Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith resign from Beltline’s fundraising arm over affordability concerns
‘We have to make the Beltline a Beltline for everybody’
In a joint resignation letter submitted yesterday, Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith candidly and respectfully told the Atlanta Beltline Partnership board that they’re “supportive of the organization’s work, optimistic about the project’s future, and committed to remain active in its implementation for the people of this city.”
However, they felt they needed to “concentrate our efforts more directly on making sure that the Atlanta Beltline lives up to its promise and potential, and specifically, that its investments and supporting policies become more intentional about who they will benefit.”
The Beltline’s benefits must extend to everyone, the two write, especially those living on low incomes and in adjacent neighborhoods that are watching rents and property taxes jump now and when the project takes shape nearby.
Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit tasked with planning and developing the project, has set a goal of building at least 5,600 affordable units along the project over 25 years. Thus far they have only been able to help create a fraction of that amount. The Great Recession deserves some of the blame — Beltline affordable funding early on was geared more toward providing incentives for developers and for several years, developers weren’t developing. The affordable housing trust fund, which was tapped out years ago, is replenished with a percentage of each bond issuance to fund the project. Beltline officials are seeking the first new batch of bond issuances in more than five years. Officials have also partnered with organizations to help homeowners along the Westside Trail make needed repairs to houses.
But anyone looking for a place to live along the Eastside Trail can share stories about how an affordable place can be hard to find. Homes in neighborhoods along the Westside Trail are quickly rising in price. The lack of progress on equity and affordable housing is not good news for the long-term success of the project, which Gravel, activists, and residents envisioned from the beginning as being beneficial and within reach for all Atlantans, not just developers and the people who could afford to live in new mid-rises along the project. The Beltline was supposed to be different.
Gravel, who now leads his own design firm called Sixpitch, and Smith, the executive director of the Partnership for Southern Equity and a longtime observer and participant in the Beltline’s progress, say Beltline officials and policymakers have tried to make headway on the initiative. But the project is threatened by “inadequate attention and accountability to those outcomes.” Gravel says it’s not commensurate with the need. More must be done.
“The recent announcement of $7.5 million from TAD bonds, for example, will likely support fewer than 200 affordable units out of ABI’s obligation to 5,600 – it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the need,” they say. “As the economy roars back to life and growth in the city accelerates, this work is increasingly urgent and we feel strongly that our attention must be channeled directly toward it.”
Smith, speaking in an interview with CL, said he’d been concerned by ABI’s lack of an aggressive housing affordability agenda.” He said another concern was hearing from members of the citizen advisory group that makes recommendations to ABI on affordability who voiced frustration about not seeing a “real comprehensive commitment to equity and affordability, starting all the way at the top.”
“It you look at the suite of tools that Beltline has developed over years... if you look at it on paper, you’d say the Beltline is doing all these great things,” Smith said. “But what is being done to leverage all these tools in the appropriate way to see affordable housing on the Beltline? And it takes a deep commitment to utilize these tools and be committed to being open and working hard — that the Beltline is a Beltline for everyone, and the city is a city for everyone.”
“The solutions are many and multiple,” Gravel said during an interview. “We have to do a lot of things and they’re hard. It’s hard to do it. You have to build consensus and you have to move stuff forward. At the end of the day, this isn’t rocket science. There are experts who know what these can and should be. We just have to do it.”
Gravel and Smith also voiced concerns over how the board handled the dismissal of Chuck Meadows, the partnership’s previous executive director. Those actions “have put us both in difficult positions between what we believe is inadequate attention to equitable outcomes and our own personal and professional commitments for the project.”
Smith said he thought Meadows had been “extremely sensitive” to the issues of equity and affordability. He said the board discovered via email from the partnership’s executive committee that Meadows and the organization had parted ways. Smith was “taken aback because when you’re making a decision like that, for a CEO and a board to sever ties, that cannot and should not be made exclusively by the executive committee. The information was sent by the rest of the board and we were not given an opportunity to weigh in at all about our opinions.”
