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Atlanta: we can have it all – density, affordable housing while protecting our tree canopy

Proposed new zoning ordinance would allow for different housing types to increase density (Special: Kronberg Urbanists + Architects)

By Maria Saporta

The City of Atlanta is literally at a crossroads over how it will grow.

There’s little debate about Atlanta adding hundreds of thousands of new residents to the city in the next 30 years – with some estimates as high as 700,000 (currently the population is about 500,000).

But there’s little consensus on how we’ll be able to fit all those people without destroying the qualities that make Atlanta special ­– specifically its beautiful tree canopy.

A battle has been raging over amendments to the current zoning ordinance that would allow for a greater variety of housing choices – such as accessory dwelling units (think garage apartments or in-law suites) – that would help bring more affordable housing choices in certain residential areas of our city.

Kronberg Urbanists + Architects made a presentation of how multifamily can blend in well with single-family homes – here is a historic apartment building next to a home on Charles Allen Drive in Midtown (Special: Kronberg Urbanists + Architects)

But leaders in several of Atlanta’s most tree-covered neighborhoods have expressed great concern that the proposed zoning amendments would make it easier for developers to clear cut land to maximize the number of units on a piece of property.

The whole discussion has been framed as mutually exclusive options: We can either have density with affordable housing or we can protect our tree canopy, but that we can’t do all three.

Baloney.

If Atlanta is going to be a world-class city, it must do all three – increase density, protect its tree canopy, and provide more affordable housing.

The Atlanta Regional Housing Forum  on Aug. 4 tackled the topic of more housing choices and how that can provide more affordable housing. A presentation by urbanists Eric Kronburg and Elizabeth Ward made the case for the new zoning ordinance that would allow greater density throughout the city.

The historic apartment building on Charles Allen Drive shows how trees add beauty to a development without sacrificing density (Photo by Maria Saporta)

But we must look at this issue from not just two dimensions (density and affordability), but with the third dimension to retain our high quality of life – which includes Atlanta’s reputation as a city in a forest.

The city has been working to rewrite its tree protection ordinance, and it has gotten bogged down in a tug of war between developers, the city’s planning department and citizens.

Ironically, developers have yet to realize the value that trees bring to whatever land they seek to redevelop. As a result, Atlanta had a record for tree removals in 2019; and that record was surpassed in 2020. That kind of tree removal has made Atlanta the third worse city in the United States in terms of a rise in temperature.

A strong new tree ordinance is essential to stop this madness. We can’t be a healthy, thriving city if we’re cutting down our greatest asset – our trees.

While the proposed new zoning amendments are focused on increasing density, they doesn’t address the issue of trees and green space. There is discussion of rewriting our zoning ordinance. Ideally, we would link a new zoning ordinance with tree protection tools to create a more affordable, green city that would preserve our neighborhoods.

The Atlanta City Design, a conceptual framework adopted in 2017 to help guide Atlanta’s growth, outlined a way we could have it all. We could increase density along our most developed corridors, thereby encouraging greater mobility through increased transit, more sidewalks and bicycle lanes.

Density in the City of Atlanta (Special: City of Atlanta 2019)

And we also would have “conservation areas” to protect the lush, green character of our city by preserving our neighborhoods. There likely would be increased density in our conservation areas as long as it happened “under the tree line,” according to urban designer Elizabeth Ward, who also serves on the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission.

But the proposed zoning amendments do not include the protection of trees as a stipulation. At some point, the city should link a new tree protection ordinance with a new zoning ordinance.

Imagine if we provided incentives for people to do what’s right. Homeowners and developers would be able to add more density to their property only if they protected the high priority trees and respected the existing tree canopy.

The city could/should offer tangible incentives to developers. If they are willing to protect trees and if they are willing to include affordability housing options on their land, then they could have increased density.

Right now, the City of Atlanta seems to be letting developers cut down trees to replace houses with even bigger single-family homes, so no one wins. We aren’t adding density. We aren’t adding affordable housing options. And we’re not saving trees.

In short, as it now stands, we are doing everything ass backwards.

Density in the City of Atlanta: city limits and density in 1940 and city limits and density in 2020 (Special: Kronberg Urbanists + Architects)

We need to be adding greater density. We need to be offering more affordable housing. We need to protect our trees. And no matter what, we need to replace and replant whatever trees we are losing every day.

“I regret that so often the conversation is framed as trees versus housing, or trees versus development. It should not be an either/or conversation,” Ward wrote in an email. “I want to live in a city that has both! I think there is more common ground among the housing advocates and tree advocates than is known, but that it will take people coming out of their silos and being willing to have conversations about priorities and trade-offs. It will take creativity and a willingness to work together to become a city that respects both the built and natural environment – and most importantly – the people that call this environment home. Cities are, after all, a habitat for people.”

