In September 2009, Brian Leary, 35, was chosen to head Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., to replace the departing Terri Montague. Leary took a substantial salary cut in leaving his previous position, but the job seemed made for him. Like Ryan Gravel, he had attended Georgia Tech for his undergraduate and master’s degrees in city planning, with a focus on transportation and land development. After writing his thesis on the redevelopment of the defunct Atlantic Steel plant, he joined a local developer in transforming it into Atlantic Station, a mixed-use project in the heart of mid-town Atlanta. Before the BeltLine, it was Atlanta’s flagship redevelopment project.
In contrast to Montague, Leary was white, male, intimate with the Atlanta scene, and an articulate proponent of the BeltLine vision, which he called “our next Olympic moment.” Full of energy and enthusiasm, he observed, “There’s something in the water in Atlanta that makes it such a special place, that allows a grad student from Georgia Tech to have this crazy idea to redo Atlantic Steel and then help do it. And Ryan was a year behind me, with his BeltLine thesis. This just doesn’t happen other places in the country.”
Leary wanted a streetcar to run on the BeltLine, asserting: “The goal of transportation isn’t moving people, it is economic development.” The promise of green space, amenities, and mobility would attract new homes and businesses. “That’s true even in a place like Bankhead,” he said, “with its Third World conditions.” He anticipated that as the BeltLine catalyzed growth, land and housing costs would go up, so he also promised to pursue affordable housing options.