CEO Interview: Atlanta Beltline Creates ‘Unique Culture’ for an Aspiring Global City

To the trained economic developer’s eye of Brian McGowan, cities too often promote themselves with the same video clips: young, tech-savvy millennials drinking coffee at shared workspaces, living in lofts and riding in streetcars. 

“That could be Any City, America,” says the Atlanta Beltline Inc. CEO. 

And while Mr. McGowan has nothing against the gentrified class, he wants the $5 billion project under his leadership to tell a truly unique story of diversity that can only be written in his adoptive hometown. 

Mr. McGowan and other boosters of the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile loop of trails and (they hope) transit being conjured out of derelict railroads ringing the city, believe it can help Atlanta carve its own niche, rather than following some supposed template for global recognition. 

“No city has the opportunity that we have with the Beltline to connect 45 neighborhoods in a city that is specifically designed to prevent that from happening, to create jobs and walkability in neighborhoods that weren’t designed for that. It’s the new boulevard for Atlanta. It’s the new Peachtree,” Mr. McGowan told Global Atlanta in a recent interview. 

The California transplant has had a bird’s-eye view of Atlanta from the C-suite of some of its most influential organizations since his arrival six years ago. He started as CEO of Invest Atlanta, retooling the the city’s economic development arm under Mayor Kasim Reed.Then he worked as COO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber before moving to the global law firm Dentons, where he led the public policy practice. 

Over that time, he’s formulated a nuanced view of the city that somehow blends blunt realism with infectious optimism. 

While Atlanta touts its diversity, it has a long way to go before reaching the natural mixing of races and nationalities that occurs in places like New York or Dubai, he said. And while it may move more air passengers than any other city, economic mobility here is gridlocked, according to the Brookings Institution.

“We’re the worst city in America for income inequality,” Mr. McGowan said. “If you’re born poor in Atlanta you’re likely going to die poor in Atlanta.”

With this in view, it’s important not to confuse being a global city with being a big city — where assets like stadiums, highways, museums and airports are simply table stakes, he said. 

“You can’t say you’re a big city unless you have all those things, but a global city is a truly diverse city that has economic opportunity for everyone, that has a robust transit system, that has art and culture for everyone — not just the affluent,” he said, speaking to Global Atlanta in March, about six months into his tenure. 

That’s where Atlanta has a lot of work to do, and where the Beltline can play its most important role as a differentiator for a city that still aspires to become one of the world’s elite urban centers.

“I do think we are still growing and gaining in our confidence as a city. I think it’s OK to admit that we’re not there yet. I think in Atlanta there’s this promotionalism — that we have to say it, we have to claim it, we have to assert it. Cities like New York don’t assert themselves. They just are.” 

Besides, Atlanta has plenty to brag about without going overboard, and it has a not-so-secret weapon in the Beltline that will help drive its future, he said. 

“I think it really is the beginning of creating our own culture in Atlanta.”

Engine for Equity or Gentrification? 

The Beltline has come under fire from critics who’ve labeled it a vehicle for gentrification, pointing to skyrocketing property values that have displaced residents and businesses along its Eastside Trail. 

The first finished segment in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood has become a showpiece for transformation, already having spurred billions in private investment, mostly in luxury apartments and townhomes. 

But Mr. McGowan is attuned to the fact that he has his job because people felt like the Beltline was straying from its intended path (pun intended.) 

His predecessor, Paul Morris, stepped down last year amid pressure over the nonprofit’s slow progress toward the 5,600 affordable housing units it was mandated to create. 

Mr. McGowan says affordable housing is “obviously our top priority,” but he sees the problem wrapped in the broader challenge of the rising cost of living in urban centers like metro Atlanta, which is expected to add 2.5 million people by 2040, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission

While that’s a tough nut to crack, Mr. McGowan doesn’t believe Atlanta is too far gone to tackle the problem from a variety of angles. 

He rattles off a few: Done right, the Beltline can both spur jobs and provide residents with new options for transportation. It can spread development around the city instead of north-south along the “Peachtree corridor” that carries the skyline from downtown to Buckhead. It can preserve character and introduce vitality into struggling communities. It can spur density, which supports transit and makes the prospect of ditching the car a reality. That, in turn, could help developers spend less on parking decks, reducing the overall cost of new homes and apartments.  

It’s clear that Mr. McGowan believes it when he talks about the Beltline as “the economic development strategy for the City of Atlanta.” 

