Planner Tim Keane: ‘Atlanta needs to change a lot’
By Maria Saporta
After six-and-a-half years in Atlanta, Tim Keane is moving on to greener pastures — Boise, Idaho.
Keane’s final day as the City of Atlanta’s planning commissioner will be Friday, Feb. 18, and his presence in Atlanta will certainly be missed.
Before leaving town, Keane agreed to sit down for an exit interview — picking a spot in front of the Dancing Goats coffee shop across from the Midtown MARTA Station. Thanks to Keane, there is now outdoor seating in a space that used to be on-street parking. It is one of 18 such transformations Keane was able to do throughout the city.
The theme was on target. One of Keane’s messages as he is leaving is that Atlanta will need to shift some of the public space now devoted to cars to people-oriented spaces.
“I have a perspective about Atlanta that the city needs to change a lot,” Keane said. “There’s a lot of work to do around affordability and mobility.”
During his time here, Keane provided a mindset of how Atlanta should grow. It’s not a question of whether Atlanta will grow. In his mind, that’s a given.
“It’s not just that you invest and build something. It’s what you build that matters,” Keane said. “The city should be leading on creating the highest quality public realm — streets or parks or architecture. And those standards should be consistent whether they’re being done by Invest Atlanta, the BeltLine, MARTA or the Parks Department.”
Among Keane’s proudest achievements were creating the Atlanta City Studio, which invited citizens to become more involved in the way the city would grow, and the Atlanta City Design — a conceptual plan that offered a roadmap on how the city should grow. Central to the Atlanta City Design’s framework was to conserve Atlanta’s natural spaces and to encourage denser development along its commercial corridors.
“We wrote the book, literally,” said Keane, referring to the Atlanta City Design, a work of art in planning circles. “Why we did Atlanta City Design was to avoid the traps other cities have faced. Atlanta City Design is not a vision. It is a specific proposal for the city’s growth that’s representative of the physical design of the city. It is a practical proposal.”
In Keane’s mind, few people in Atlanta appreciate how dramatically the city will have to change if it wants to preserve and increase affordability and if it wants to become a more livable city in terms of mobility and design.
“There’s a relationship between the physical city and the prosperity of its people. We don’t in my opinion as a city even acknowledge that,” Keane said. “Look at how dense Midtown is becoming. The city plays a central role in that process — in the relationship of the physical city and the prosperity of its people. We need to address every single day that the building of the city requires engagement of the planning department — be it parks, streets, protection of land or investment in infrastructure.”
From his perspective, Keane said people often just view the planning department as the place to issue building permits.
By the way, Keane also is proud of how he improved the permitting process, which he described as a mess when he came here from Charleston, S.C. During his tenure, his department has issued 50,000 permits that translated into $30 billion in construction in developments throughout the city.
Keane said cities much have an overarching vision. Paris, for example, wants to be a 15-minute city — a city where everyone can walk, and within 15 minutes, get everything they need.
“I feel like the Atlanta planning department is not just about giving people permits. It’s much bigger than that. It has to be engaged in all these issues,” Keane said. “For Atlanta to reach its full potential as a city, the planning department should not be on the sidelines. It should be in the huddle if not the quarterback.”
For example, the planning department was not involved in the decision to locate the city’s new Public Safety Training Center on the former Atlanta Prison Farm in DeKalb County, property the Atlanta City Design had earmarked as a conservation district. The planning department could have been involved in helping the city find the best location for the controversial training center, but it was not brought into the process.
Keane said changing the nature of Atlanta’s streets also in critical to the city’s future. But the planning department has had to turn over transportation planning to the Atlanta Department of Transportation, which can lead to less alignment with the vision for the city.
An example of that disconnect is the planning around the redevelopment of the Five Points MARTA Station, which the planning department had been working on for two years. Now MARTA his presenting a totally different design, which Keane said jeopardize the opportunity to transform that critical block into a more urban space.
“It’s hard for anyone to get anything done in government without the support of the mayor,” said Keane, who was hired by Mayor Kasim Reed and stayed on through Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration.
On that note, Keane is looking forward to the leadership of Mayor Andre Dickens.
“I’m super optimistic about Andre Dickens as mayor. He’s got a lot of energy and passion for the city.”
During his tenure, Keane and his department attempted to pass a new tree ordinance and a new zoning ordinance, but both efforts became mired in controversy and differences of opinions.
“There will never be a day in any city where that process is not controversial and full of many different opinions,” Keane said. “But the reason we did Atlanta City Design was to put Atlanta in a better place when it comes to those debates. Why can’t Atlanta be excellent? Why can’t you have the police training center and have the conservation district?”
Keane also said there was a great deal of misinformation during the debates over a new tree ordinance and new zoning ordinance. The process to correct erroneous information and to reach a greater consensus was hampered by the COVID pandemic, which he said was unfortunate. Keane also realized he had become a target in the community. For example, the proposed zoning ordinance never intended to do away with single-family zoning, he said.
But Keane realized his leadership had been compromised, and that’s when he started exploring opportunities to leave Atlanta.
“It was a very hard decision to leave,” Keane said. “During the run-off and even after, I knew some neighbors were asking Andre Dickens to have me fired.”
He spoke to Dickens about two weeks before making the decision to take the Boise job, and he believed Dickens would have wanted him to stay in Atlanta.
“The timing of this is kind of good. It’s a new administration,” Keane said. “The last six to nine months, with the discussion around housing, my relationship with the community changed. That was not beneficial to the city. It was a good time to leave.”
Keane decided to go to Boise because it is a totally different place (physically, historically and culturally) where he can have a fresh start.
“No. 1, it is a beautiful place,” Keane said. “It’s a smaller city, comparable in scale to Charleston. It’s a fast-growing city. The mayor and the city are really interested in city design. They want to do that exceptionally well. (They are asking the right questions). How can downtown Boise grow and protect this amazing place? How do we deal with growth in a way that doesn’t spoil the landscape? The connection the city has to nature is phenomenal.”
For Keane it will be another adventure and an opportunity to influence the development of a city.
At the end of our conversation, Keane summed it up this way: “My greatest interest is to have a big impact and shape a city in the best way possible.”
Note to readers, I was able to interview Tim Keane when he first came to Atlanta in 2015. I also was able to explore his relationship with legendary Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, someone who influenced how Keane approaches cities, planning and historic preservation. I will always be grateful for his gift to us when he championed Atlanta City Design. I find it sad that his tenure became strained at the end. I feel we missed an opportunity by not taking full advantage of his leadership and putting Atlanta on a path to becoming a more livable and vibrant city. I’m hoping Atlanta’s next planning commissioner will be just as visionary and able to have a big impact on how we grow.