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Atlanta must plan wisely for a new planning commissioner

Tim Keane

By John Ruch

Sometimes I crack open “The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community,” the massive urban vision book published under the auspices of Planning Commissioner Tim Keane, just to marvel that a government was capable of producing such a thing. In beauty, provocation, scope and impeccable cultural timing, its closest cousins are found not in municipal archives and consultant portfolios, but rather in the arts: Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Donald Glover’s Atlanta.

Of course, turning visions into policies, and policies into codes and plans, is not art; it’s political trench warfare. Keane was anything but a politician and often got insufficient support from the mayor and City Council who are. Under more than six years of his leadership, his department had triumphs, especially in housing affordability experiments and historic preservation, but it also had high-profile struggles, from backlash against equity-based zoning changes to its grand South River Forest vision getting complicated by the City’s own secret plan for a public safety training center. Even the classic urban chore of whipping up a new tree ordinance proved to be too much.

Ironically, now that Atlanta has a new mayor and council who seem better equipped to back his approaches, Keane is shipping out to Siberia, er, Boise. That leaves Atlanta planning for its next planner. Will the city get another planning visionary, or someone more politically deft at carrying out those plans? Will leaders stick by the City Design, or let it slide in favor of something else?

Asking around last week, I was struck by how fans of Keane’s visions were acutely aware of the political tensions — and how even his critics repeated some of the affordability and density concepts he thrust onto the front burner.

Better political support

“I’d like to see a planning commissioner who builds on the foundation that Keane built,” said Matthew Garbett, cofounder of the urbanism advocacy organization ThreadATL. “But the commissioner won’t matter if Mayor Dickens and Council don’t support, endorse and explain the proposals to a skeptical Atlanta that wants change but also doesn’t want to change. Can Dickens convince a visionary planner that they will have his full political support, even on policies that may be initially unpopular?”

Ryan Gravel, the planner behind the Atlanta BeltLine, was the Atlanta City Design’s lead author and worked with Keane to develop it through a public planning program called Atlanta City Studio. “The challenge with urban planning in Atlanta is that generally, while people don’t like change, change is coming anyway — think gentrification or traffic congestion,” said Gravel. “That makes the hard work and decisions required to address change unpopular and, in this town, unlikely to happen. So, if you’re in the business of addressing change, this is a tough place to work. And if you’re good at your job like Tim Keane, you’re going to get other offers. It’s an understandable move for him — sad for Atlanta.”

Amir Farokhi is the City Council member who took one for Keane’s team by carrying controversial and ultimately failed zoning legislation to, among other things, increase areas where accessory dwelling units are allowed. The papers died in a Zoning Committee that Farokhi chaired at the time.

“Commissioner Keane will be missed,” Farokhi said. “At a time when our city has been challenged by remarkable growth, skyrocketing housing costs, and residents’ hunger for a more livable, walkable city, he understood the need to marry transformational policy change with what makes Atlanta and its neighborhoods special. His vision, from the Atlanta City Design plan to more inclusive zoning to a shared Peachtree Street, rightfully pushed us into overdue conversations about what type of city we want to live in.”

As for how that vision might continue, “I would just say that it’s up to us as city leaders, a new planning commissioner and residents to carry those big tasks and vision forward.”

Resistance and self-inflicted wounds

Especially where the political heat was lower, the Planning Department had significant success in pioneering programs like the Peachtree Shared Space pedestrian-friendly pilot project Downtown, or the “Future Places Project,” an underappreciated win in putting Atlanta ahead of the curve on national trends in historic preservation.

Public and official resistance at other times could be cranky. But often the Planning Department suffered self-inflicted wounds and failed to build trust that had been lost, at least partly deservedly, under prior leadership. One factor was confusion from the plethora of weird names like “Future Places” and “City Studio,” which were meant to reframe public thinking but often just sounded like bewildering conceptual art geared toward urbanist hipsters. Those of us writing about it typically had to spill a lot of ink playing Merriam-Webster on what a program meant before we could get to what it achieved.

Keane himself set an undiplomatic tone. Like many planners, he had a technocrat’s impatience with the slogging pace and endless grousing we call democracy. He was often by far the smartest guy in any Atlanta room and had no problem letting you know it with acerbic or sarcastic commentary. Meanwhile, the pro politicians he served under — first Kasim Reed and for most of his tenure Keisha Lance Bottoms — favored backroom deal-making over public buy-in, despite rising populist sentiment.

