INtown at 20: How a master’s thesis became the BeltLine

Ryan Gravel stands on Ponce near the future Eastside Trail in 2004.
Ryan Gravel stands on Ponce near the future Eastside Trail in 2004.

By Clare S. Richie

Most of us know the Atlanta BeltLine. It’s where we walk, bike, run a 5K, watch the lantern parade, access parks and other neighborhoods. We’re hungry for this type of sustainable connectivity and community, which started fifteen years ago as an idea from then Georgia Tech graduate student, Ryan Gravel.

After spending his senior year in Paris, where he walked everywhere, ate fresh foods, and lost 15 pounds Gravel thought deeply about the role of city infrastructure in how we live our lives. Sidewalks versus highways, for example, encourage different lifestyles.

“Atlanta is a railroad town,” Gravel explained, “with compact mixed-use intown neighborhoods built around streetcars.” Gravel was fascinated by trains as a child growing up in Chamblee. So, when he needed a city-scale design project for his master’s thesis, Gravel knew what infrastructure was missing to revitalize Atlanta – transit. His master’s thesis became the kernel of a vision that would transform a 22-mile loop of old railroads with transit, trails, and green space to promote economic growth and quality-of-life in 45 neighborhoods.

The bridge over Ponce between Ford Factory Lofts and Ponce City Market before the BeltLine.
The bridge over Ponce between Ford Factory Lofts and Ponce City Market before the BeltLine.

Needless to say, Gravel graduated, but his idea was temporarily shelved as he went to work for an architecture firm. It was his masterplan for Inman Park Village, deciding whether or not to place the parking deck close to the old railroad line, which compelled Gravel to share his idea with his colleagues. That was the spark.

In their free time, Gravel and his colleagues mailed out letters and maps detailing the vision. Cathy Woolard, Atlanta City Councilmember at that time, was frustrated by the lack of city transit and embraced the Atlanta BeltLine. “With Cathy’s help, we used the NPU [neighborhood planning unit] system as a framework for sharing the idea all around the city,” Gravel recalled. From 2001 through 2004, Gravel spent countless evenings and weekends talking to NPUs, neighborhood groups, schools, churches, businesses, and anyone else who would listen.

The idea grew into a grassroots campaign of local citizens and civic leaders, with Gravel working full-time for Friends of the Belt Line. Other groups added to his idea. The Trust for Public Land proposed 1,400 acres of new parks, Trees Atlanta asked to plant an arboretum, Mayor Shirley Franklin suggested an affordable housing initiative, and more. Gravel welcomed these new ideas – they were better for the city and built a broader constituency.

The Eastside Trail approaching Ponce before the BeltLine.
The Eastside Trail approaching Ponce before the BeltLine.

In 2005, the 6,500-acre Atlanta BeltLine Tax Allocation District (TAD) passed with broad-based support and is expected to generate approximately $1.4 billion, covering close to one third of the total program cost. The same year, Friends of the Belt Line merged with Mayor Franklin’s Atlanta BeltLine Partnership. Wearing many hats along the way – Friends of BeltLine staff, city planner, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership Board member, and currently an urban designer at Perkins+Will – Gravel remains dedicated to the BeltLine and proud of all who came together to make it happen.

 “The BeltLine is already doing what we said it would do,” Gravel said. The first two-mile phase of trail is a popular city feature with a 3:1 economic impact, turning $350 million investment into more than $1 billion of new mixed-use redevelopment. His favorite picture is a woman walking on the BeltLine with her groceries. “It is already showing us how Atlanta can revitalize its infrastructure to promote a more sustainable life.”

The Eastside Trail today.
The Eastside Trail today.

There’s still work to be done. The Eastside Trail design calls for access points to Ponce de Leon, lighting, and for water fountains accessing water lines criss-crossing under the trail. “We could see trains in corridor in the next five years if we push for it. Let’s pass a referendum and collect the funds we need to get it done,” Gravel urged.

“The BeltLine will evolve over our lifetime,” he reflected. For Gravel, future phases should include a more robust public art program with permanent exhibits, performance venues, and artist housing and work spaces. It should also include equitable access for all income levels, green standards for building in the corridor, and community food networks.

The BeltLine is a model and the world is watching. In fact, Gravel’s passion for revitalizing infrastructure has him traveling the world to research, document, and tell the story of how cities like Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit, and Rotterdam can transform degraded rivers, canals, and railroads to renew their cities, health and spirit.

  1. Yes, the Beltline should evolve. I know! Lets dig up these railroad tracks and put down some NEW RAILROAD TRACKS!!! Oh wait, we just dug up the old tracks… Hummmm.

    If only the designers could accept the fact that it is simply not wide enough for BOTH Streetcar Transit and Trail Transit. THERE IS SIMPLY NOT ENOUGH ROOM.

    The good news is I figured out why. The confusion lies in the fact that math requirements at Georgia Tech are considerably lower for Architecture students than for Engineers. He just didn’t do the math right.

    Thankfully it does not take an Engineer or Architect to figure it out.

    Anyone that has been on the Beltline on a nice weekend day can tell you the trail needs to be wider. A lot wider.

