Tim Keane to Atlanta: No more ugly buildings; focus on quality design

By Maria Saporta

When it comes to urban design, it’s a new day for Atlanta.

Atlanta’s Planning Commissioner Tim Keane wants our developers and architects to step up their game. And he’s willing to hold up their projects if they don’t live up to higher quality design standards.

Tim Keane Terri Lee

Planners Tim Keane and Terri Lee look over the watercolor depiction of how Atlanta can grow and retain its beauty (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Already the developers of three high profile projects have revised their plans to accommodate the city by improving the plans for their developments.

For Keane, this is not a job; it’s a mission to create greater awareness of the importance of quality design on our urban environment.

“People in Atlanta don’t value design,” Keane said in a recent interview. “It’s a huge problem. I feel like people here think design is frivolous. But it is fundamental to making a better life for people.”

Keane moved to Atlanta nearly three years ago after serving as the planning commissioner for the City of Charleston, S.C.

“It was a big change for me coming from Charleston where design was seen as contributing to a better life for residents. We cared about every detail,” Keane said. “In Charleston, there was a three-step design review process to get a building approved. It was too much. Charleston was so over the top, but Atlanta is on the opposite end of the spectrum.”

So Keane is changing Atlanta’s laissez-faire approach and emerged as a good cop (or bad cop) insisting on quality design for projects that land on his desk.

“I have started to say: ‘You can’t build that. You can’t build insulting buildings in Atlanta anymore,’” Keane said. “This is not about architecture and architectural awards. It is more how architecture contributes to a better public realm.”

445 Marietta before

Initial design for the 445 Marietta St. building (Special: City of Atlanta)

445 Marietta after

The revised design for a building at 445 Marietta St. Notice how the building incorporates an historic building in the lower right corner (Special: City of Atlanta)

It is his attempt to stop the development of “Mr. Potatohead” buildings – structures where architects add different design features to try to make an ugly building better. Keane would rather architects start out with a simple building design with high quality materials and amenities.

As the law currently stands, the city of Atlanta would have a hard time enforcing a design standard. And Keane acknowledges the city is not authorized to mandate good design. But he has told developers that the city won’t approve a project unless they change the architecture. Developers could take the city to court, but that would cost time and money.

So far, developers have been willing to work with the city to redesign their buildings in order to get the project moving. Eventually, Keane hopes developers will know to incorporate quality design principles before they bring their proposals to the city.

“The main point is that design is not a frivolous endeavor,” Keane said. “It is integral to a city’s development.”

Keane did acknowledge that quality design can be in the eyes of the beholder – and he is not advocating for classical or modern design.

“We are going to be advocates for a better public realm,” Keane said. “It’s how a building meets the street. It has to have good proportions with quality materials. It should have a balanced window to wall ratio that fit in with the overall composition of the building.

“Everything has to be done well – designed well – no matter what your style is,” Keane said. “I’m interested in contemporary architecture, but it has to achieve the basics of good design in order to be built.”

One area where Keane does not have a lot of room for compromise is historic preservation.

“I think Atlanta has enough old buildings that if we save them, we still have enough fabric to build around them and make a distinct city,” Keane said. “What we are struggling with is the quality of the new buildings that fall around the historic buildings.  So far we haven’t been able to build to consistent design quality buildings that stand up to the test of time.”

640 peachtree before

640 Peachtree St. – initial design for the hotel at the important Ponce de Leon Avenue intersection (Special: City of Atlanta)

revised design 640 peachtree

Revised design for 640 Peachtree St. hotel project (Special: the City of Atlanta)

Historically, Atlanta has let zoning laws regulate urban development (the city has been revamping its zoning ordinances with several new rules passing the Zoning Review Board on Dec. 13).

“This is about the city taking responsibility or the quality of architecture in Atlanta. The city has relied on zoning, but zoning doesn’t make good buildings,” Keane said “Only design can do that.”

The city has started having internal discussions about developing a design process that will lead to better architecture. It is working on how best to involve the Atlanta Urban Design Commission as well as the development review committees within certain community improvement areas. Keane said he hopes to have a new process adopted within the next year.

“All of that needs to be up for refinement,” Keane said. “The saving of old buildings is job No. 1. We can never replicate the design of our old buildings.”

So far, Keane has been a successful good design cop – especially with the three developments where he was able to influence the ultimate design.

