150 neighborhoods say Atlanta’s proposed long-range development plan is unlawful
By David Pendered
In 2016, a consultant in Arizona submitted to Atlanta’s planning department the population forecast that is driving Atlanta’s proposal to retool the city to house an additional 700,000 residents by 2050.
The report prepared by urban planner Arthur “Chris” Nelson for Atlanta’s Department of City Planning is dated September 2016 and titled: “How Big Can Atlanta Get?”
Nelson forecasts that market demand will drive the City of Atlanta’s population to 1.3 million by 2050. The city reduced the number to 1.2 million. The Atlanta Regional Commission said in September its rough forecast for Atlanta’s 2050 population is 800,000 residents. The 2020 Census reports the City of Atlanta’s population at 498,715 residents.
Nelson is familiar with the region, having worked at Georgia Tech from 1987 to 2002, when he left for Virginia Tech. He left Virginia Tech in 2009 for the University of Utah and left it in 2014 for the University of Arizona, according to his vita. Portland State University is his alma mater for all three degrees – bachelors, masters, doctorate.
Over the weekend, 150 of Atlanta’s 242 recognized neighborhoods in Black and white areas of Atlanta signed a letter to formally oppose the city’s proposed comprehensive development plan that’s based on Nelson’s population forecast.
The letter doesn’t dispute Nelson’s forecast. The letter does contend the forecast has been embraced by the planning department as part of a “densification strategy” that aims to provide housing but not the infrastructure needed to meet needs of current residents, “much less those of the 700,000 people it wants to add.”
The proposed CDP is unlawful, the signers contend.
First, the public has been omitted from meaningful participation in a review of the plan, as required by regulations (page 4) of the state Department of Community Affairs, according to the letter (page 8).
In addition, the letter contends (page 7) the proposed CDP maintains current development practices rather than implementing those in the visioning document adopted by the Atlanta City Council in 2017, “Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community.” The letter observes the proposed CDP:
- “[A]dopts policies for character area development, transit-oriented development and residential land use that are directly contrary to the values of ‘Atlanta City Design’ and/or its framework for development [emphasis provided]….
- “Given City Council’s incorporation of ‘Atlanta City Design’ into the City Charter in 2017, we submit that adoption of a CDP update that would thus institutionalize the current development approach would be unlawful.”
Finally, this section of the letter observes:
- “And given that DCP has had almost four years to translate the current character areas designations into the Growth Areas and Conservation Areas, we also cannot help but wonder whether Plan A’s retention of the current development scheme is a deliberate effort to avoid the strictures Atlanta City Design would put on DCP’s ‘densification strategy.’”
In addition, residents have seized on a rezoning proposal related to the ideas espoused in the proposed CDP. The rezoning matter has enabled residents to visualize how Nelson’s population forecasts would reshape the way their neighborhoods comprised of houses will be altered, if the proposed CDP is approved by the Atlanta City Council and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
The rezoning proposal would allow houses to be replaced by small apartment buildings or other multifamily structures, provided that the properties are within a half-mile of a MARTA rail station. This proposal would enable a by-right rezoning of more than 2,000 single-family lots to a multifamily zoning category, according to the pending legislation.
Concerns about the CDP’s expressed purpose of fostering more dwelling units are being expressed in neighborhoods beyond Buckhead, where the city’s planning commissioner said opposition is based and is part of the movement to secede from Atlanta.
Ansley Park, in particular, has the densest concentration of anti-CDP yard signs of any neighborhoods from Cascade Heights to North Buckhead, according to a 55-mile windshield review last week.
Other concerns, presented in no particular order, include:
- The proposed CDP is said to be based on a number of citywide plans. Five of nine citywide plans cited in the CDP have not been adopted by the Atlanta City Council, including the 2020 “Atlanta City Design: Housing” that is a foundation of the proposed CDP;
- Atlanta’s housing director, who’s deeply involved in the CDP update, has no academic credentials in planning or urban affairs, according to his professional profile. He has a bachelors degree in philosophy and a masters of divinity in community organizing;
- The fate of trees under the proposed CDP is said to be protected by Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance. Some residents disagree and contend trees will be removed to make way for more dwellings in existing single-family neighborhoods. Atlanta has not been able to create a consensus around a new tree ordinance since deliberations started in about 2014;
- The influence of NPUs in guiding neighborhood development issues would be diminished under the proposed CDP, which offers by-right rezoning in a number of situations;
- Nelson presumes Atlanta’s future residents choose the city for its walkable urban places. The report predates the 2019 study led by Chris Leinberger, which determined WalkUPs have developed outside the urban core. Nelson’s report observes in a footnote (page 13): “To be sure, there are many ‘City-like’ communities across metropolitan Atlanta but they are small, usually limited to historic town squares or a few master-planned ‘new urbanism’ developments. There are also many parts of Atlanta are [sic] quite suburban by design and would continue to function in the future as such.”
The issue of a deadline is separate concern.
By Oct. 31, the Atlanta City Council is to have approved a revised CDP and have delivered it to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. DCA oversees CDPs as part of the state’s effort to ensure orderly development in cities and counties. The deadline took on greater urgency when a virtual public hearing on Sept. 27 was cancelled because the dial-in function failed. The new date for a public hearing is Oct. 25, convened by the Atlanta City Council’s Community Development/Human Services Committee.
A council meeting tentatively planned for Oct. 28 for the purpose of adopting the CDP has not been formally called, according to the public notices published on the council’s website.
Whether DCA can, or would, extend the deadline is a matter of discussion among residents and urban planners not formally involved in the process. DCA’s published rules appear to indicate (on page 16) that Atlanta’s deadline cannot be extended. DCA reportedly granted extensions for about a year, because of COVID-19, but that window closed a few months ago. Atlanta does not appear to meet the criteria for an extension. DCA’s criteria for extensions include:
- The state changing its “Minimum Standards and Procedures” as a CDP was being prepared or updated, which isn’t the case;
- A fire in the planning department or other extraordinary event beyond the government’s control, which hasn’t happened.
DCA’s interim spokesperson did not respond to an email and a voice mail left last week. The main switchboard is answered by a recorder that says to leave a message. The Atlanta Regional Commission, which facilitates the CDP’s transfer from Atlanta to DCA, referred questions about a possible extension to DCA.