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Atlanta’s plan to boost density stalls in council; Mayor’s team doesn’t reveal intents

By David Pendered

Atlanta will take a month to reconsider a controversial proposal to boost residential density in traditional neighborhoods. In addition, the plan drew significant challenge Tuesday from two ranking members of Atlanta City Council.

Planning Commissioner Tim Keane gave no indication of any intentions to modify the proposed Comprehensive Development plan, in comments at the council’s Community Development Human Services Committee meeting. Keane’s department has been overseeing the revision for about a year.

cdp, highrise

Most residences built in Atlanta in recent years have been in high rise buildings or as houses, while almost no smaller scale dwellings, such as duplexes, have been built, according to Atlanta Planning Commissioner. (Photo by David Pendered)

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has espoused support for the plan, which closely tracks urban affairs and housing proposals of the Biden administration. Bottoms was an early supporter of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign and, Jan. 14, he nominated her as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, in charge of civic engagement and voter protection. On May 7 Bottoms announced she wouldn’t seek reelection as mayor.

In the CDHS meeting, committee Chair Matt Westmoreland called on Keane to produce the document used to justify a city population forecast of 1.2 million in 2040. The population forecast is a cornerstone of recommendations in the proposed Comprehensive Development Plan, Keane previously had said.

Fifty years ago, 25 percent of the region’s population resided in Atlanta and that rate could recur by 2030, according to Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane. (Image from Atlanta City Council’s Facebook page)

Recommendations include providing housing for future residents by allowing owners to subdivide a house lot, and sell pieces of land for construction of one or more dwelling units. Another plan is to allow a house near a MARTA rail station to be replaced by an apartment complex of eight units, or thereabouts.

Keane had said the population forecast came from Chris Nelson. Nelson taught city planning at Georgia Tech until 2002 and now teaches at the University of Arizona. Keane said he would provide the document to Westmoreland.

Nelson’s premise is that 25 percent of the region’s population could reside in Atlanta in 2040, Keane said. That rate is not inconceivable, given that in 1970 Atlanta accounted for 26.7 percent of the region’s population, according to a chart Keane displayed.

“If we’re designing a city in unprecedented growth, we need to be thinking about what we optimally are designing for,” Keane said. “What would be the best version, for us. Not what we might hope for, what we might put up with, but what is optimal …. for building a city that more people can live in, that can provide all that people need and desire in a city.”

Joyce Sheperd

Joyce Sheperd

Atlanta City Council Chairperson Joyce Sheperd, chair of the Public Safety Committee and member of CDHS, said her constituents oppose the proposed CDP. The common theme of concern is the plan sacrifices affordable housing in stable neighborhoods to provide dwellings for future residents – whose higher wealth will transform the city’s neighborhoods.

“I’m not sure this is the right approach,” Sheperd said. “Sometimes growing the city doesn’t mean we want to create a whole different type of city.”

Keane responded that he agrees with Sheperd’s views. And that, he said, is why the proposed CDP is so necessary.

“This is not density anywhere and at any scale,” Keane said. “The additional density will be surgical and small.”

Sheperd’s view was supported by a comment in the virtual meeting by one of about 12 observers, who called herself Melinda Walker. She posted two comments:

  • “Thank you Councilmember Sheperd. We appreciate that.
  • “Can someone please tell me why we have to accept density? Other cities are fine without it.”

The CDP is the city’s legal defense against lawsuits that seek to allow bigger buildings than allowed in zoning codes based on the CDP.

The plan now is tentatively scheduled to be discussed in a public hearing Oct. 25 and presented to the council on Oct. 28. The original timeline contemplated a council vote as early as Oct. 4, following a virtual public hearing Monday – which was cancelled at the last minute because of technical problems.

The adopted document is due to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs by Oct. 31, according to a DCA schedule.

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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1 Comment

  1. Dana Blankenhorn October 1, 2021 10:17 am

    I find Sheperd’s comments on the CDP plan interesting, and accurate for her area. There is a ton of near-empty land on the south and west sides available for gentrification.

    Here in the 5th district, it’s just the opposite. The city is building cheap stick apartments that would turn into slums at the first sign of the housing bubble busting. I saw this 40 years ago in Houston, where “affordable housing” on the Southwest side quickly turned into the notorious “Gulfton Ghetto.”

    Atlanta needs to protect its tax base, including the residential tax base, to afford the services its poor want and deserve. Piling in more low-income folks just to maintain demograhic stability will let the state play the “doughnut” and “doughnut hole” politics of 40 years ago.

    The trend of the last 10 years has been for poor folks to move closer to suburban jobs, around I-285 and upper-income folks to pay big bucks to move intown, for research jobs around Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory and surrounding areas.

    This is transforming the state’s politics, in good ways, with the interests of lower-income folks now supported in more suburban jurisdictions.Report

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