There’s a steady human stream of hikers, bikers and dog-walkers crossing the pedestrian bridge over Ponce de Leon Avenue on a recent sunny afternoon.
Robin Andrews, who is walking two dogs, smiles when she recognizes the youthful looking man with silver hair standing to the side of the new concrete pathway. She realizes the man is Ryan Gravel, the former Georgia Tech student who dreamed up the Atlanta Beltline in a doctoral thesis 13 years ago. She stops to thank him effusively.
“This is the best thing to happen to Atlanta in the 15 years I’ve been here,” she said.
Gravel, a quiet fellow, flashes an aw-shucks grin.
“I didn’t do it; the people in the neighborhoods did,” he said. “The people of Atlanta fell in love with the project. They lobbied their elected officials. They made it happen.”
On Monday, Mayor Kasim Reed will dedicate what city officials are calling “the most significant step forward yet” in the long-awaited Beltline, a projected 22-mile loop in central Atlanta built upon abandoned railway corridor. He will officially open the Beltline’s long-awaited Eastside Trail, a 2.25-mile concrete ribbon south from Piedmont Park to just north of DeKalb Avenue.
“It’s all been talk until now, but this trail makes it real for people,” said Gravel, still obviously in awe of all that has happened. “In the past few minutes I’ve been standing here, hundreds of people have gone by. It’s just so cool to be out here.”
The opening is a dose of good news for the project after the Atlanta Beltline Inc’s president resigned two months ago following disclosures by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of questionable expenditures by the organization.
This section of path is not officially open until Monday. But keeping the hordes of recreation enthusiasts away would be next to impossible.
“This is the flagship for the Beltline,” said Shannon Harris, a project manager who lives in the Grinnell Lofts adjacent to the Beltline. “It will bring a lot of attention to what something like this can do. It connects neighborhoods. It brings people outside.”
Kendethia Champion, a resident of the Old Fourth Ward who lives a block from the path, has not yet ventured out on the Beltline, but said it has infused life into her neighborhood and has made her feel safer.
“It’s like a tourist attraction, especially on Sundays,” she said. “There’s more people coming through the neighborhood.”
The Eastside Trail, which cuts through neighborhoods of Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward, Midtown, Poncey-Highland and Virginia Highland, is not officially the first section of the Beltline to open. There’s a 2.4-mile section in West End and another one-mile section farther north near Bobby Jones Golf Course. But neither of those sit on the old rail bed and neither have the cache of traversing and connecting historic Atlanta.
Ed McBrayer, executive director of PATH, the organization charged with the corridor’s construction oversight, calls this section “a big first step. This will be a model case to see if the Beltline can be all that we think it can be,” he said. “This starts a network we’ve been looking for, for 20 years. It will be a trail connecting Fernbank to Centennial Park (downtown) to the MLK Center, to Piedmont Park to Freedom Parkway. You can travel to a lot of destinations that mean something.”
Also, McBrayer added, “This section will either prove or disprove that economic development will follow greenspace as we think it might.”
The Beltline was also seen as a transportation delivery system, with several miles of streetcars being built along the pedestrian paths. But in July, metro voters rejected a T-SPLOST referendum that was expected to raise $7.2 billion. About $600 million of the penny sales tax would have helped build about 10 miles of streetcar lines on the east and west flanks of the Beltline.
The defeat caused many to believe that building transit along the Beltline will take at least a decade — if it happens at all.
Kyle Jenks, a developer who has seven projects along the Beltline built or in the works, says just the idea of the pathway has spurred development. Now that it’s here, even more will come.
“Whether I’m alive or not when street cars come to it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I can walk on it and enjoy it now.”
Cathy Woolard, the former Atlanta City Council president who met with Gravel early on and pushed hard for his plan, still believes transit will be part of the Beltline. She thinks a busy segment like the Eastside Trail will spur more residential and commercial development along the path and its success will ultimately make a streetcar a no-brainer.
Dianne Olansky, a Morningside resident who several years ago helped defeat plans for a 27-story tower on the Beltline, would like to see street cars come. But she’s happy with what there is.
“This is what we envisioned,” she said of the new segment. “This is the pure thing, the pure dream of the Beltline as a connector of neighborhoods. When you do it that way you’ll see much smarter development.”
Gravel, the former Tech student, is now an urban designer working for a firm that is helping turn his conception into reality. He came up with the idea of the Beltline because “I like infrastructure design and systems and how it all works together.” And, of course, he needed an idea for his doctoral thesis.
Walking along the path, he notes the slight rising grade cleared out by the railroad builders some 150 years ago. “Now that the trail is built you can feel that long slow pull,” he said. He points to a hill gouged out long ago to make way for trains. He points to the skyline. He points to rows of old warehouses coming back to life as lofts, restaurants and shops.
He smiles. It’s the grin of a man watching his dream come to life.