$3 Billion Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Project Almost Didn't Happen Because It Was 'Too Cool'


This is the fifth of an eight-part “Best New Small Businesses” series highlighting Atlanta’s growing entrepreneurial scene. This series is sponsored by PNC Bank.

Atlanta BeltlineThe Atlanta BeltLine is an idea that takes old, abandoned, early 19th century railroad tracks that were built before Atlanta was an actual city and transforms them into the most expensive rails-to-trails project in the country.

This is a massive project. 

How massive? The estimated $3 billion it will cost to complete the redevelopment plan that’ll form a loop around midtown and downtown Atlanta will make up 22 miles of rails, trails, greenspace and transit. It will include 45 different neighborhoods — home to 100,000 residents — and will provide transportation to some of the biggest employers in the area, including Piedmont Hospital.

Atlanta Beltline

The project will include new MARTA (Atlanta’s transit system) stations, 1,300 acres of new and improved greenspace, 40 per cent more parks, 5,600 units of affordable housing and 14-foot-wide paths connecting wealthy and lower-income areas within a two-to-four mile radius around the city.

And it almost never happened. 

The project would have never become a reality if Ryan Gravel’s coworkers hadn’t told him that his master’s thesis from Georgia Tech was too “cool” to merely be an idea. 

In 1999, Gravel was a graduate student studying architecture and city planning. He had been inspired by the roads in Paris a few years before during a study abroad program that he says “changed the way [he] saw the world.”

“I really fell in love with the city. I took transit everywhere. I ate fresh food from the local markets and dropped about 15 pounds. The way the city is built impacts our health and the way we live.”

When he returned to the States, he came up with a plan to build a transit network for Atlanta — typically a car-centric city —  but didn’t pursue the project after graduation until his coworkers encouraged him to do so.

For three years, Gravel and his team of supporters pushed for the project in “grassroots movements,” attending town meetings and sending letters to city officials. It was Cathy Woolard, a city councilwoman at the time, and later the Council’s president, who made the big moves after hearing about the proposal.

Gravel’s employer Perkins+Will, an urban design firm, was brought on board, as well as James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), the same company that designed the High Line Park redevelopment in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood. 

The idea is to take the old historic railroad lines that “belts” around the city and provide routes that have never been connected and “incentivise growth in that area,” Gravel explains. “It becomes a magnet not only for office and residential development, but also for theatre and cultural life.” 

“The economic impact will not only be significant for Atlanta, but it’ll help rebalance growth for some parts of the city that haven’t seen investment for a number of years.”

He hopes that the completed project will also put an end to Atlanta being so reliant on cars: “When you look at demographic changes and preferences of Millennials, the world is changing and Atlanta needs to reposition itself so that it’s not known as a car city. The car culture in every city — but especially in Atlanta — it has to change.”

Atlanta Beltline

“The BeltLine will not only be the physical form of the city, it changes the way we think about the city, it changes our culture expectation. This takes sustainability to a new level.”

Lisa Gordon, COO and interim leader of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., tells Business Insider, “The Atlanta BeltLine is already transforming not only the physical character of the city, but the way people are interacting with each other and their environment, with new amenities, and opportunities for individuals, families and businesses.” 

“The impact of [this project] will continue to be felt for generations to come,” says Gordon. 

In October 2012, the first two miles of the project were completed and $775 million in new developments sprung up as a result along those two miles.

The Atlanta BeltLine has been under construction for the past six years and is projected to be completed in 2031. 

Below is a video about the development:

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