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Atlanta is better because of Leon Eplan (1928-2021)

Leon Eplan Leon Eplan in front of the city's skyline (Special)

By Maria Saporta

Leon Eplan – one of Atlanta’s most visionary leaders – died Thursday morning.

(See the family-written obituary below).

Eplan, 92, was a true city planner – through and through. He envisioned a pedestrian-oriented city that placed people above cars – a view that was novel in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when Atlanta was even more of an auto-oriented city. than it is today.

Leon Eplan

Eplan served two different terms as the City of Atlanta’s planning commissioner – (1974 to 1978 and 1990 to 1996) – working for the late Mayor Maynard Jackson Jr. during both those stints.

One of my favorite memories was in 1991 when Eplan and I walked along Peachtree Street from Five Points to Midtown – as he provided a walking commentary of what worked and what didn’t. Buildings that opened up to the sidewalk and provided street-level retail ranked high on his list.

In Midtown, Eplan complained about the fact that Peachtree Street had just been widened at 10th Street. “”People keep wanting to widen Peachtree,” Eplan said during our walk 30 years ago. “They ought to be narrowing Peachtree, not widening it.”

Eplan’s vision for Atlanta played out in so many ways. He was able to stop plans to build a 600-space parking garage underneath Woodruff Park before the 1996 Summer Olympics. He also helped broker a compromise that led to the development of the John Lewis Freedom Parkway, which he envisioned as a park connecting the Carter Center with the King Center and downtown.

Another favorite memory was in 2010, when I moderated a panel of three former Atlanta planning commissioners – Eplan, Mike Dobbins and Steve Cover. The program was called “Dear Mayor Reed,” and it was organized by the Georgia Tech Student Planning Association.

Leon Eplan with Mayor Maynard Jackson (Special: Leon Eplan’s family)

The three planning professionals spoke of the need for then newly-elected Mayor Kasim Reed to fully embrace smart city planning as a mainstay of his administration. Eplan provided his wonderful historical perspective, saying that policies enacted 30 to 40 years ago led to a resurgence of the city. One example was how Mayor Jackson had shifted power from a group of power brokers to creating a way for neighborhoods to have a larger voice in the future development of the city.

Elise Eplan, his daughter, wrote me in an email how her father was able to finish a project before he died.

“As you may have heard, the book that he has been working on with Mike Dobbins and Randy Rourke for several years was published this week!” Elise said of the book: Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence. “We are considering slipping it into the coffin with him – he was so proud of that work.”

As we say good-bye to Leon Eplan, we know Atlanta is a better place because he came our way.

Leon Eplan’s obituary – by his family:

Leon Eplan, a man of infectious optimism whose life’s work helped lift the city of Atlanta to new heights, passed away on April 15th, 2021 at the age of 92. He is survived by his three children, Elise Eplan (Bob Marcovitch), Jana Eplan (Craig Frankel) and Harlan Eplan (Jen Denbo), as well as six grandchildren; Gil, Tali and Tamir Eplan-Frankel; Max and Hannah Marcovitch; and Madeleine Denbo Eplan. His wife, Madalyne Buchman Eplan and his sister, Carolyn Goldsmith, predeceased him.

Born to Sam and Bess Eplan on November 24, 1928, Leon was a fourth generation Jewish Atlantan. He grew up in Midtown, attending Boys High (now Grady High School) and later Emory University. He participated in the AZA youth organization, where he was elected to regional and national positions. He relished the debate, basketball, dances and travel during those years, retaining life-long friendships that he cherished.

A self-described wayward student in his early youth he hit his stride in his 20s accumulating masters’ degrees from the University of Tennessee, the University of North Carolina and the London School of Economics.

After a short stint in the army, he met and married Madalyne Buchman in 1959, and they shared a wonderful and adventuresome life together. With their three children, extended family and countless friends, their Ansley Park home was always full of people. Leon loved his big rambling house and was devoted to the neighborhood. He often liked to recount that he and Madalyne couldn’t get a loan when they first sought to live in Ansley Park because the neighborhood was redlined by the banks as a neighborhood “in decline” Leon crafted a neighborhood plan in the 1960s, helping to revive the neighborhood to its historic glory. They lived in the house for 50 years.

He began a long and illustrious city planning career as a consultant to cities around the country. During this time, he was also involved in the planning of the MARTA rail system.  In 1974, he was tapped by the newly elected mayor, Maynard Jackson, to become the Commissioner of Budget and Planning, serving in that role from 1974 – 1978. One of his most enduring accomplishments during that time was the creation of the Neighborhood Planning (NPU) program which gives local neighborhoods a voice in local development and was considered a bold innovation when it was created. In 1979, he was named the Director of Graduate Studies in City Planning at Georgia Tech. He served as President of the American Institute of Planners (now the American Planning Association) and won numerous city planning honors and awards. He proudly chaired the board of the Boys High Alumni Association and was a longtime board member of Southface Energy`Institute.

Leon continued to teach and consult until 1990 when Mayor Jackson asked him to return to City Hall to help prepare Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic games. Embedded in this work was a driving purpose far bigger than putting on successful global games. Leon deeply believed that the Olympics should be a vessel for urban Atlanta’s contemporary rebirth. “We’re not doing these things simply for the Olympics,” he said. “We’re using the Olympics to build a new city.”  Decades later, in his late eighties, he was one of three authors of a just published book on the subject, Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence.

