The urban planning guru who dreamed up the Atlanta BeltLine is staging a contest for rethinking the car-centric uses of I-285 and turning the entire Perimeter highway into “A Bigger Better Loop.”
Ryan Gravel aims to launch the contest for the concepts Nov. 15 at Generator, his downtown nonprofit that serves as a brainstorming club; hold an “ideas workshop” there on Nov. 22; and announce winners Dec. 6. He is already circulating the idea on social media, using a graphic showing I-285 as a huge ring and the BeltLine as a smaller loop within it.
In an interview, Gravel said the contest is just for playful, casual fun and he’s aiming for far-out concepts, while at the same time acknowledging that one never knows where brainstorming might lead. After all, that’s how the BeltLine came about 20 years ago, an anniversary that is the occasion for the I-285 contest. This year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of I-285.
“I do like the idea of rethinking I-285. It could do more than just carry cars,” said Gravel. “…So I like the idea of 285 becoming something that people love. And I don’t know what it would take to do that. I definitely think that it’s possible and I don’t think that it comes, necessarily, at the expense of cars.”
“The thesis of the Atlanta BeltLine was that adaptation of underutilized infrastructure could make a new way of life possible in Atlanta,” says Gravel’s contest announcement. “Inspired by the success of that proposition, Generator is asking you to pitch your ideas for transformation of Atlanta’s larger loop: Interstate 285.”
“Early advocates for the Atlanta BeltLine were proposing a wildly ambitious idea for a loop of land they didn’t own, to be transformed by money they didn’t have, in a political climate that – at the time – was hostile to everything they were proposing,” the announcement says. “Given that, Generator’s hope for this competition is that you not burden your idea with today’s politics, budgets or other constraints. It could be anything – think big and be creative.”
I-285 gets prominent discussion in Gravel’s acclaimed 2016 book “Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of American Cities.” Gravel is a Chamblee native who says his family moved there because of the suburban development the Perimeter made possible. “I grew up 285… We drove to Perimeter Mall when there were cows across the street,” he said.
The latest solid plan for the future of I-285 is the Georgia Department of Transportation is embarking on a massive and controversial plan to add toll lanes to the top end of the Perimeter. Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and other area cities are advocating that transit buses use the lanes as well. Gravel said the toll lanes were not an inspiration for the contest and made it clear he’s not a fan.
“The toll lanes are fine. But to me, we should be jumping ahead to transit and being real about transit,” he said. “I just don’t get that. I don’t get those [toll lanes].”
Like officials in the top end Perimeter cities, Gravel suggest bus rapid transit on western I-285 in his work on the city of Atlanta’s urban planning vision book. He said such projects as a rail line ringing the Perimeter could be a transformative connection between metro Atlanta communities. “You could do it,” he says. “You don’t have to build anything new. You could take the middle lanes.”
Regarding GDOT’s current plan, he said he understands the benefits of charging for driving and that cars will persist in American culture, but that toll lanes raise questions about equity, lifestyle and the future of transportation. “I’d rather start in a more aspirational place and just sort of go design something for everybody,” he said. “At the end of the day, toll lanes are still for cars, right? I just don’t think that ordinary cars are the future.”
“The magic of the BeltLine is that it is absolutely a transportation project,” he said, “but it starts with [the question of] what kind of life we’d like to lead.”
Gravel’s contest calls for clear, concise concepts that Generator can publicize and adapt. Winners will get unspecific awards “in a range of categories.” He said that won’t be taken too seriously.
His idea is that all submissions will be hung on the wall and some judges he’ll gather will choose winners in categories that may be whimsical. He reeled off such ideas as, “Best for People,” “Best for the Planet,” “Best Utopia” and “Best Dystopia.”
The prize part is playful, too. What will the winners get? Perhaps a driving tour of the Perimeter? “Honestly, it just occurred to me today, what will people be expecting? I might craft something… But it’s going to be handmade for sure,” he said, adding with a laugh, “But I do like the idea of a personal tour of 285.”
Gravel apparently was introduced to the idea of rethinking I-285 in 2017, when he made a keynote speech to the Sandy Springs Conservancy, a parks advocacy group, on the night that part of I-85 burned in a notorious fire. During the event, conservancy Executive Director Melody Harclerode asked about the future of I-285 and its possible alternative uses. However, in the recent interview, he said he doesn’t recall the exchange.
“Y’all are so lucky to have Melody here because I’ve never heard that question….But I love it,” Gravel said at the time. “I love the idea of rethinking 285.”
“It’s a public space,” he continued, 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.”
Generator is based at 828 Ralph McGill Boulevard in Atlanta. For more information about Generator, see generatorcity.org.
Update: This story has been extensively updated with an interview with Ryan Gravel.