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A Beltline visionary makes an exit, but the project pushes on

Career interests drive Gravel's decision

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Ryan Gravel, who as a Georgia Tech graduate student came up with the wildly popular idea to build a loop of transit and trails circling Atlanta, has relinquished his city post as senior project manager for the ambitious initiative he set into motion. He'd been on the job for about six months.

The idea for the 22-mile "Beltline," as Gravel christened it, sprung from his 1999 thesis that described the potential for development along a near-continuous circle of mostly unused railroad tracks that ring the city. Since then, city officials, developers, and parks and transit advocates have rallied full-force behind the Beltline, calling it one of the most "transformative" proposals in city history -- with a price tag totaling roughly $2.4 billion for its two-decade construction.

Gravel's departure Jan. 12 follows two significant hurdles in the Beltline's path: Its funding mechanism faces a court challenge, and the city's negotations with developers who own a large portion of the Beltline's transit right-of-way have reached an impasse. But Gravel says his decision has nothing to do with those issues.

"The project is still very consistent with what I always thought it would be and wanted it to be," he tells CL. "But I've been trying to work on the Beltline in a way that's personally rewarding, where I can develop skills that will take my career in the direction I want to go."

Gravel felt so mismatched to the job, which is heavy on planning and light on the design work that's more consistent with his background, that he turned down several entreaties to stick with the city, according to Terri Montague, CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit agency created to oversee the Beltline's planning and implementation. But that doesn't rule out any future role Gravel might play.

"If we have an opportunity down the line to involve him more directly again, we will certainly work towards that if that's of interest of him," Montague says. "He has been a tremendous asset and a tremendous champion of the Beltline."

In the meantime, the tax-allocation district that would fund the majority of the Beltline project -- approved last year by City Council, the Fulton County Commission and the Atlanta School Board -- is on hold pending a legal challenge in Fulton Superior Court. Yet other funding initiatives are moving forward, including a campaign that was kicked off last week to raise $60 million in private pledges.

The city's planning department also has proposed a massive zoning "overlay" that would create guidelines for development flanking the Beltline. City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed legislation within months.

According to Liz Coyle, vice chair of the city's Neighborhood Planning Unit-F, "This legislation is designed to protect the integrity of the Beltline itself, the actual transit-trails-parks part of it."

GET INVOLVED: A public hearing on development along the Beltline will be held Thurs., Jan. 25, 6 p.m., in Council chambers at Atlanta City Hall, 68 Mitchell St. For more info, visit www.atlantaga.gov/government/planning/beltline.aspx.

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