“The Beltline really is about jobs at the end of the day. It is an economic and community development project. People often think we’re building a sidewalk or a trail, but we’re really building communities,” Mr. McGowan told Global Atlanta. “I think people lose sight of that sometimes.” 

The housing problem is a thorny one. A new zoning law passed by the Atlanta City Council in November calls for developers to reserve 10 percent of units in new projects within the Beltline’s overlay district for residents making 60 percent of the median income. 

Beyond that, Mr. McGowan concedes that Atlanta Beltline Inc. doesn’t have much power beyond being a “magnet” for private investment and spurring conversations around equity that might help drive the alignment of incentives.   

“I see our role as a convener and collaborator,” he said. 

Transit: The Linchpin

But the bigger test will be on transit, which Mr. McGowan sees as the essential for the Beltline’s goal of knitting a city back together in a way that provides opportunity at all points along the socioeconomic spectrum. 

“If we don’t put transit on the Beltline, then the Beltline becomes a machine for gentrification,” he said, an “amenity” that’s nice for those who can afford it but out of reach for many. 

The problem? Even with $2.5 billion for MARTA expansion promised over the next 40 years through a half-penny sales tax Atlanta voters overwhelmingly passed in 2016, leaders have been slow to decide on their transit priorities.

Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who dreamed up the original idea for the Beltline after returning in 1999 from a stint studying in Paris, fears that the Beltline could get squeezed out, threatening its ability to deliver on the its promise of inclusive urban revitalization. He wrote this in a recent blog post

We know intuitively that without urgent investment in transit, the Beltline will become what everyone fears – a beautiful greenway flanked by gentrified neighborhoods for people who can afford the luxury of that choice. That’s not what we wanted. That’s not what we voted for. 

Even all the extra MARTA funding would be insufficient for the Beltline transit, and Mr. McGowan says the Beltline remains open to new ideas about the mode — meaning that he’s not necessarily wedded to rail even though he thinks it’s the best long-term investment. 

“We’re going to have to look over the next 10 years at where funding would come from and make decisions based on the reality of those limitations as opposed to an aspiration of what we would like to have,” he said. “I think those are going to be hard decisions we’re going to have to make over the next couple years.”

Meanwhile the Beltline continues to acquire land using some of the $300 million set to be raised over five years thanks to a 4/10-cent TSPLOST that passed along with the MARTA referendum. Some $66 million of that money goes to Beltline right-of-way acquisition. 

In March, the day after the interview with Global Atlanta, Atlanta Beltline Inc. announced with new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms the acquisition of the Southside Trail, a four-mile stretch encompassing 63 acres that connects the Westside and Eastside trails, creating a 14-mile contiguous stretch of Beltline. The city purchased the land for $26 million from railroad operator CSX. An interim walking trail will open within a year until the paved path can be built. 

Telling a Global Story

Mr. McGowan, who led many overseas trade missions while working in the administrations of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Barack Obama, said he’s also open to courting overseas investors.

“One of my goals is to discover a public-private-partnership model that might work in this case, and then we would want to take that to the global markets and see if we can find funding for it.” 

That’s just one part of weaving the Beltline into the unique narrative that Atlanta tells the world about its own metamorphosis.

Mr. McGowan aims to enhance exchanges with international mayors and city governments, bring in more foreign journalists and work with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the state to pitch Beltline sites to foreign and domestic business prospects like Amazon, which has shortlisted Atlanta for its $5 billion second headquarters. Last week, foreign diplomats visited the Monday Night Garage brewery that opens onto the Westside trail as part of the Georgia Department of Economic Development‘s International VIP tour. 

Building this global reputation must happen while retaining as much local character as possible, Mr. McGowan says. If he has his way, neighborhoods will be able to tell their stories to the world through art, food and culture along the Beltline. 

“What I don’t want to see is a homogenous Beltline, where it’s all the Eastside trail character. It shouldn’t be. Every section should reflect the character of the neighborhood we’re going through and should respect and present the history and the culture of those neighborhoods,” Mr. McGowan said.

Then eventually, when a foreign visitor comes in and says, “Show me Atlanta,” the natural response will be to take them on a 22-mile historical tour of a city in transition. The world — or at least the urban planning world — is watching, Mr. McGowan said. 

“In no other city in America can you say, ‘I’m going to get on a bike, park my car here, and by the of the day I will have listened to, tasted, heard, talked to Atlanta.’ That’s cool. That’s where our unique culture will come from.” 

Learn more at Global Atlanta