Ryan Gravel with the contest winners. (Photos by John Ruch)

A ring of urban forest. A 64-mile-long river. The world’s longest zip line or biggest skate park. Monorails and bus lanes.
Those were just a few of the 50 ideas for the future of I-285 displayed Dec. 6 in a contest – “A Bigger Better Loop” – operated by Atlanta BeltLine founder Ryan Gravel. The contest was intended to be playful and far-out, Gravel said, but also a way of “training people to think differently” about the massive Perimeter highway’s social and cultural possibilities. After all, he noted, the idea of a park/transit/trail loop on old Atlanta railroad beds was once pretty wacky, too.
The submissions were displayed at Generator, Gravel’s urban-planning nonprofit in Atlanta’s Poncey-Highland neighborhood. He gathered a panel of influential locals to serve as judges, including Atlanta BeltLine Inc. CEO Clyde Higgs; City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane; Marian Liou, founder of Brookhaven’s We Love BuHi and now an Atlanta Regional Commission analyst; Rose Scott of WABE News; Thomas Wheatley of Atlanta Magazine; Bem Joiner of the creative agency Atlanta Influences Everything; Tim Schrager of Perennial Properties; and Bithia Ratnasamy, a city project manager on affordable housing policy.
Lazy River

Liou later said her top pick was 8-year-old Scarlett Partrain’s “The Zipline” – winner in the contest’s “Best Utopia” category – and its depiction of a giant version of the ride where people slide down a cable.
“My favorite was the ‘Zipline,’ because I love seeing children rethinking infrastructure and our built environment with joy and fun in mind. We need more of that,” Liou said.
Gravel said he received 47 public submissions for the contest, and tossed in another three himself to make an even 50. That matched one inspiration for the contest: 2019 is both the 20th anniversary of his Georgia Tech thesis paper that proposed the BeltLine and the 50th anniversary of I-285’s completion.
Some of the idea were improbable fun, like turning the highway into a “lazy river” ride or a 64-mile Porsche test track. Others were within the realm of the possible, such as a monorail line similar to versions proposed over the years by such officials as Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul. The Stuckey’s store company weighed in with a concept for Georgia-grown produce sold in its stores at every exit.
The contest comes as the Georgia Department of Transportation is planning its own major change to I-285: adding “express lanes,” or toll lanes, over the next 15 years, which could carry both private vehicles and mass transit buses. Gravel previously said the toll lanes were not an inspiration for the contest, but that he would prefer a “serious” transit plan. Regarding the content, GDOT spokesperson Scott Higley said, “GDOT welcomes all forms of public input and encourages community engagement,” but also thinks its toll lanes plan is a good one.

“The benefits of express lanes are proven – and not just for users of the express lanes,” Higley said. “Motorists and transit riders on I-75 and I-575 have been experiencing the very real benefits of the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes for well over a year, enjoying greatly reduced travel times and speed limits during rush hour up by an average of 20 mph even in the general purpose lanes. Express bus transit is currently in use in those and all express lanes as it will be on the I-285 Express Lanes.”
Transit was a common theme of the contest, with gondolas and dedicated bus lanes among the options. One proposal called for tolling all exit ramps and using the money to fund MARTA. “Is it legal? Maybe. It is contentious? Certainly,” mused that proposal.
“Atlanta’s Forest Ring” envisioned the Perimeter’s lanes – narrowed thanks to the assumed precision driving of future autonomous vehicles — separated by grass and trees. The “HydroLoop ATL” would place a multilane waterway along the Perimeter, including that lazy river, speedboat lanes and a “recycling chute”; it also proposes a riverfront hotel in Dunwoody and a year-round version of Sandy Springs’ Artsapalooza festival.
The following are the contest winners. Generator Executive Director Heather Infantry said their prizes were the “satisfaction of being recognized by our esteemed panel of judges.”
Best for the People: “285 Expansion Plan: Pocket Cities/TOD & MARTA Loop” by Travis Bruce
Best for the Planet: “More Tree Please: 64 Miles of Forested Trails” by Judy Yi
Best Use of Technology: “Project Iris: A High-Speed Transit and Renewable Energy Parkway” by Nicholas Mulkey
Best Use of Ecology: “The Blue Loop: Off Ramps into Nature” by Hannah Palmer
Best Utopia: “The Zipline” by Scarlett Partain
Best Dystopia: “Multi-Layered I-285” by David Pope
The HydroLoop