“In every one of these cases, the developers have been thrilled with the process,” Keane said. “What they got was so much better.”

It’s only been a little more than three years since Keane came to Atlanta – and he can best be described as a change agent. He worked with Ryan Gravel to have the city adopt the Atlanta City Design Project – which outlined ways the city could increase its population while improving its quality of life. He has been working on a host of institutional changes – the zoning ordinance, a new tree ordinance, an urban ecology framework plan, a more pedestrian-oriented transportation plan and now better design standards.

In Keane’s mind, we can’t look at the city in silos. We need to integrate all the various urban amenities so they create a balanced, equitable city that respects our unique history and location.

That includes affordability, transit, accessibility, quality design, historic preservation, protection of high value trees as well as making sure residents have ample opportunities to be involved in the evolution of Atlanta.

524 West Peachtree

524 West Peachtree at Baltimore Row. The image shows the initial plans on the left and the revised design on the right (Special: City of Atlanta)

This is one of my favorite examples of a modern building respecting the historic fabric of its neighbor:

Boston Library

Photo shows the addition to the Boston Public Library that opened in 1972. The addition was designed by architect Philip Johnson, who used design motifs from the historic library (Special: Boston Library)

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.

27 replies
  1. Avatar
    Chris Johnston says:

    When, not if, a developer sues the City for unlawful interference, this article will be one of the first pieces of evidence introduced by the plaintiff. To acknowledge that what one does is unlawful and then proceed to do it is breathtaking arrogance. The spirit of Kasim Reed lives on at City Hall.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Greg Hodges says:

    "You can't build that…"
    If a proposed structure meets all of the city's zoning and building code requirements, then why on earth should a bureaucrat be able to hold up the construction of such structure just because it doesn't happen to fit his own glorified idea of 'a better public realm' ?
    "People in Atlanta don't value design."
    Good grief…..conceit and arrogance personified.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Henry M. Clever says:

    I suppose I see the value in building housing with cheaper materials if that is necessary to house low income residents. However, I'm in a relatively higher income bracket and 95% of the new apartment buildings I've seen in Atlanta seem cheaply built and unlivable to me. I doubt that this many new high rises are going to affordable housing, so I'd take Keane's side on this. I'd live in just about any one of the newer buildings going up in New York – many are gorgeous. For Atlanta, I'll hold on tight to the classic century building I'm in as long as I'm here. I'm planning to move back to New York; the ugliness and cheapness of many of these new buildings in Atlanta is a major factor for me.Report

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  4. Avatar
    Eric Ganther says:

    Ugly architecture lowers the value of the properties around it. Ugly is theft and rampant theft turns vibrant neighborhoods into slums. Cities have an obligation to prevent theft and to prevent future slums by creating design standards and enforcing them. Thank goodness we finally have a sheriff in town who will take on the barons of ugliness. Let's make Tim's life easier and build strong design standards into the permitting process today so we can all live in a city we can be proud of tomorrow.Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Nope says:

    I imagine these developers are grateful for the city's assistance; as a result their properties will be far more valuable and more desirable than they'd have been with the original, awful designs.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Map guy says:

    The SPI districts which include Midtown, Downtown and Buckhead all have aesthetic guidelines to the exterior. This is legal and is already is laid out in the municode. So Chris Johnson and Greg Hodges, you do not know what you are talking about.Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    POSSIBLE GIRLS says:

    i work in the AEC industry in Atlanta.Most of my peers & colleagues are putting up these shitty design. Its not entirely their fault. These are the rules in place. Developers & the 'free market' will dictate best & highest use or more accurately, maximum profit & value extraction. This means cheapest, kit-of-part material palette that labor can assemble easily & quickly.

    We can have beautiful & affordable buildings, private or not. Plenty of US cities have already revamping their laws & plans: Minneapolis 2040, Portland, Seattle, LA, SF, NY. Plenty of countries have been doing this for awhile: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/beautiful-public-housing-red-vienna-social-housing. The common thread between all these places? There's rules & laws promoting better design.Report

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Deborah Jensen says:

    Agree with Possible Girls above. Without design guidelines and a formal design review process (in addition to building codes and zoning), the bottom line for the majority of developers is to extract the largest possible return on investment. Unfortunately, design professionals are then held to these minimal standards by their clients, when design regulations are not adopted and enforced.