    So try this thesis on for size: Cyclists should have their own 12′ wide path that runs alongside the existing trail(which would be for jogger and walkers only), separated by a 12′ green zone (set aside for art small talk and catching up with neighbors and old friends).

    And don’t get me wrong, the current trail is awesome in so many ways but it is THE TRAIL that should evolve, not the Streetcar.

    Let’s keep those railroad tracks extincted. (Seriously, they have plans for over 60 miles of streetcar/train tracks!!!!)


    Thank you!

  2. @JP Michalik

    Ludicrous and shortsighted argument. There are plenty of places to jog in this city. What we don’t have is a robust transit network. The Beltline was always conceived of as a transit project. The Tiger grants and other funding has been for transit improvements. Finding alternative rights of way for public transit when we already have the rail corridors is a huge was of resources. I appreciate that you enjoy the jogging and biking, but this city needs transit and the Beltline is the best shot we have at getting it.

  3. Bicycles are transit. That’s why you see them on roads. Trains/Streetcars belong in children’s playrooms.
    Just Google it.
    Check out this recent article about Seattle’s Streetcar (Yes, TOTAL FAILURE.)
    They even call it the SLUT (Not me, them.)

    This article shows the total success of Bicycle Transit in Barcelona (Yes, the words bicycle and transit next to each other, crazy I know.)

    So chill out, buy a bike and enjoy the fresh air. We can all appreciate your hard-on for Mr. Gravel and trains just please keep the Beltline Streetcar free. I thank you in advance.

  4. Atlanta is HUGE. There is no way everyone wants to bike all around it every single day. And even if they DID, what about those that have kids? Dragging a 5 year old on a 10 mile one-way bike trip doesn’t sound like much fun. Or even 2 miles one way. More than just adults live in cities. And what about those that can’t ride a bike? Do we just ignore their transit needs? Yes, bikes are part of transit, and should be utilized, but so should mass transit.
    Streetcars and trains exist quite happily in other parts of the world, right alongside bicycles.
    Btw, Barcelona is 40 square miles. Atlanta is over 3.5 times that. What works in a small city, may not necessarily work in such a large one.

  5. @JP Michalik

    please do not discredit architects just because you think we don’t take enough math courses. Architects have to learn many different subjects ranging from art and philosophy to calculus and physics. I doubt you are this well rounded. Furthermore, the congestion you have experienced on the Beltline is a product of its success not failure. The designed trails and paths were probably calculated based on anticipated traffic. The Beltline’s success is attracting more people to the city and along the trail, the calculations have to modified to reflect this growth. It takes endless hours to design for the future. We don’t have a magic ball to look into and our mathematical models can only predict to a certain extent which are based on past and present data. Ryan Gravel’s thesis was, and is, phenomenal. The flaws that have occurred are a factor of developers’ agendas and political interests not the architect’s utopian vision.

  6. Yes Atlanta is big around 135 square miles. The Beltine encompasses approximately 38 square miles of that. My point is that your kid(s) as well as everyone else who uses the Beltline is at risk when using a path that is used at over capacity, with poor signage, no lights, no erosion control, etc. There are countless near misses on the Beltline every week. Will thing get better when those 3,000 new apartments get filled?

    At some point it is healthy to take a step back and get some perspective. The Beltline is wildly popular without the Streetcar, so why not work on making the trail element the absolute best it can be.

    If the engineers were really being honest they would tell you the $3 Billion Beltline Streetcar addition really can’t fit. But they would be out of a job.

    Just go out to the Beltline and visually subtract a 20′ corridor from the entire thing. Yes, the 20′ feet are there but I could also fit an elephant in my living room. Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

    The 3 Billion would be better spent on the schools (because they are terrible). Some more on public safety and your kid as well as others can walk to an Atlanta Public School being healthy and active.

    But the powers that be, who don’t send their kids to public school, insist on this overly complicated solution. Why??? Well try Googling “Siemens corruption”, and you’ll see why.

    Siemens, who makes and sells the Streetcar, plead guilty to bribery and corruption charges and paid a 1.6 BILLION DOLLAR FINE. They spend a BILLION dollars a year in bribes!

    So go ahead build your Streetcar, raise our taxes to a point where we can’t afford to live here anymore. I just love it when the Beltline people profess “We’re bringing “affordable” housing.” Affordable housing???? Is $1,465/month for a 655 square foot apartment 1 bedroom/1 bath apartment in Ponce City Market affordable?

    I wouldn’t have any money left for food let alone being able to send my kids to private school.

  7. Yes, I’m sure Groveling’s firm is looking forward the “endless hours”, to bilk the tax payers even more than they already have.
    And if by well-rounded you mean expensing wedding gifts from Pottery Barn with tax payer money like Beltline CEO Mr. Leary did, than I am not. It just makes me embarrassed to admit that I graduated from Tech.
    Project calculations should be modified to reflect common sense not the limit of Groveling’s ego as it approaches infinity.
    Architects can do many things but being able to check their ego at the door is obviously not one.

Sign up for our emails

Enter your email and stay on top of local news!