By Maria Saporta
Three of Atlanta most important former planning commissioners had a message for newly-elected Mayor Kasim Reed — good planning should be an integral part of his administration.
The three former commissioners were invited to the “Dear Mayor Reed” program by the Georgia Tech Student Planning Association Thursday night at White Provisions on Howell Mill and 14th streets in one of the most striking meeting spaces in Atlanta.
As the moderator of the discussion, I wasn’t able to take diligent notes of what was said. Fortunately, my colleague Thomas Wheatley, a reporter with Creative Loafing, was there, and I look forward to reading his report.
But there were several memorable messages from the evening.
As Mayor Reed struggles with underfunded pensions, budget deficits, public safety concerns and countless other city headaches, he should also take a forward-looking view of Atlanta. What makes a city work?
Leon Eplan, who did two terms as planning commissioner — (1974 to 1978 and 1990 to 1996) under the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson — spoke of how policies enacted 30 or 40 years ago led to the resurgence of the city.
When Jackson passed a new city charter in his first tenure as mayor, it shifted the city’s power in a couple of ways. Atlanta went from having a weak mayor/strong council form of government to a strong mayor government. It also gave neighborhoods a much greater voice in planning and land-use decisions through the Neighborhood Planning Unit system.
Mike Dobbins served as planning commissioner from 1996 to 2002 mostly under former Mayor Bill Campbell.
Dobbins provided a three-paged single-spaced synopsis of how Mayor Reed should approach planning in an effort to reduce poverty and racism and how he can help “lift city policy to shape development to meet community needs and aspirations” and not just aim to please developers.
And then there was Steve Cover, who served as commissioner from 2006 to 2008 under former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
He offered Mayor Reed six tangible recommendations: develop the multimodal station downtown, focus on the Fort McPherson redevelopment opportunity, build the Center for Civil and Human Rights, implement the Connect Atlanta transportation plan, rewrite the city’s zoning code. and outsource part of the department’s operations, such as the Bureau of Buildings.
Dobbins took exception to the privatization recommendation, which was just one example of how the three planners agreed and disagreed with each other — offering a lively exchange of ideas of how Atlanta should prepare itself to welcome growth in the future.
But they all agreed that the mayor should gain a greater appreciation for the role planning can play in encouraging healthy and sustainable economic development, which will contribute to the city’s tax base.
Dobbins suggested that Mayor Reed spend time in Charleston, S.C. with Mayor Joe Riley to better understand the role of good planning in building great cities.
Getting three Atlanta planning experts in a room and getting them to share ideas and discuss different approaches to the city’s thorny problems was a stimulating way to spend an evening.
And had Mayor Reed been present, he would have walked away dreaming of Atlanta’s possibilities rather than being weighted down by all of our city’s problems.
Maybe next time.