In 1991, Leon spearheaded and helped broker a resolution between GA DOT and multiple intown neighborhood associations to avert a highly controversial highway extension.  The result of this work was the John Lewis-Freedom Parkway, which added miles of usable greenspace to the inner city. This was a source of great pride for him.

Leon held many convictions as a visionary planner, including the need to transition away from a car dependent city to a more pedestrian and public-transit friendly place, the need for affordable housing, and the vital role that parks and greenspace play in the livability of a city. He also felt that a city’s magic lay in its rich diversity – he was involved in and passionate about civil rights and social justice throughout his life.

Most of all, Leon fiercely loved Atlanta, “From my father and grandfather, I inherited a feeling that the city was very important and that it was my obligation to give back to the city.” It filled him with enormous pride that his three children chose to live in and raise their children in Atlanta, living around the corner from each other in Morningside. His faith in the promise of his beloved city never wavered.

His family will be forever grateful to wonderful, loving caregivers who made his final days peaceful and comfortable – Chantelle, Peggy and Juliana. In addition, the staff from Agape Hospice were invaluable in the last few weeks.

Funeral will be for the family only, but others can join via Zoom. Funeral and shiva Information can be found at: Dressler’s Jewish Funerals (https://dresslerjewishfunerals.com).  If you wish to honor Leon, please consider donations to Boys High Scholarship Fund – (The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta for the Boys High Scholarship Fund, 191 Peachtree Street, Suite 1000, Atlanta, GA 30303), The Breman Jewish Heritage Museum  or a charity of your choice.

Leon Eplan with two of his children – Harlan and Elise Eplan – at the launch of the Atlanta Streetcar (Special: Leon Eplan’s family)

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Leon Eplan in 2014 at a party celebrating the late Mayor Maynard Jackson Jr. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

A younger Leon Eplan in front of a map of the City of Atlanta (Special: Leon Eplan’s family)

(L-R) Past Midtown Business Association President and Current Midtown Alliance Board Member Steve Nygren, Former Planning Commissioner Leon Eplan and Past Midtown Business Association President Louisa MacIntosh at a meeting (Special)

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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10 Comments

  1. Anna Foote April 16, 2021 9:44 am

    Maria, did Leon ever tell you his stories of the establishment of the NPU system? HILARIOUS!!Report

    Reply
  2. Steven D Visser April 16, 2021 10:29 am

    Nice tribute to a jewel of AtlantaReport

    Reply
  3. Bill Seay April 16, 2021 11:35 am

    I came to Atlanta in 1969 and soon met Leon who was a great inspiration to me as an architect. I remember the hubbub over his proposed underground parking deck, which I thought a good idea.Report

    Reply
  4. Dr. Gus B Kaufman Jr. April 16, 2021 12:11 pm

    What was the relationship between your father and Leon Eplan?Report

    Reply
  5. Steve Williams April 16, 2021 12:54 pm

    I’m sadden by Leon’s death, but grateful he lived a long full life. I had the honor to meet Leon a few times and talked to him briefly last year. Pre-Covid. I have spent most of the past 30 years documenting Freedom Park since 1984 when the Ga DOT tried to run a highway again through parks and neighborhoods to the proposed Jimmy Carter Presidential library. Leon brokered an ingenious compromise. That solved many problems.

    I was lucky to get a grant from the city at the time of the compromise to build a model of the new plan and share my photographs of my opinion of the destruction the DOT had done before stopped in the City Hall Atrium. To learn more about Freedom Park and my many adventures there go to http://freedomparkway.info. To see the model and photographs of Decade: 1992-2002, photographs of the park before and after the completion go to the Point Center Building 427 Moreland Ave, Atlanta, GA 30307 sponsored by Don Bender.

    Thank You Leon for what you have done for this city and touched my life in a positive way.Report

    Reply
  6. Nick Nicholson April 16, 2021 2:58 pm

    I was a zoning chair for a neighborhood in Buckhead and a member of NPU-B. I quickly learned how City Planning under Eplan was a valuable resource to neighborhoods. I used Eplan’s and his staff’s guidance to affect a number of developments impacting our neighborhood. The Blueprint Midtown tried to incorporate many of his principles that could have been followed better. He has left an admirable legacy.Report

    Reply
  7. Beth Schapiro April 16, 2021 3:11 pm

    Leon was a gem. His vision, coupled with remarkable people skills, enabled him to truly change the face of the city. We’ll miss him.Report

    Reply
  8. AJ Robinson April 17, 2021 9:59 am

    Leon had more passion and love of Atlanta than anyone I have known. He cared about every facet of the City. We have all benefited from his determination, competence, and passion. He was a dear friend and always gave me sagely advice. May his memory be a blessing to all of Atlanta for many years to come.Report

    Reply
  9. Ray White April 18, 2021 12:04 am

    Leon Eplan was a great city planner, counselor, and an even better human being. We interacted many times during my 40+ years professional planning career in the Atlanta Region. His contributions impact on all of us, even when we do not realize it. R.IP. Leon. Thanks for making our places more livable!Report

    Reply
  10. Jodi Mansbach April 27, 2021 8:11 am

    Leon is the reason that I became a planner – at the age of 40! No one had more passion for the profession of planning, understood its challenges and persevered nonetheless. Leon was light years ahead of his time in the ways he thought about physical planning and about the process of planning. He was a placemaker before it was trendy and and an advocate for authentic civic engagement. Atlanta is a better place because of Leon – and if we continue to aspire to his vision, we can make it even better.Report

    Reply

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