SANDY SPRINGS - A developer and former county official who had a hand in Gwinnett's early building boom outlined his legacy Wednesday, and it ain't suburbia.
Instead it's urban with a capital U, and it would take the form of the Beltline - a 22-mile transit loop with parks and walking trails that would encircle Atlanta and link neighborhoods, schools, jobs, restaurants, shops and cultural attractions.
Wayne Mason, who was Gwinnett chairman from 1976-1980, has purchased an important piece of the mostly abandoned rail corridor that would become the Beltline, and he is poised to develop the section that passes through some of Atlanta's trendiest neighborhoods.
If he is successful and the Beltline becomes reality, it will transform Atlanta and the region, Mason said while speaking to the Duluth-based Council for Quality Growth.
"It's a turning point for Atlanta," said the Snellville resident whose office is in Lawrenceville.
No longer is the American dream to live in a suburban subdivision, said Mason, who got his start building just that in Gwinnett County several decades ago.
Now people want a different lifestyle and are voting with their checkbooks, he said. Young professionals and retirees are moving back to the city, lured by urban amenities and less stressful commutes.
They want to live close to work and they want to be able to walk from their front door to a restaurant, a shop or a park, Mason said.
"It's a lifestyle issue," Mason said after the luncheon at a Sandy Springs hotel. "People want in town. Used to (be) they wanted a house on an acre lot and swing set out back."
Mason said the desire for in-town living bodes well for revitalization efforts in Gwinnett County, where many cities are trying to turn their cores into pedestrian-friendly live-work-play communities, and the county has plans to attract residential developers to blighted neighborhoods and business districts.
In 2004, Mason positioned himself as an important player in the Beltline project when he paid Norfolk Southern Corp. about $25 million for a nearly five-mile stretch of rail corridor that cuts through northeast Atlanta and some of the city's most desirable neighborhoods, including those around Piedmont Park.
What he does with his 77 acres could make the rest of the Beltline a possibility, Mason said.
If some of his land along the 200-foot-wide corridor is rezoned for nearly 3,000 residences and small shops by Atlanta officials, Mason will donate half his land to the city for the transit line, parks and walking trails.
Furthermore, the tax money his development generates could be used to fund city improvements along other parts of the Beltline that pass through blighted sections of Atlanta.
And the land he donates could be leveraged to get millions of dollars in federal funds that could be used to transform the Beltline from a master's thesis by a Georgia Tech student into a reality, Mason said.
His plans, though, have been on hold since one aspect got a chilly reception last year. Mason wants to put two high-rise condo towers beside Piedmont Park, but area residents have voiced opposition to the 38- and 39-story structures.
Mason said the higher density is necessary to make his project work.
"We can't give (the land) unless it makes economic sense," he said.
Transit lines also require higher density, he said, although what form the Beltline would take has not been determined.
Overall, Mason said he sees the Beltline as his legacy. In future decades people will view it akin to how Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is now: as an economic development engine that changed the region.
And instead of sprawl, it will help reduce traffic congestion and preserve greenspace by funneling growth to where infrastructure already exists.
City projections show the Beltline and development associated with it would increase Atlanta's property tax base by $20 billion over 25 years, as well as create 40,000 new full-time jobs.
"We know Atlanta can grow out," Mason said. "Now we're going to see if it can grow up."