Transforming Transit: Catching Up With TransFormation Alliance’s Odetta MacLeish-White

In October 2017, Odetta MacLeish-White was appointed the first managing director of The TransFormation Alliance (TFA), a collaboration of metro Atlanta organizations that promotes the development of thriving, mixed-income communities anchored by transit.

On April 6, she will moderate Southface’s monthly policy forum, the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable (SART). April’s SART focuses on building equity in transit-oriented development, and joining MacLeish-White are panelists Amanda Rhein, Senior Director, TOD & Real Estate at MARTA; Edrick Harris, Vice President, Development at Prestwick Companies; and Robert Reed, Senior Director, Regenerative Places + Spaces at Southface.

We spoke with MacLeish-White about the link between transit and equity, what transit really means to citizens, and what SART attendees can expect to take away from the interactive panel discussion. To register for April’s SART, click here.

Q: What is the TransFormation Alliance, and what does it mean for Atlanta?

OMW: The TransFormation Alliance is a broad partnership of organizations from the private, public and nonprofit sectors dedicated to creating thriving, mixed-income communities anchored by transit and linked to all the opportunities and amenities that make Atlanta great. Our mission is to strengthen communities through transit, and we accomplish this mission by sharing resources, workplans and connections to advance community center policies and initiatives.

Supported by our SPARCC grant, we are centering race and racial equity in our strategies to achieve equitable transit oriented development because we acknowledge that decisions made about the built environment have disproportionately impacted communities of color and low income communities. TFA members advocate for policies and programs that allow all residents to benefit from the transit improvements in their neighborhoods, regardless of their racial or economic composition.

What this means for Atlanta is that we have a growing body of work, born of cross sector collaboration, which seeks to include more people in the conversations that directly impact their lives. We are seeking a New Atlanta Way of doing business, which focuses on transparency, shared resources, a belief that equity is the key to sustainable regional prosperity and economic development, and honoring community identity. A city too busy to hate should be about the business of making opportunity more accessible to all.

 

Q:  How does transit foster economic opportunities and healthier communities?

OMW: Our region’s dynamics are directly tied to geography, concentrated poverty, extensive traffic, and an inadequate public transit system that all make it extremely difficult to access job opportunities, or to move out of poverty. Raj Chetty’s research, found at the Equality of Opportunity Project, linked lack of access to transit as one of the key barriers to opportunity in the Atlanta region. Some more stats:

  • 40% of low to moderate wage earners live below Interstate 20, but 75% of the low to moderate wage jobs are above I-20.
  • Only 3.4% of jobs are accessible by a 45-minute trip on transit.
  • A child raised in the bottom fifth income bracket in Atlanta has just 4% chance of reaching the top fifth.

Transit is a public asset and should be viewed as a resource to its users, not just a mode of getting from one place to another. We can easily see the connection between fewer cars on the road, and therefore less emissions, when we think of transit’s link to health and climate. It’s not hard to think about transit as an asset when we talk about making education and training opportunities more easily accessible; imagine the ease of leaving your apartment at the transit station, getting on the train and getting off again at your school, training program, or job! Let’s also start thinking about leveraging the public asset of transit for greater social cohesion and resilience; when the kids at Station Soccer get together they are relieving stress, building bonds and relationships, learning life skills, and learning to love their community. That can translate into more resilient and livable neighborhoods.

 

Q:  Could you point to an example of another city developing transit and community in tandem, with equity as a primary outcome?

OMW: I would highlight the work of the first TOD fund in the country, found in Denver! As of April 2013:

  • 8 properties have been acquired using the $15 million TOD Fund preserving or creating 626 affordable homes, 120,000 square feet of commercial space for community assets such as: a new public library, child care program, theater company and affordable space for non-profits.
  • The Denver Fund has been drawn down $15,275,650 leveraging almost $200,000,000 from public, private and nonprofits partners.
  • Over 700 jobs have been created from Denver TOD Fund property development and redevelopment.

 

Q: Do you have a favorite transit-oriented community that could be a model for Atlanta?
The partnership at Edgewood/Candler MARTA station between Columbia Residential and Moving in the Spirit inspires me. You can stand at the observation deck of the MARTA station and see the apartments that have been built. Moving in the Spirit, an award-winning creative youth development program that uses dance to teach young people the social, emotional and cognitive skills, will have a wonderful new campus right at the station to serve children living in the apartments and in the surrounding neighborhood, AND anyone who can get on a MARTA train. A safe, stable affordable home with access to arts and culture, and transit accessibility? That’s a win for the entire city.

 

Q: What do you hope attendees will take away from April’s SART?

OMW: I hope attendees at April’s SART will leave inspired to seek new partnerships with unusual partners – the TFA’s work has shown me that when you bring creative, passionate people together with a shared mission, the problem solving capacity multiplies. I hope attendees will also think about equity as both an outcome and a process – how can they include more voices in their work, as well as increase the number of people they reach or help? I also hope they will leave and find ways to advocate for more equitable transit oriented development resources and tools from the city, MARTA, and any other partner touching their neighborhood. Institutions respond when collective voices rise up.

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