    Atlanta is lucky to finally have Tim Keane and a planning department who understand the value of building design in shaping the urban realm that we all share. I struggle with the municipality where I now reside, where any development is often seen as good development. The result is frequently of substandard quality that contributes little to the existing character of the district, and detracts from the existing fabric of the city. Unfortunately, developments that follow the lowest design quality typically must be endured for 50+ years, and that is truly a missed opportunity for improving the shared experience of our cities.Report

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  9. Avatar
    Gin Ma says:

    I love that we are opening up to the discussion around the value of good design. I'm so pleased with Commissioner Keane's recognition of "how architecture contributes to a better public realm". As a design professional with a focus on the interior environment and as a 40+ year resident of Atlanta, I would call attention to the numerous recent examples of the value that great designs bring to the interior realm, too.
    There's always reward in creating better!Report

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    jon carlisle says:

    None of this will be of relevance when Dewberry turns Atl on its ear building the next Rockefeller Ctr. at 10th and Peachtree. By then – 2030 – we'll have rinsed the stench at City Hall near complete.Report

    Reply
  11. Avatar
    Reinmart says:

    "If a proposed structure meets all of the city's zoning and building code requirements, then why on earth should a bureaucrat be able to hold up the construction"
    They do it all the time in places like Sandy Springs, Roswell, and any other city that wants to be more than just a collection of developer garbage.Report

    Reply
  12. Avatar
    Carol B says:

    Thanks Maria, and good for Tim Keane! When I drive past those awful matchbox buildings, I wonder that anyone would want to live in them. Colony Square is a great example of how it can be done right. Thank you Jova Daniets!Report

    Reply
  13. Avatar
    David Brandenberger says:

    Hooray for Tim Keane. It's about time Atlanta encourages development but does it with some past and future City planning guidelines in plain view! Kudos!!!Report

    Reply
  14. Avatar
    Bruce Stiftel says:

    I'm uncertain whether to be angry about abuse of power, or pleased that planners have some power to wield in the service of the public interest. Then I remember the public interest can only be reliably determined by duly elected representatives.

    There is a different way to frame this: Planners' advice about what the planning board is likely to view favorably is a helpful service to developers and community.Report

    Reply
  15. Avatar
    POSSIBLE GIRLS says:

    isn't it funny how developers & the market recapture & recapitulate seemingly good ideas like "mixed use" in their own fashion?

    of course everyone knows single-use doesn't promote a lively & active urban fabric. However, mixed-use in practice today might as well be single-use. Most of these new "mixed-use" developments, especially ones in the past few years, charges ridiculously high rent.

    Storefronts sits vacant, mom-n-pop shops are priced out, leaving only low quality commercial chains. For the most part, ATL only gets the commercial chains-mattress firm underneath apts type of mixed-use or the too expensive restaurants with co-working space type of mixed-use…..

    all i'm saying is…can we get a damn mixed-income-mixed use?

    sorry for the rant.Report

    Reply
  16. Avatar
    Graham Lloyd Carter RA says:

    Since 2000, developers have created soulless projects that do not celebrate a "Sense of Place", i.e. the latest redeveloped Buckhead.

    Once upon a time, Developers sought out and engaged wonderful Architectural firms like Jova Daniels & Busby, John Portman & Assocates, Thompson, Ventulete & Stainback, Cooper Carry & Associates and so many others, who lived and loved the City in which they wove their magic. They masterfully employed the use of Scale, Character, selected & utilized appropriate Materials to create environments worth visiting and enjoying. They succeeded for about 25 years in making Atlanta a highly desireable travel destination. It's hard to remember that once upon a time the whole world wanted to visited Atlanta to experience what they and their clients had created.

    Unfortunately, today it is almost impossible to suggest to a traveller anything built after 2000 worth seeing and experiencing because projects are designed as if to be seen and appreciated from no closer than 100,000 feet.

    Gone is any appreciation for reveals that separate one material from another, or forms that enhance and balance each other, or shadows that cause one to pouse and reflect on how wonderful a certain place is with its incorporation of local growies that enhance the man made forms gracing their pesence.

    Gone is the almost universal delight of user groups walking though a portal at the Regency Hyatt and expressing "Oh My God! What a Wonder!"

    It is a sorry state of affairs that Atlanta has had to have a Charlestonian Transplant to remind her of what she has lost!

