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Atlanta BeltLine Visionary Resigns from Project’s Fundraising Arm Amid Concerns over Housing Affordability

Partnership for Southern Equity founder Nathaniel Smith.

Partnership for Southern Equity founder Nathaniel Smith.

The visionary behind Atlanta’s BeltLine — a former railway corridor repurposed as a multi-use trail encircling the core of Atlanta  — and one of the city’s most prominent equity advocates have parted ways with the project’s fundraising arm over issues regarding affordable housing along the 22-mile green space trail.

According to the Saporta Report, Atlanta BeltLine founder Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, penned a joint letter of resignation to Atlanta Beltline Partnership chairman Mike Donnelly on Monday. In their letter, the duo cited critical concerns over the lack of progress in housing affordability, governance and equitable growth around the city of Atlanta.

“At this critical moment…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,” read the letter signed by both Gravel and Smith. “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.”

While the Beltline Partnership is in charge of the project’s fundraising, advocacy and affordability efforts, the former board members said they felt the organization just wasn’t doing enough to ensure economical housing for people of all income levels who wished to live along the corridor. Smith also raised the issue of gentrification, which is a common kick-back of large renovation projects like the Beltline.

“[There was] a lack of an aggressive strategy by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. in particular to minimize displacement,” Smith told Atlanta Black Star. “We know that when you do development of this magnitude in low-wealth communities and communities of color that have been left behind by the market, there’s a strong chance that when the market comes back, it’ll come back with a vengeance.”

“If communities aren’t prepared for that, then what you’ll see is communities being displaced and pushed out,” he continued. “I believe that since the BeltLine’s inception… little has been done to create a strategy or be aggressive around the channels associated with displacement and gentrification.”

Smith went on to cite the skyrocketing housing prices around Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward and the Ponce City Market — neighborhoods that were once affordable for the average working family.

Atlanta BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel.

Atlanta BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel. Photo by Josh Meister.

Another concern mentioned in the letter was the issue of governance within the Partnership. The duo took issue with the way the Partnership’s former executive, Chuck Meadows, was pushed out of the organization. Smith said the BeltLine board’s decision to part ways with the CEO was ultimately made by the executive committee and excluded the full board.

“The full board was not given an opportunity to weigh in on something as important as that,” he said.

Lastly, Gravel and Meadows touched on the Partnership’s tendency to prioritize fundraising over its other key responsibilities, like affordability.

“The recent announcement of $7.5 million from TAD [tax allocation district] 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 said in their letter.

Gravel told the Saporta Report that he hoped the board would be more aggressive and involved on this issue, rather than dedicating most of its time to fundraising.

Partnership Chairman Donnelly has since issued a statement on the duo’s resignation:

“We spoke with both Ryan and Nathaniel today, and we know this is a difficult decision that neither of them came to easily. They each confirmed that they remain supportive of the Atlanta BeltLine and the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, and we are committed to continuing to work with them and others to advance the equitable development issues that are critical to our mission and the overall success of the project. We will be meeting with Ryan and Nathaniel as soon as possible to continue the work together of addressing these important challenges.”


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