3 times the Atlanta Beltline almost didn’t become the Atlanta Beltline

Ryan Gravel’s real-life story is already becoming the stuff of legend:

How, as a Georgia Tech Architecture and City Planning grad student in the late 1990's, he hit on what seemed like a sort of out-there thesis idea — take four old railroad "belt lines" encircling downtown Atlanta and link them together to spur development and reconnect communities — and wound up creating the one-of-a-kind, still evolving Atlanta Beltline.

Telling that story again isn’t why Gravel wrote “Where We Want to Live” — not exactly, anyway. Instead, the new book that comes out Tuesday is meant as his big, “Attaboy!” to all of us here in Atlanta. And also, well, his enthusiastic “Keep it up!”

“I really believe we wouldn’t be building the Beltline if it weren’t for the fact that the people of Atlanta fell in love with the idea and made it happen,” Gravel said in an interview. “The real power, as we move forward is that people continue to have that sense of ownership in it.”

And to think it might never have happened. It almost seems crazy now when the Beltline's so crowded at times, they've actually come up with a whole etiquette campaign so we all can get along. But that nightmarish prospect — no Ponce City Market! No crazy Lantern Parade! — wasn't so farfetched on at least three different occasions, according to Mr. Beltline himself:

  • From trains to trucks: In 1952, city planners came up with the idea for the "Inner Belt Highway," which would make the four existing belt lines Gravel later swooned for into a loop route for big old wheezy trucks to constantly circle downtown. It was never built, but its proposed "companion" Outer Belt Highway was, about a decade later, Gravel writes. You know and loathe that now as I-285.
  • The gulch not taken: Remember when Gravel was scratching around for a thesis idea? It turns out the Beltline was his second one. The first one involved incorporating a new regional and high-speed rail terminal in the cavernous railroad "gulch" downtown. Luckily for us, Gravel did some more research and became "captivated" by the setting for the second idea and got to work on it instead. Kind of hard to envision "Art on the Atlanta Beltline" happening in a gulch.    
  • An unexpected development: In 2005, a developer snatched up some prime property along what would later become the Eastside Trail. When plans emerged to build two massive high-rise condo towers overlooking Piedmont Park at 10th Street and Monroe Drive, area residents rose up in opposition. Eventually, the tower idea died and most of the land was acquired for the Beltline. But not before Gravel feared the power of that opposition to stop any sort of "development," including a certain idea he'd started noodling around with years earlier as a grad student."I worried that the neighorhoods would come out so hard against what he was proposing, that it would kill the whole Beltline itself," Gravel said. "Instead, they came out so hard in defense of it and what we were proposing to do … That's when I really saw the people of Atlanta had the power to save the Beltline and to save Atlanta from itself."

(Gravel will discuss and sign his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday (3/16) at the Carter Center, 453 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. The event is free and open to the public. www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov, 404-865-7100.)

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