All of those factors came to a head in “Atlanta City Design Housing,” the genesis of those controversial zoning changes. In essence, it’s another astonishing vision statement that combines a mea culpa for ages of racist zoning with concepts for using density to tackle affordability, inequity and a population boom all at the same time. But by the time anyone figured that out, it was already a political brush fire.

Start with the awkward name, which looks like it’s missing a word or punctuation. Was it a policy? A vision? A plan? Legislation? Then when it turned out that it would spawn some legislation, that part was rolled out to Neighborhood Planning Units in obscure, one-liner descriptions that even city planners couldn’t explain on the spot.

Buckhead became an epicenter of concern and then outright opposition. Some of the complaints were exaggerated — the City was not ending single-family zoning — but opponents quickly outpaced and outflanked officials by circulating information, poking policy holes and turning the Atlanta City Design principles against the City’s own plan. The political timing could not have been worse, as the Buckhead cityhood movement was just gaining steam.

Keane followed up with scorched-earth commentary about Buckhead, telling Atlanta Civic Circle that local criticism of the City’s proposals were bad-faith poses based on cityhood politics — maybe true for some, but certainly not all. “There’s no way to get them off of that because their only interest is in creating fear and confusion,” he said. “There’s nothing that will change that. No amount of truth matters.”

The commentary would have made it very hard for a Keane-led department to return to the neighborhood for Round 2 — presuming it is not in a Buckhead City thanks to a political campaign that runs on such incendiary gasoline. He sounded like a guy already looking for another job.

Some of his foes on Buckhead’s NPUs were more conciliatory last week.

“Tim Keane leaves Atlanta having made improvements in City Planning processes, especially permitting and inspections,” said NPU-B chair Nancy Bliwise. “He also leaves with major initiatives unfinished and in need of a ‘restart’ with the city’s many neighborhoods. I am hopeful that the search process will bring a commissioner that recognizes the many benefits for the city of having close-in single-family neighborhoods, understands that our neighborhoods have different needs, and values the wisdom that long-term residents can bring as we confront the need for better infrastructure, affordable housing, and preservation of our tree canopy and natural environment.”

“Tim was a bright and capable planner,” said Brink Dickerson, chair of NPU-A. “His original framework for the future development of Atlanta, a document known as Atlanta City Design, was exceptional work.  I am happy that he came to Atlanta, and I think that he accomplished a lot of good. Unfortunately, after Atlanta City Design was approved, the staff in the Department pushed hard for an alternative approach to development that emphasized density for the sake of density, including in established neighborhoods, and they lost sight of the importance of the features of the City that make the City what it is and why it is attractive to so many people.”

Dickerson has plenty of policy ideas for the next planning commissioner. One is to immediately change zoning ordinances to preserve affordability in gentrifying neighborhoods like the West End. “Affordable housing is an enormous issue and must be addressed quickly. The most important thing that the City can do in that regard is to protect the affordable housing that we have,” he said.

You are of course free to question the sincerity or accuracy of such statements. But I’ll tell you right now, before Tim Keane came along, you didn’t hear Buckhead NPU leaders talking publicly and regularly about housing affordability.

Last words or first step?

Keane had some final thoughts of his own, delivered in a Feb. 1 letter to the mayor and City Council. He stumped for follow-through on transit investments, housing affordability and changes to Downtown’s Peachtree Street to stop being “so dramatically hostile to people.”

In typically tart terms, the letter also throws implied shade on Atlanta’s political will and pace. “Central to all my work here has been the understanding that there is a relationship between the physical city and the prosperity of its people… It is something that in my opinion Atlanta does not recognize,” he wrote, also complaining that he thinks “the scale of change needed is not appreciated.”

“Decisive action by the City will address so many of our frustrations about linchpin issues like affordability, mobility, and sustainability,” he concluded. “In my opinion, Atlanta City Design gives the city the guide to a better future. One that requires action today. And one that will be sustained across many political cycles.”

Now we’ll see if Keane is getting the last word on our urban vision — or giving the first nudge to its next step of realization.


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