In a statement, the partnership said it was “disappointed that Ryan and Nathaniel did not feel they could advocate for these critical issues as members of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership board, but we respect their personal decisions and principled stance. 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 it considers equity and affordability part of the formula to make the Beltline successful. It said it works to contribute to that success, mentioning its work to: raise $10 million for the Westside Trail, which started pouring concrete today; push for policies requiring developments include affordable units; hold homeowner workshops to educate residents about staying in their homes; invest in public health along the Westside Trail. The partnership was also one of the first to start pursuing a community land trust, a complicated affordable housing model that provides permanent affordability. Under the model, a nonprofit owns land and a person can purchase the house located on it. The land trust board reformed several years ago and is wrapping up its business plan. It only includes a handful of homes currently, but leaders envision having hundreds of affordable units.
The organization also noted that the issues of affordability are citywide, require citywide solutions and will require appropriate investment from including government, philanthropy, the private sector, and others to accomplish these goals.
An email to an ABI spokeswoman was not returned.
Gravel and Smith could have continued to voice their concerns from inside the partnership, where they have a vote and sway. But there’s an opportunity to stoke change from the outside. In the letter, they note the partnership’s absorption of Friends of the Beltline, an early advocacy group that had strong grassroots ties. Smith said he started asking himself if he was helping to create a “Beltline for everyone” and making sure equity was “front and center.”
“In that, I thought maybe it’s time for me to take a step back and be engaged in the Beltline in a different way,” he said. “There are many ways to influence decision making. You can be on the inside or the outside. For me, it was important to think, what is the Beltline’s legacy? What is this really all about? It is what we want it to be. If we’re not standing up and being courageous for what the Beltline can be for all Atlantans, we are doing a disservice for everyone.”
Adds Gravel: “At the end of the day, we’re doing this project because the people of Atlanta stood up and said, ‘Let’s do this and make it for everybody.’ We’re accountable to that. When we talk about who’s paying for this, the people are paying for it.”
Both Gravel and Smith stressed that they’re supportive of the project and the organization. They just want to see them achieve the vision created nearly 10 years ago by a dedicated band of activists and community leaders. Smith says it’s important to make progress on the issue as voters are set to consider a $2.5 billion expansion of MARTA inside the city limits, and includes light rail transit along the Beltline’s southwest segment, which helped play a key role in securing the financing method to help fund the project.
“What’s going to happen to the west and south side if light rail is built and we have no affordable housing provisions there?” says Smith, who says he supports building a comprehensive transit system. “We’re going to see displacement like we haven’t seen since urban renewal in the 50s and 60s. The market is going to run to those areas and those people who were leveraged through the tax rolls to get the Beltline TAD will now be in a position to subsidize their own displacement. All of that plays together.”
Smith and Gravel both say they want to continue to be involved. And both say the decision was difficult. But they hope this marks the beginning of a “more robust and effective coalition of voices that can ensure that the project’s full, inclusive vision is realized.”
“It was tough for Ryan and I to do this because we really believe in the Beltline,” Smith says. “We grew up with the Beltline in a way, in it being a vision and now a reality. We felt as if we have a duty to the city and people to stand up and say, ‘We have to make the Beltline a Beltline for everybody.’ We have to live up to the values of this city and speak out. It’s not that we’re anti-Beltline. We’re pro-Atlanta, pro-inclusion, pro-equity. And right now the Beltline has not done a good job at putting equity and housing affordability front and center.”
Here’s the full resignation letter:
Dear Atlanta BeltLine Partnership Board, Mike Donnelly, Chair,
It is with the upmost respect that we submit our resignations from the Board of Directors of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, (ABP). We are supportive of the organization’s work, optimistic about the project’s future, and committed to remain active in its implementation for the people of this city. At this critical moment, however, we feel compelled to concentrate our efforts more directly on making sure that the Atlanta Beltline lives up to its promise and potential, and specifically, that its investments and supporting policies become more intentional about who they will benefit. We know you agree that its advantages must accrue to everyone, especially those who are otherwise most vulnerable to the changes it brings. We fear, however, that without more urgent and deliberate attention to these communities, we’ll end up building the Atlanta Beltline without achieving its vision.
That vision came from a big, diverse coalition of neighbors and local partners who defined what the Atlanta Beltline is and who it is for. Because our movement was inclusive from the beginning, over the years there have been many people working hard to ensure affordability and economic opportunity for everyone. We were a part of that effort, but even so, today we see the project’s success most threatened by inadequate attention and accountability to those outcomes. And while there have been success stories that we can be proud of, our coalition’s progress has not been commensurate with the scale of the challenges at hand. The recent announcement of $7.5 million from TAD bonds, for example, will likely support fewer than 200 affordable units out of ABI’s obligation to 5,600 – it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the need. As the economy roars back to life and growth in the city accelerates, this work is increasingly urgent and we feel strongly that our attention must be channeled directly toward it.
