
Fortunately, all the hard work is done. We even taxed ourselves to pay for it – a half-penny sales tax over 40 years that will generate $2.5 billion for transit within the city limits of Atlanta. That’s a generational investment. It is more than enough money to build the entire Atlanta Beltline, plus other projects all over the city.
Unfortunately, that’s not the plan that MARTA put forward. Atlanta citizens have endured nearly two decades of community engagement for the Atlanta Beltline, have supported coordinated planning and other studies between all the agencies involved, have agreed to transit-oriented densities well before transit is implemented, and even voted for a regressive sales tax to build the transit they have envisioned. And after all of that, the More MARTA plan proposes that two thirds of the loop will not be served by transit – at least not in our lifetimes.
Your voice in this story is important, because the purpose of transit is less about connecting the dots of development and more about building a city. It should help build a future version of Atlanta that we still want to live in, even with hundreds of thousands of new neighbors. To do that, we have to make sure every investment is put in service to our larger vision, and there is no other transit project better positioned to deliver that vision than the Atlanta Beltline. It organizes growth into a sustainable growth corridor, demonstrating strategies for everything from affordability to stormwater management. In this way, it offers a model not only for other regional investments, but for projects all over the world. It intentionally engages challenges like gentrification and economic opportunity to both deliver the best project outcomes and catalyze more comprehensive and systemic change.
That’s not only the kind of Atlanta I want to live in – it’s the kind of Atlanta we are. Let’s do this. >> Ryan Gravel