The Beltline Guy, 20 years after a darn good term paper

Ryan Gravel, the former Georgia Tech student who envisioned The Beltline, is creating a restaurant/ideas-generator nonprofit in this former cafeteria along the Beltline. Photo by Bill Torpy

Ryan Gravel, the former Georgia Tech student who envisioned The Beltline, is creating a restaurant/ideas-generator nonprofit in this former cafeteria along the Beltline. Photo by Bill Torpy

Ryan Gravel is widely known as The Beltline Guy, the former Georgia Tech student whose master’s thesis became the inspiration and blueprint for the transformational project changing the face of intown Atlanta.

His story is now Atlanta folklore, how a young, aspirational fellow with a simple yet outlandish idea could engender such change. Twenty years ago this month, Gravel turned in his thesis, which proposed that a loop of 22 miles of mostly abandoned rail lines be repurposed as transit lines connecting neighborhoods.

It has caught on in a way that still sort of stuns its mastermind, who is a low-key, soft-spoken, prematurely cotton-topped 47-year-old.

“I thought it was a cool thing. I never thought they’d actually build it,” Gravel said last week in an interview that took place, naturally, on the Beltline.

It's where he lives, where he works. Sometimes he'll walk to work at Ponce City Market, the old Sears building, and will pass his daughter coming from or going to school at Grady High. His life has become interwoven into his dream.

I asked him what do people want to know when they discover who he is.

“They always end up talking about gentrification,” he said. Gravel is sort of the Dr. Frankenstein who created a monster. The Beltline is largely a good monster. But like in the movie, it can be unpredictable.

Ryan Gravel outside the Telephone Factory Lofts along the Beltline. Photo by Bill Torpy

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Gentrification and the accompanying increase in housing prices are pushing out longtime residents from familiar communities. The changes would have happened, Beltline or not. The project has just focused the intensity of that change and churned up questions of race and class.

The project — or more correctly, a series of projects — has astounded even its biggest supporters, bringing more than $5 billion in investment so far. And there is no sign of slowing down.

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I spoke with Cathy Woolard, the former City Council president whose support long ago helped make the Beltline a reality, and she said she can see 3,000 new residential units popping up near her condo off Memorial Drive in southeast Atlanta.

Asked if it would have ever happened without Gravel, she quickly responded “No.”

“Ryan is a visionary and I don’t use that lightly. No one else had that vision,” Woolard said. “His imprint will be on this city forever.”

Actually, Gravel’s vision wasn’t necessarily new. According to the book “City on the Verge,” by Mark Pendergrast, plans circulated in the 1960s for some interior commuter lines, including a train running by the Sears fortress.

In 1989, the Rails to Trails Conservancy studied abandoned routes and saw the possibilities of the old Circle Line, a series of four freight lines encircling Atlanta. In the 1990s, a “Cultural Ring” using the old rail lines for tourism was studied. And the group PATH, which builds biking and walking trails, was devising a Greenway Trail Corridor.

But it was Gravel, a Chamblee boy who hated driving on I-285 and who loved his car-free time in Paris, who synthesized the previous plans into a workable vision.

Ryan Gravel for the Atlanta BeltLine Book. (credit: Jenni Girtman / AJC 2015 file photo)

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The plan called for side-by-side streetcar tracks, 45 stops, dense residential construction, green space and walking trails. The “expansion of mass transit infrastructure will lead to both the revival of the inner city and protection of our natural ecology,” he wrote in his thesis.

Gravel graduated and started working, but he didn’t put his plan in a drawer. He brought it up with anyone who’d listen.

“I liked to talk about it, about revitalization, about transit, about what kind of lives we could live,” he said. “It had the potential to change the way we look at Atlanta.”

“You keep talking about it for a while, people think it’s a real thing,” Gravel said with a laugh. “That’s what kind of happened.”

In 2001, he put together a packet with his plan and some maps and sent them to all the powers and politicos he could think of — the governor, the mayor, MARTA, the Georgia Department of Transportation … and Cathy Woolard, then head of the City Council’s transportation committee.

Friends of the Beltline co-founders Ryan Gravel and Cathy Woolard walk along a section of the Atlanta Beltline near the Ansley Golf Course. (credit: Billy Smith II / AJC 2005 file photo)

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At the time, Woolard was frustrated. The city didn’t have a truly good transportation plan. Right about then, Gravel’s packet landed on her desk.

“The moment I received this, it answered so many questions — transportation, growth, abandoned railroads,” she said. “It was a perfect storm of a solution.”

Woolard called Gravel with a request: “Can you do a public meeting?”

He remembers bringing his maps and a carousel with slides to a meeting, worried the bulb would burn out.

“I did two to four meetings a week for 2½ years,” he said. Council committees, neighborhood meetings, he’d talk to anyone who’d listen. They built an alliance of developers, nonprofits, neighborhood folks and factions pushing for parks, transit, affordable housing and trails.

“Then it started to grow. Others started getting ownership of this vision,” he said. “You could see the public falling in love with it. That led to political support.”

Said Woolard, “You have to have champions for your idea. It was the right idea, and there was doggedness, and then things happen.”

In 2003, at an Atlanta Regional Commission meeting, Gravel overheard a couple of women talking. They were discussing the Beltline. They said, "Our project."

He saw there was public ownership. “I began to see it as a possibility,” Gravel said.

They devised a tax allocation plan that set aside new property tax increases to build the Beltline. And after the recession, the plan started taking shape. The first stretch opened in 2012.

Ryan Gravel, the former Georgia Tech student whose doctoral thesis was the blueprint for Atlanta’s Beltline, takes a moment to swing over his favorite spot, a hill looming over the Eastside Trail not far from North Avenue. (HANDOUT)

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Gravel has worked for the city, for the Beltline, for private firms, and now runs his own one-man urban design shop. It has not been without struggle. In 2016, he resigned from a Beltline organization to protest inaction in building affordable housing along the increasingly pricey loop. The issue still looms large. And he is dissatisfied by the foot-dragging about building transit on the line.

Gravel is starting a restaurant with an enjoining think tank to generate ideas, and is also teaming up with Donray Von, a music mogul turned investor, in an ambitious plan to renovate West End Mall.

It’s all part of his Beltline dream drawn up in a long-ago student thesis.