Ryan Gravel made a name for himself by coming up with the idea of the Atlanta BeltLine. Now, he’s calling for a return to more grassroots involvement in the project.
In a letter to the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership earlier this week, he and Nathaniel Smith resigned from the board of the organization, saying they’re worried it has not focused enough on equitable development and affordable housing.
“We believe that the primary accountability for the Atlanta Beltline is not to private funders, civic partners, or to organizational leadership, but to the people of Atlanta who have given the most to make the project possible,” they wrote.
“While I’m obviously super excited to see the project move forward, and everything coming into place, I’m like a lot of people increasingly concerned about making sure that the outcomes we see accrue to everybody,” Gravel said in an interview.
He wants to see not just new affordable housing, but also jobs, businesses and ways for people to continue to afford the neighborhoods they rent in.
“The Partnership does a lot of great things, including working on affordability and equity. But I think the need is much greater than what we’re talking about today,” he said. “Out in neighborhoods when you talk to people, people need to see more. The pressures are real for people, and we need to be more aggressive.”
The Partnership is a nonprofit that fundraises for Atlanta BeltLine Incorporated, which is the organization that’s actually building the trail. There used to be another group, Friends of the BeltLine, that brought more grassroots involvement, says Gravel. It was rolled into the Partnership in 2005.
“You know, when you think about why the Partnership exists, it raises funds, and that’s important,” said Mtamanika Youngblood, who was an early member of the BeltLine Partnership. “Those of us who were involved early on were very clear that that was not its only job. It was really to also uphold the social impact.”
She said she thinks the BeltLine has lost sight of those goals:
“It is a train that has left the station. The question is, is anyone willing to step in front of it and say, ‘Stop’?”
The BeltLine is working on adding more affordable housing. The Atlanta BeltLine Inc. has been behind on that initiative, but is putting more money into affordable housing now. The goal is to build 5,600 units by 2030.
“That’s a huge investment,” said Gravel. “If we get there and we achieve it, that’s significant. But still it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need.”
Gravel says people from the Partnership, ABI and the city of Atlanta are all doing good work on the BeltLine, and he doesn’t want his choice to step down from the board to suggest that he doesn’t support it.
And the Partnership says it respects Gravel and Smith’s decision.
“We remain committed to continuing to work with them and myriad partners to promote solutions that deliver the full, inclusive vision of the Atlanta BeltLine to all of the communities it connects,” the organization said in a statement.
Gravel and Smith are calling on more community voices; Gravel says if someone started a new group he’d participate, but he doesn’t plan to start his own.
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