    Shame on all those, whose above comments, do not support an individual with both the Guts and Aspirational Goals to help Atlanta to once again to become Exemplary!!

    I hope it's not too late…I hope we will rise from the muck of the lowest common denominator being the norm.

    I, for one, wish Tim all success in turning an oceanliner named "Atlanta", which has been at full steam without a Captian & Pilot to guide her these last 18 or so years!

    I also thank the Daughter of I. E. Saporta AIA for her efforts to fight the good fight – her Dad, one of my favorite Profs would have been so very proud of her!Report

    Reply
  17. Avatar
    KB says:

    Sorry but design is up to the person paying for the building. If people would stop buying or renting space in crappy buildings, designers would be forced to respond.

    There is plenty to regulate. There are easy things to address. STORAGE FACILITIES and PARKING LOTS/DECKS. Impose higher/punitiveptaxes on spaces that don't meet a level of human occupancy/use. Owners can keep doing stupid stuff but they won't make any money from it.Report

    Reply
  18. Avatar
    POSSIBLE GIRLS says:

    Let's not fetishize a past that never was. All of those architects & firms you mention created hideous bldgs that imposed their will on the city & its residents.

    This is more of the "get off my lawn" argument for a supposed golden age of architecture that never existed. A fantasy of the heroic architect with their beaux-arts education telling folks how they should live through top-down, heavy handed, homogenizing designs rather than enabling a multiplicity of lives & experiences

    The great irony is that the firms you mentioned directly put us in the situation we're in today. Modern-post-modern arch emphasized industrial, market-driven, serialization of architecture. It became a one size fit all for the masses at the cheapest costs.

    Have you seen or visited any recent John Portman, Cooper Carry projects? Corbu, Mies, Kahn, Wright, Venturi or any of your idols are rolling in their graves. TVS is doing good work. However, all of them have been hallowed out by the hyper-capitalistic economy. Its profit maximizing over decent design, which are steered by developers & speculators.

    Good design still exists but only for those who can afford it. And once its built, good luck accessing it.Report

    Reply
  19. Avatar
    Kristi Eide says:

    I would love to see Design used on our residential properties to avoid clear cutting and grading the entire lot. Design beautiful homes to fit into the environment with smaller footprints, preserving the trees and soils. We are not achieving greater density with the current design trends of a (for example) 5,000 sq foot house with a couple and child. Instill footprint limits.Report

    Reply
  20. Avatar
    Todd Hart says:

    I prefer the before designs that he is railing against. They are much more honest. The materials look like they are much more consistent with the fact that the exterior wall are curtain walls, instead of the neo-historic masonry stage set of what is being pushed.Report

    Reply
  21. Avatar
    Graham Lloyd Carter RA says:

    This is the first really reasoned critique and comment to my belief that Architectural Projects should build upon previous projects that created a "sense of place".

    There agree that there can be many esthetic design solutions to address specific design problems & probably neither of the the two alternatives developed for each building illustrared in the original artical fulfills its potential to respond contextually to its surroundings. I understand and very much appreciate design solutions that respectfully embrace their structural bones and curtain assemblies can provide a significant contribution. I respectfully suggest that over adherence to the soulless expressionism of a cladding system can result many times in endless canyons of sheer glass and steel vs. materials that emote timeless quality and a human sense of expression and craftsmanship.

    I agree that the use of foe materials to ape real materials lead in the early 21 century to a bastardization and devaluing of their meaning. This design trend smeared facades with synthetic stucco, like peanut butter and became a clear example of using the cheapest material to ape timeless forms of quality and character. I agree that Post Modernism became the design favor-of-the-month, but I applaud its origins to incorporate the human element and breath of contextual design history in a quest to meld the lofty goal of "form follows function" with human spirit to relate to the built environment of scale and character.

    Unfortunately, many of my commenters denial of the heritage and efforts of Atlanta's Great Local Architects, Designers who "i" had the very great pleasure to have toweled with as well as their enlightened Clients produced exemplary design achievements before the millennium.

    Many Commenters to this posting have rushed to raise the banners of the private property rights to the exclusion of a City's obligation to care for its Soul and unfortunately, in my humble opinion, their approach to life has almost completed the killing of the goose that laid the golden egg. Just because the eggs have become hard to find one should not discount that the goose and its ever existed……Report

    Reply

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