Ryan Gravel, the urban planning guru who dreamed up the Atlanta BeltLine, says Sandy Springs can ride the “tsunami of change” to success by creatively planning a new vision for assets like the riverfront.

And, speaking at the Sandy Springs Conservancy’s annual “Thought Leaders” dinner on the night I-85 burned and collapsed, Gravel also suggested a “rethinking” of I-285’s car-only uses.

Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who came up with the Atlanta BeltLine concept, speaks at the Sandy Springs Conservancy “Thought Leaders” dinner March 30 at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North. (John Ruch)

“Certainly, in Sandy Springs, not changing is not an option,” Gravel told the audience of over 100 community leaders at the invitation-only dinner March 30 at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North. He praised the city—which is redoing its zoning and land-use plans—for thinking ahead about handling metro Atlanta’s population boom and leveraging that change to “live the life that we want.”

The BeltLine is a 22-mile ring of multiuse trails, parks and transit lines being built around Atlanta, mostly on old railroad beds. Long-range plans have its system connecting to Sandy Springs via MARTA and the PATH400 trail from Buckhead.  Hearing from the planner who envisioned that repurposing had an impact on Mayor Rusty Paul, who told the crowd he would be changing one of his favorite sayings, “A community that’s not growing is dying.”

“I need to rephrase that—a city not reinventing itself is dying,” the mayor said.

Asked where Sandy Springs might do a similar reinvention, Gravel said he was impressed by one natural feature when he recently looked at the city map.

“When you see the river in Sandy Springs, it’s remarkable,” he said of the 20-mile section of the Chattahoochee that forms a city boundary. “The asset that you have is ridiculous—in a good way, obviously.”

Traffic and transit were also on the agenda. While Gravel showed a slide of Cleveland’s once-notorious river so polluted it caught fire, Atlanta’s I-85 in Buckhead was burning and collapsing on national news. The mayor almost missed the event due to emergency meetings.

“Sandy Springs is so lucky, regionally, to have MARTA rail right now,” Gravel said. He wasn’t referring to the specific fire incident, but it underscored his point about the general need for transit expansion and one of the city’s other big assets.

Inventing the BeltLine

Every year, the Conservancy, a parks advocacy nonprofit, brings in a green-space planning expert for the dinner and a private meeting with city officials the following day. Gravel was their most prominent guest so far. A wunderkind who planned the transformative BeltLine as his Georgia Tech thesis, Gravel was recently hired to run a long-range citywide plan for Atlanta, and he’s touring the globe with his popular new book about the BeltLine’s urban planning lessons, “Where We Want to Live.”  The Chamblee native is a sought-after speaker whose recent metro appearances include an influential urban-planning tour last year on Buford Highway, where he discussed ways to boost its diverse immigrant community without displacing it.

Gravel’s main theme is that infrastructure—like streets or water systems—don’t just do their specific jobs; they also create a certain lifestyle that can be good, bad or both. In his Conservancy speech, Gravel covered other themes from his book: envisioning new uses for old infrastructure; harnessing the energy of changing times to local advantage; and looking at grassroots-based ideas as more important than city-made ones.

Ryan Gravel, left, talks with Mayor Rusty Paul before the Sandy Springs Conservancy dinner. (John Ruch)

Urban planning, he said, dictates a “way of life for ourselves and it matters what we build…Infrastructure isn’t just a way to move people around….it’s the foundation of our economy. It’s the foundation of our culture.”

He noted that Sandy Springs is a product of such decisions made during a previous era of major change—the 1950s boom of suburbia.

“We didn’t call it sprawl. We called it the future, and it was,” Gravel said. “We radically changed the way we were building our lives.”

That car-oriented style of long streets and big yards was enormously beneficial to the people who could afford it or who were allowed to access it over racial barriers, he said—including his own family. But there were downsides, too:  traffic, “social isolation and political polarization.”

Gravel talked about the personal effects of urban design. He cited a college trip to Paris, which helped him to envision the pedestrian-oriented BeltLine, where he lost 15 pounds because he walked everywhere on the city’s famous avenues and ate fresh foods.

He noted that the existing part of the BeltLine trail isn’t just used for biking and walking, but has expanded to such unexpected uses as the annual Lantern Parade. His own young children are part of a generation that now expects Atlanta’s urban life to be that way, he said. He drew laughter by recounting how they recently protested when he wanted to drive, rather than bike, to the grocery store.  “That’s ridiculous to us—because you’re all laughing,” but the next generation will have that lifestyle, he said.

Affordability challenges

The sheer real estate value of the BeltLine was of local interest, too, and Gravel had impressive numbers: About $450 million spent on acquisition and construction so far, which has attracted about $3.7 billion in private investment.

But it has also sparked gentrification, and Gravel said an issue in this year’s Atlanta mayoral race should be how to tackle the affordability challenge of the BeltLine and development in general. He didn’t mention that he recently resigned from the BeltLine’s private-sector partnership board in protest of its unfulfilled affordable-housing goals. Sandy Springs is concerned about affordability, too, and attempting to address it in the new zoning code.

Several attendees asked Gravel how his unusual, grassroots-driven way of planning could be sparked in Sandy Springs. Melody Harclerode, the Conservancy’s new executive director, asked specifically about the future of the Perimeter highway, which Gravel writes about in his book as both an economic boon and eventually today’s bane of traffic and pollution.

“Y’all are so lucky to have Melody here because I’ve never heard that question….But I love it,” Gravel said. “I love the idea of rethinking 285.”

“It’s a public space,” he said, reframing the usual picture of the highway and suggesting that some of its many lanes be used for something other than cars. “Instead of thinking of it as a barrier between ITP and OTP [inside and outside the Perimeter], think of it as a place that people come to somehow.”

Award and politics

Congressional candidate Judson Hill, center, joins Sandy Springs Conservancy board member Sean O’Toole, left, and Ryan Gravel at the dinner. (John Ruch)

The Conservancy announced that its annual Greenspace Champion Award went posthumously to Peggy Miles, who donated her former family property, Lost Corner, to the city as a park. Mayor Paul accepted the award, which will be placed in park’s cottage.

Congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, left, joins other guests at the Sandy Springs Conservancy dinner. (John Ruch)

Among the attendees were two of the 18 candidates for the 6th Congressional District seat. Judson Hill, a Republican who formerly served as a local state senator, sat next to Gravel for part of the event. Democrat Jon Ossoff, who has gained attention for polling well in the majority-Republican district, sat at a table in the rear.