The departure of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership’s Executive Director, and the explanation offered both at the Board meeting on July 21 and in meetings since, have put us both in difficult positions between what we believe is inadequate attention to equitable outcomes and our own personal and professional commitments for the project. They have also highlighted the urgency to include the broader public in how these issues are addressed, and related to this, have helped illustrate to us an internal dissonance within the Partnership that has been present since its beginning.
By many accounts, when ABP absorbed Friends of the Belt Line back in 2005, the project lost a conduit for the grassroots, sometimes rabble-rousing voice of the people who had given it life in the first place, who had shaped its community momentum, and who are personally attuned to its social and economic impacts. ABP primarily refocused instead on raising private money for the acquisition of new parks and trails. This was also essential and urgent work, especially at that time. It literally laid the groundwork for much of the success we see today, and we should all be proud of that. Over time, however, this direction has proven uncomfortable with the uncertainty that often comes with community advocacy. We see our resignation, therefore, as a constructive first step in the correction of this historic mistake.
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. If they had not believed in a vision for our future, and if they had not worked so hard and insisted on its implementation, we certainly would not be building it today. In fact, if not for the underserved, “blighted” communities of south and west Atlanta, the Tax Allocation District would not have been allowed under state law and the idea would be gathering dust on a shelf. There’s little doubt our movement of city-wide, life-affirming change would have died a long time ago.
Understanding this accountability is essential, because we believe that who the Atlanta BeltLine is built for is just as important as whether it is built at all. Our earnest hope, therefore, is that our resignation not be construed as a lack of support for the project’s continued implementation or a lack of confidence in ABP’s vital role going forward. Rather, we hope it is the beginning of a more robust and effective coalition of voices that can ensure that the project’s full, inclusive vision is realized. Only then can we call it a success. This will take all of us, and so as we move ahead, we look forward to continuing to work with the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and others to achieve it.
With respect and thanks, please receive our resignations.
And here’s the partnership’s full statement:
Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith resigned from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership board of directors this week. Their resignations come at a time when the important issues of affordability and equity are being elevated in the public discourse – not only throughout the City of Atlanta but throughout the country. While disappointed that Ryan and Nathaniel did not feel they could advocate for these critical issues as members of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership board, we respect their personal decisions and principled stance. 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 Atlanta BeltLine is an unprecedented, ambitious project. From our inception, the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership has recognized the need for all stakeholders – government, philanthropy, business, non-profit, community, and institutional partners – to work together in a collaborative, coordinated, and often selfless manner if we are to attain the vibrant future for our city embodied in the Atlanta BeltLine.
The success of the Atlanta BeltLine requires an “all of the above” approach – strong investments from private philanthropy, dedicated public funding sources, bold affordable housing and equitable development policies, innovative programs providing access to economic opportunity, thoughtful planning and design, and much more.
The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership works continuously with our partners to keep all of these approaches pulling in the same direction. It’s why we rallied Atlanta’s philanthropic community to invest $10 million in the Westside Trail. It’s why we have been staunch advocates for permanent affordability and formed the organization to deliver it. It’s why we are supportive of inclusionary zoning. It’s why we are offering free homeowner workshops to help existing residents remain in their homes. It’s why we led the creation of a workforce development program recognized as a best practice by President Obama. It’s why we are investing $500,000 to improve public health in communities along the Westside Trail. It’s why we are vocal in our support for the TSPLOST and MARTA sales tax. Above all, it’s why we respect all those who want to help deliver the Atlanta BeltLine vision, are open to divergent views, and seek constructive paths forward.
The reality is that more needs to be done. The equity issues that are amplified by the Atlanta BeltLine are citywide issues that require citywide solutions and meaningful public, private and philanthropic investments commensurate with our investments in infrastructure. No other city has attempted something as bold and comprehensive as the Atlanta BeltLine, and very hard work lies ahead for all of us. The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership is committed to doing our part to keep us on track.