Fourteen years after architect Ryan Gravel wrote his master’s degree thesis proposing a way to ease traffic gridlock in Atlanta, the Georgia Tech graduate is transforming his hometown — helping to turn a mostly abandoned railroad loop into a 22-mile system of trails, parks and light-rail transit called the Atlanta BeltLine.
The 25-year initiative is the nation’s largest redevelopment project.
Monitoring the BeltLine’s progress, Gravel steps over rusted railroad tracks encircling downtown Atlanta and contemplates how the grubby freight rail corridor one day will nudge Atlantans out of their cars to explore new transit options.
“The cool thing about railroad tracks is that they go somewhere,” says Gravel, striding across splintering wooden rail ties a stone’s throw from Hank Aaron Drive. “Railroads once helped to build Atlanta’s economy, and maybe they will help build the next major chapter in Atlanta’s life, too.”
Gravel was 27 when he developed his idea in 1999. His thesis paid homage to Atlanta’s founding during the 1830s as a railroad junction, nicknamed Terminus, where more than a dozen rail companies converged lines and eventually developed a “beltline” bypass around Atlanta, attracting industrial investment along the loop. When America’s interstate highway system was born in 1956, however, freight began shifting from trains to trucks, leaving behind long stretches of vacant track and industrial land as Atlanta sprawled into one of the South’s largest cities.
An architecture and urban planning student, Gravel recognized the value of the rail property for his car-clogged community.
“The beltline is a forgotten resource,” Gravel says. “You don’t notice it as you’re driving under a railroad bridge or over buried tracks, but it’s an existing infrastructure that can be retrofitted to change the way we get around Atlanta and the way we think about our city.”
Earning him a graduate degree in 1999, Gravel’s neatly bound thesis was shelved in Georgia Tech’s library and quickly forgotten. “It’s not like I thought we were actually going to do it,” says Gravel, who went to work for an Atlanta architectural firm after college.
In 2001, however, while working on a project near the beltline tracks, the young architect shared his idea with colleagues who encouraged him to contact local and regional transportation officials. He mailed out about 50 information packets, including one to Cathy Woolard, chairwoman of the city’s transportation committee.
“It was a ‘Eureka!’ moment,” recalls Woolard, 56, who received Gravel’s proposal on the same day she met with constituents and officials bemoaning the lack of transit options for residents and commuters. “I immediately loved the idea and realized that this could be a solution to a significant challenge in Atlanta.”
Elected City Council president soon after, Woolard ushered Gravel to neighborhood gatherings, churches, Rotary Club meetings—wherever citizens would listen.
“People fell in love with the idea,” says Gravel, who contended that a redeveloped transit loop would stimulate investments in 45 inner-city neighborhoods ringing Atlanta. “People who hadn’t seen new investment in their neighborhoods in 30 years got really excited and saw this as a way to create a new environment in a smart way.”
As encouraging feasibility studies were unveiled, endorsements followed by then-Mayor Shirley Franklin and agencies and organizations that embraced the beltline as an avenue to develop new parks, public art, affordable housing and environmental enhancements, in addition to transportation improvements. In 2005, city officials approved the BeltLine Redevelopment Plan and designated anticipated increases in property tax revenue along the loop to cover much of the project’s $2 billion price tag. Work began in 2006 as land was acquired.
Today, many of the railroad tracks have been removed and six miles of trails are complete. Development of a light rail line is projected to begin within a decade.
“Everywhere concrete gets poured for the BeltLine, new investments are happening,” says Woolard, now a public affairs consultant in Atlanta. “This is a story of a young man who had a great idea. It’s an inspirational model of how to work together to get things done in an organic way.”
Gravel now is employed by Perkins+Will, a design firm working on the BeltLine, and he serves on the board of the nonprofit partnership raising awareness about the project and helping to fund it. He and his wife, Karen, live with their children Lucia, 8, and Jonas, 5, in a neighborhood along an undeveloped section of the loop, and he periodically walks the trails as they open.
“See, there are people already!” he says, pointing to joggers on a new path where freight trains once rumbled.