Behind the BeltLine: CEO Brian Leary

By Han Vance

Atlanta BeltLine CEO Brian Leary attended Georgia Tech at the same time as Ryan Gravel, who first envisioned the project. Little did they know that their futures would eventually become entwined as progress on the BeltLine continues.

While at Tech, Leary envisioned dirty old industrial sites littering America to have untapped potential. The Atlantic Steel site west of Midtown was a long-abandoned brownfield, disconnected from the city by the Downtown Connector.

Leary discovered that zoning laws could be overcome by building raised areas high above the original ground levels, and he proposed doing so there in a 100-page document that served as his master’s thesis and de facto resume.

In a twist of fate fulfillment, Leary headed up the Atlantic Station project for The Jacoby Group and saw his dream come to fruition.

As Leary’s star was rising, across the wide swath of highway Gravel was getting noticed for his plan of the potential development of the 22 miles of old rail corridor that would eventually become the BeltLine. Mayor Shirley Franklin took the baton and formed Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and several years later Brian Leary was named the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

Atlantic Station had its skeptics (and still does if you follow some of the blogs that write about local business and retail), so Leary is no stranger to people questioning the progress and ultimate goal of a project. For those who are concerned about the BeltLine’s progress, Leary has an answer.

“We are not building a 30-year project and waiting for the public to use it,” Leary said from his office at Underground Atlanta. “We’ve already made $350 million of improvements as of the end of 2011. Parts of the BeltLine are open and in use today.”

The Eastside Trail project linking Piedmont Park to DeKalb Avenue has come under particular scrutiny as work has fallen behind schedule after crews ran into a myriad of problems with concerned residents and business owners, uncertain terrain, a retaining wall that was built short and had to be rebuilt, not to mention weather delays.

“We never necessarily set a hard deadline because that was the first construction in the old industrial rail corridor,” Leary said. “There had been no new construction there in 100 years, so we knew we were going to find things. Those unexpected things were expected.”

Leary said he wished the Eastside Trail had opened last year, but said it would open in 2012. “Demand for timely delivery on all of the components of the project is significant, but we are so focused on quality,” he stated. “We want to be sure we meet that world-class expectation of quality. Our investors and funders remain very supportive and recognize the complexities and challenges of such a multi-faceted evolutionary project.”

On the benefits of connectivity and mobility Leary said, “Tell me where we increase road capacity within the perimeter. Atlanta is the leading economic engine for the Southeast, and the project will put people closer to their jobs or where they want to go. It gives them other options besides being strictly car-committed: walking, biking, boarding, blading, taking transit.”

Contributor Han Vance is an Atlanta-based writer and former regional transportation manager. His forthcoming California travel narrative memoir is Golden State Genius, and his website is hanvance.com.

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