CCI Recap: Atlanta BeltLine Quarterly Briefing

If you couldn’t make it to Friendship Baptist Church last Tuesday for the BeltLine’s Quarterly Briefing, look no further: We’ve written a recap just for you!

 It was standing-room only as more than 300 community members attended the briefing to hear project updates, ask questions, and listen to a panel discussion concerning equity on the BeltLine, led by the Center for Civic Innovation’s Executive Director Rohit Malhotra. Panelists included Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Odetta MacLeish-White, Managing Director of the Transformation Alliance; Brian McGowan, President and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI); Tim Keane, Commissioner of the City of Atlanta Department of Planning; and Brandon Riddick-Seals, interim Executive Director of Atlanta Housing.

It was standing-room only as more than 300 community members attended the briefing to hear project updates, ask questions, and listen to a panel discussion concerning equity on the BeltLine, led by the Center for Civic Innovation’s Executive Director Rohit Malhotra. Panelists included Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Odetta MacLeish-White, Managing Director of the Transformation Alliance; Brian McGowan, President and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI); Tim Keane, Commissioner of the City of Atlanta Department of Planning; and Brandon Riddick-Seals, interim Executive Director of Atlanta Housing.

After brief introductions from Beth McMillan, Director of Planning and Community Engagement for the Atlanta BeltLine, Atlanta City Councilperson Ivory Lee Young, Jr. (District 3) and Councilperson Cleta Winslow (District 4), Sadie Dennard, a deacon of Friendship Baptist Church, welcomed the audience and shared a bit of the churche's long history.

The Atlanta BeltLine then shared project updates including new hires and material progress in a the form of an 11 minute video.

Following project updates, community members were given an opportunity to ask questions. Displacement and affordable housing were key areas of concern, as community members challenged the Atlanta BeltLine to uphold promises.

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Panel Discussion

Rohit Malhotra introduced the the panel, promising “to make sure the voices in this room are heard in an effective way, but also to make sure this conversation also moves forward.” To do so, he asked panel members to set clear goals so the public could hold them accountable.

Panelists moved beyond rhetoric, explaining the rationale behind policies, addressing past missteps and shared how they planned to better address equity  and affordability in the future. For example, McGowan said that once ABI became focused on “building the BeltLine, I think we lost sight of people and community. The project itself is about people and community. It always was. This is a community and economic development project.” Commissioner Keane expressed how difficult it is to address inequity, yet offered some room for hope. After a conference with western cities in Seattle, he concluded “Atlanta is thinking more out-of-the-box right now than any of those cities.” Odetta MacLeish-White, in her role as Managing Director for the TransFormation Alliance works with various community organizations in Atlanta and around the country, expressed that “folks are very concerned… We need more specificity on definitions. We need to know what are the tools and the strategies that will be put in place to keep myself and my family where we laid our roots down.” Malhotra then challenged Riddick-Seals to explain how he defines affordable housing and area median income (AMI). Riddick-Seals explained that “our dollars that we use and the tools that we have are based on the metropolitan statistical area,” which includes Marietta and Sandy Springs and is set by the federal government.

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Equity continued to be central to the discussion, as Malhotra praised Mayor Bottoms for placing the word “equity” at the center of her inauguration speech and asked how she planned to turn these words into action. Mayor Bottoms responded, that she’s “not just saying it, but hopefully really showing to our leadership team that I mean it… and making sure that our team understands that we have permission to think differently.” McGowan connected income inequality and mobility to physical mobility, explaining “there’s a lot of people in Atlanta who can’t get to where the jobs are. You can see the skyline, but you can’t get there.” Malhotra went further asserting, “transit is a civil rights issue.”

The panel also discussed frustrations with the community engagement process. As MacLeish-White explained, “I think people see opportunities but are afraid they will not be part of the decision making.” Mayor Bottoms responded, explaining that “as elected officials, you’re getting a lot of information from a lot of places. There may be 100 sticky notes on the wall, and there are probably 100 different opinions. That’s why you have to trust the leadership that you have elected really to reflect the voice of the entire community and not just a small portion of it.” She agreed that “we have to listen and engage differently,” especially so many people affected by the BeltLine don’t even know it exists. Finally, Malhotra asked Mayor Bottoms to name a metric or goal that she plans to meet by this time next year. Bottoms promised “there will be formalized coordination and leadership on behalf of the city as it relates to the affordability conversation.”

You can watch the whole meeting above. The panel discussion starts at 1:22.