Atlanta, we can do this. We can balance increasing our density, adding more affordable housing options, and saving our tree canopy. Let’s settle for nothing less.

Definition of Conservation Areas that was included in Atlanta City Design

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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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11 Comments

  1. Darin Givens August 9, 2021 8:27 pm

    I googled lists of U.S. cities with the biggest jumps in temperature and can’t find a list that contains Atlanta. I wonder where that “Atlanta the third worse city in the United States in terms of a rise in temperature” statistic comes from. The lists I’ve found have put southwest cities in the top ten.Report

    Reply
    1. Wendy Kirkpatrick August 21, 2021 4:48 pm

      Here is an article containing statistics that support the statements in this article: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1618866717307094Report

      Reply
  2. Dana Blankenhorn August 10, 2021 9:44 am

    There’s no room for trees in that picture. Any spaces that remain single-family will have no Sun.

    If you’re going to increase density you must increase park space. There must be small parks within easy walking distance wherever there is density. You’re also going to need a storm water overlay district to enact this plan. Water has to go somewhere.

    What you have here is a recipe for environmental disaster. https://www.danablankenhorn.com/2021/07/arborists-on-offense.htmlReport

    Reply
  3. Erik speakman August 10, 2021 10:03 am

    We actually have a great tree canopy – mostly from the work done by Trees Atlanta for 40 years. I recommend they be interviewed.Report

    Reply
  4. stephanie coffin August 10, 2021 10:58 am

    Please look at who has been holding up the Tree Ordinance rewrite! All the suggestions coming from the tree community have been rejected or blocked by the City Planning Office. Tim Keane has refused to consider the loss of trees in single-family neighborhoods that are embracing McMansions. There is also very little replanting on multi-family and commercial areas as the current Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance requires (90″ per acre for all zoning). Further there is lip service to more parks – small parks, but no action!

    We need another Planning Commission who is willing to take the needed natural resources of the city into consideration. If only the current law were enforced – yes that is all that folks are asking for. until we get a new ordinance, Going on three years to rewrite the tree ordinance while developers have been given a pass. We need a Department of the Environment to protect our canopy and water. Finally we need an Urban Forest Master Plan providing the city with a tree inventory as well as a plan to plant for TREE EQUITY.Report

    Reply
  5. Noel M August 10, 2021 11:33 am

    Amen. Of course we can achieve all of these priorities – it just takes creative, holistic, long-range thinking. Thank you so much for writing about this very important issue.

    The tree canopy is a lot of what makes Atlanta a great city. Same comment about our residents, and our housing. Let’s synch them all together.Report

    Reply
  6. Bruce C Gunter August 10, 2021 1:58 pm

    As usual, you have your finger on one of Atlanta’s most important issues, as our city is indeed at a crossroads. Until we add to housing supply–we don’t want to slow economic growth–what is left of affordable housing will be squeezed out. Rezoning is an elegant solution, as it promotes supply, and it also begins to redress the zoning code’s sinister origins as a primary implement of Jim Crow. I also applaud your suggestion that rezoning reforms be linked to the tree ordinance–another elegant solution to what is now a Gordian knot. Link the two!Report

    Reply
  7. Chad Polazzo August 10, 2021 5:16 pm

    Thanks for summarizing this important issue.

    Question: Has anyone considered allowing property owners to do conservation easements with their properties to preserve trees? If someone doesn’t want to have their property developed and wants to preserve trees, they get a tax break or freeze in exchange for removing their front/back yards from the development plan.

    This way we create green space options throughout the city – not quite pocket parks as they’d still be privately owned – but this option would make it much more affordable to keep green pockets throughout the city and would empower home owners to make the choice on how they’d like to see their land used by providing a financial value to preserving their green spaces and tree canopy.Report

    Reply
  8. Paula Grad August 11, 2021 11:09 am

    This rewrite of the zoning ordinance will be a field day for developers. I can see lower income areas becoming more dense and higher income areas remaining much the same, thereby increasing disparity. There are whole swaths of land that are either undeveloped or abandonded commercial properties as you travel south on Metropolitan or Northside. If the city wants to increase housing density they should look at underdeveloped areas. also, you can not increase density and keep the tree canopy.Report

    Reply
  9. Edward August 15, 2021 11:42 am

    This all sounds nice. But reality is density does NOT equal affordable. We have seen this over and over developers abusing our current zoning and overlays to increase their profits. But there is absolutely no truly affordable housing ever created.Report

    Reply
  10. Jessica Lavandier August 16, 2021 10:55 pm

    Maria, the parcels on Charles Allen, down the street from where we live, are zoned R-5- which allows for a two family homes. The apartment buildings are legal non-conforming uses, and that is why they are side by side single and two family homes. If all of the R-5 parcels were zoned to allow for multi-family use, they would be torn down and redeveloped at a higher density with multi-family uses.Report

    Reply

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