Catching up with BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel

By Han Vance

In a three-part series, Atlanta INtown paper has profiled the people behind the Atlanta BeltLine, the 22-mile loop of walking trails, parks and eventual light rail that encircles the city core. Dropping into the Old Fourth Ward Skate Park with the original visionary behind the BeltLine, Ryan Gravel, I ask him if he could envision this when he was sitting in class at Georgia Tech a decade ago.

“No. This is pretty incredible,” Ryan Gravel answers. “The Fourth Ward Park was part of the Fourth Ward Master Plan, the BeltLine just gave it a little push. Cities have to compete. The majority of younger people want to live in urban areas, and the cities that want those people have to create areas they would want to live in. The BeltLine changes not only the way the city is but also the way people think about the city, what people imagine they might do on the weekend, why they would come to a city for a convention or to go to school.”

Born in Louisiana and raised in Chamblee, Gravel found the sprawling Atlanta suburbs to be a less than perfect universe. He attended Georgia Tech for college, earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture and two master’s degrees. While there, he dreamt of redeveloping the preexisting yet long-abandoned historic rail corridor. Using well laid out urban areas such as Savannah and Paris as his models, Gravel envisioned a connected and ultimately more walk-able city. The preliminary plans for a belt line project in Atlanta were released as his master’s thesis.

As an employee of Surber Barber Choate & Hertlein Architects after college, Gravel was encouraged by co-workers to keep the dream alive by distributing his idea to people of influence in Atlanta. “If we just keep talking about it long enough,” the thinking went, “maybe it will happen.”

Cathy Woolard, the then Councilwoman of District 6 and chair of the city transportation committee, latched onto the concept and was its first public official as champion.

Gravel is currently employed at architectural firm Perkins + Will, which contracted to be responsible for the design of the BeltLine. His professional path to actually working on the building of the BeltLine has been circuitous and multi-experiential.

“I joined Perkins + Will in 2008, before we had the BeltLine contract. The TAD (Tax Allocation District) passed for the whole BeltLine in 2005, creating a source for some funding over 25 years. I also spent about a year doing urban planning independently under my company Gravel, Inc. I was with the City of Atlanta’s Bureau of Planning for about a half of a year. I was a volunteer for years with Friends of the BeltLine after founding that; later was able to make it as a full-time job. Later worked for the BeltLine Partnership, now more recently on the Board of BeltLine Partnership. It’s amazing to be working on this project.”

The Transportation Initiative (also called T-SPLOST) is up for vote in the 10-county Greater Atlanta Metro region on July 31, where the approval of a one-cent sales tax could yield significant traffic reduction via a myriad of diverse transportation projects. The BeltLine transit projects would have an advanced implementation timeline if the initiative passes. Gravel seems confident of the BeltLine’s future regardless.

Several newer projects throughout the United States have recently looked to the Atlanta BeltLine as a guiding influence for part of an urban model. I ask Gravel if he had a specific project that influenced his vision.

“Not really,” he replies, “a few of the things I saw in Paris. It just came together as an idea and then that idea kept evolving…and it keeps evolving today.”

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