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