The visionary behind the Atlanta BeltLine is setting his sights on Buford Highway as the very first project of a new urban planning nonprofit he created.
“I love Buford Highway,” said Ryan Gravel in a recent interview in his office on the eighth story of Ponce City Market. “Buford Highway has this amazing spirit, culture and vibrancy, [and it] would be inspiring to see the next chapter of that story.”
Gravel, whose thesis at Georgia Tech evolved into the renowned BeltLine, recently created a new nonprofit called Generator, an “idea studio” that is “committed to the production of ideas about cities that nobody is asking for, but that just might change the world,” he said. Funding for Generator will come from a restaurant, named “Aftercar,” that he said will have an urban dystopian theme, recreating the vibe of movies such as a “Mad Max” or “Blade Runner.”
His first Generator workshop is a School of Design class at Georgia Tech that begins Aug. 22 and will focus on Buford Highway, the corridor that runs through Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville. Home to more than 1,000 immigrant-owned businesses, Buford Highway is a regional attraction in large part because of its ethnic and cultural diversity that many know because of its numerous restaurants.
Korean, Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Central American, Somali and Ethiopian goods and services are part of the fabric of Buford Highway’s “International Corridor.” But as metro Atlanta grows by an expected 2.5 million people in the next 20 years, the property values along the road will continue to increase. Gentrification and redevelopment threaten to change the nature of the corridor.
Gravel’s Generator is partnering with another nonprofit, We Love BuHi, founded by Brookhaven resident Marian Liou to preserve and promote Buford Highway’s cultural diversity. The ideas they hope to be generated by Georgia Tech students will be ways to acknowledge the growth of the region while also finding ways to celebrate and preserve the diversity of the people who live and work on Buford Highway.
Liou said Gravel’s focus on Buford Highway could become “a model for suburban immigrant communities nationwide and beyond.”
“Ryan is not only a visionary, he went and helped make a big, bold idea happen,” she said. “I hope that this continued focus on Buford Highway and energy from one of our most innovative and fiercely conscientious thinkers encourages local residents, business owners, community leaders and city officials and staff to think even more protectively, appreciatively and creatively about this community we as Atlantans, and Americans, are so fortunate to have right here.”
Gravel knows Buford Highway well. He grew up in Chamblee and his father, an Air Force veteran, flew Cessnas out of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. He remembers shopping at the mall that is now Plaza Fiesta.
Last year, he was the keynote speaker for a “bus crawl” on Buford Highway organized by We Love BuHi and the MARTA Army [advocates for transit ridership]. He discussed his ideas for the corridor and the importance of culture-based planning.
“I think a lot of immigrant communities are more inventive because they have lived in different kinds of conditions, different places in the world and know different models of how people live,” Gravel said.
Gravel, Liou and others also recently wrapped up a Buford Highway Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) put together by the Atlanta Regional Commission for Chamblee and Doraville. Ideas from the LCI include everything from wider sidewalks and bus lanes to a night market, mixed-income residential units, and public art.
Selecting the corridor as his very first foray into his new Generator nonprofit was a “no-brainer,” he said.
The main mission of the Generator class is to allow students to become more comfortable generating ideas, he said. They will research information needed to back up their ideas and to pitch them and also learn about the role of policy, politics and the press in finding ways to implement the ideas, he said.
“Some ideas will be realistic, civic proposals,” Gravel predicted. “But some might just be provocative, to get people thinking. It doesn’t really matter. This [Generator workshop] on Buford Highway is about finding a way of recognizing the cultural diversity and the need to preserve the cultural diversity.”
Cities tend to have straightforward issues and solutions that surround the ideas of transit and affordability, Gravel said. The suburbs, however, are built fundamentally differently than urban areas, “and are facing new challenges people haven’t faced before. How to solve them requires innovation,” he said.
As Gravel explained, when people get in their cars in the morning to commute to work and are forced sit in traffic for hours on I-285, they do not even look at the other motorists surrounding them. Most likely, they have left a home where they live with people who look and think like them and drive to their job where they are most likely also surrounded by people who look and think like them, he said.
Finding ways to get people outside those bubbles encourages empathy and creates spaces for national healing at a time communities are hurting due to a polarized political climate, he said.
“The only way we heal from this is that we get to know each other and make better decisions to support each other,” he said. “When you see people, that translates into the voting booth … and you learn empathy for people different than you.”
Nurturing a cultural movement
Love is not a word one may associate with city planning, but for Gravel, the word and the emotion are crucial to creating places people want to live.
“I believe the challenges we are facing as a city, as a region, as a country … that some answers are specific, but more broadly there is a cultural movement that has to take place where we love each other more,” the urban planner said.
“I know that sounds Pollyanna,” he added with a grin.
For Gravel, though, creating cities with such basics as public transit and parks that enable people from varying backgrounds to interact with each other, to get to know each other and, more fundamentally, see each other, will help create a social and cultural environment that will allow people to solve the bigger problems facing our world.
It’s an approach he outlined in his recent acclaimed book “Where We Want to Live,” and one he is putting into practice with Atlanta’s new “City Design Project,” an attempt to plan for explosive Intown growth in the coming decades.
And there’s nothing Pollyanna about that, he said.
“It’s not that we don’t know the answers,” he said. “It’s we’re not doing them.”
How to “do them,” to find ways to implement the answers, means coming up with ideas, he said.
The restaurant Aftercar, slated to open next summer on the BeltLine under the ownership and management of a business partner of Gravel’s, will provide the revenue stream for the nonprofit Generator, while also providing a place people can go to “break bread” while discussing the future of their cities.
Many social movements began in bars and restaurants, from Atlanta’s own Paschal’s, known as the “kitchen table” of the civil rights movement, to Stonewall Inn, a New York City bar where the modern-day LGBTQ movement was sparked, he said.
“There is value in ideas,” he said. “I want to create a place for that.”
Buford Highway is very different than the Atlanta BeltLine, but the lesson learned from the BeltLine is how to look at infrastructure and public space, Gravel said.
Buford Highway has amazing things going for it, but the physical environment is also very hostile to people, he said.
“Instead of figuring out how many cars can fit or how we are going to pay for something, or any other preconceived ideas … the first question should be, what kind of lives do we want to lead,” he said.
A major issue facing Buford Highway is affordable housing as people, many of whom are immigrants, are being displaced from inexpensive apartment complexes to make way for luxury housing. Affordable housing along the Atlanta BeltLine is currently a hot and controversial topic. Gravel resigned last year from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership over concerns of not enough emphasis on equity and affordability.
“If our only aspiration for the BeltLine was new housing and jobs and green space, then we succeeded,” he said. But the vision created for the BeltLine included the people already living there and ensuring their success as well — and “the jury is out if we’ve been successful or not” on that, he acknowledged.
“It’s not too late,” he said. “If we want to live up to the promise, we have to do things that are difficult. But if that [affordability] wasn’t even there, we wouldn’t be talking about it. The people are holding us accountable.”
The Brookhaven City Council last year formed an Affordable Housing Task Force after faith leaders in the city raised the alarm of residents, largely immigrant communities, were being displaced in recent months due to redevelopment. Recommendations of that task force were presented to the council last month, but how they may be implemented remains to be seen.
It was a grassroots movement that made the BeltLine successful and empowered political leaders to support it, Gravel said. It will take a similar grassroots movement to make sure equity is part of an overall vision for the Buford Highway corridor, he said.
“This is especially important in vulnerable communities,” he said. “At a regional level, people love Buford Highway. If people speak out and become more vocal, then elected officials will support that, or be replaced.”