What Does the Proposed Zoning Change in Atlanta Mean for Buckhead?
By Jim Durrett, President of the Buckhead Coalition and Executive Director of the Buckhead CID, and Tim Keane, Commissioner of the Department of City Planning, City of Atlanta
For months I have heard from constituents in Buckhead that the zoning changes proposed by the City of Atlanta would ruin Buckhead’s wonderful, stable, single-family neighborhoods. I agreed that the initial proposal was likely to have some unintended adverse consequences and the Buckhead community had a right to be concerned. I later learned that the City planning staff had been listening to the concerns voiced by many in Buckhead and that the proposal had been modified to address those concerns. And, yet, I still hear from folks in Buckhead that the City’s proposal threatens our neighborhoods. I reached out to Tim Keane, Atlanta’s Commissioner of the Department of City Planning, to state clearly whether and how Buckhead will be impacted. What follows is Commissioner Keane’s response. – Jim Durrett
You can see it all over Atlanta, construction of all kinds. New buildings underway, renovations and general remaking of the physical place. It’s because Atlanta is in demand like never before. The City of Atlanta has permitted $20.65 billion in construction over the past four years – a record. The city’s population has exceeded its previous high of almost 500,000 residents in 1970 after years of declining population. All indications are that growth will continue and accelerate. This can be the best scenario for Atlanta, provided we are prepared to ensure this growth helps shape a better city.
What does “better city” mean? The answer to that is Atlanta City Design – an unprecedented, major direction-setting framework for Atlanta’s growth and development that was adopted into the City Charter in 2017. We collectively have an opportunity like never before in Atlanta to make a city where the people benefit from the care we take of the physical place.
Undoubtably, rapid, uncontrolled growth brings vexing problems. Foremost among them are affordability and mobility. By taking actions now to enable a city built for affordability and mobility, growth can be our path to solving these most intractable problems. It’s rarely done. But for a variety of circumstances, Atlanta has that chance.
Two important points before we go any further: 1. Central to Atlanta City Design is understanding the unique physical characteristics of Atlanta and enabling growth that is commensurate with this specific place. The framework is NOT intended to transform single-family neighborhoods, which are labeled in Atlanta City Design as Conservation Areas, into dense, urban settings like those the plan identifies as Growth Areas. 2. To codify that approach, the City has decided to EXCLUDE the more suburban single-family districts that constitute many of the residential parts of the Buckhead and Cascade neighborhoods from the zoning proposals that would permit more widespread construction of accessory dwellings, reduce parking requirements, and small apartment buildings within a half mile of MARTA train stations. Instead, these proposed changes are focused on the more urban residential areas of the city, many of which were originally developed with this type of housing variety until zoning changes in 1982 made them illegal.
The City released Atlanta City Design Housing in December 2020. This analysis of how zoning and land use impact housing affordability and diversity set the stage for a series of housing policy proposals to address affordability in this growing city. When we started meeting with neighborhoods about these proposals in January 2021 we heard strongly and consistently from neighborhoods zoned R-1, R-2 and R-3 that there was no support. Additionally, Atlanta City Design recognizes a difference in single-family neighborhoods in Atlanta – some being more urban, others suburban and even others that have rural characteristics. The point is that all single-family neighborhoods aren’t the same. And in that regard, almost all of the accessory dwellings and small apartment buildings in our single-family neighborhoods are in neighborhoods zoned R-4 and R-5 – which constitute 82% of the single-family parcels in the city.
As a result of these public discussions that began in January, the legislation that was introduced by Councilmember Amir Farokhi in July 2021 did NOT include any changes in the R-1, R-2 and R-3 areas. These zoning districts cover the vast majority of the Buckhead and Cascade neighborhoods and are specifically the ones that residents described as not being appropriate for these zoning proposals. Since this legislation was introduced, this fact has either been lost or misunderstood by some engaging in this important discussion.
Housing affordability in this city and region will become an increasingly acute issue for all of us to deal with. Buckhead acknowledged this recently, noting that increased traffic congestion, in part, can be attributed to the many people that work in Buckhead that cannot afford to live there, and therefore must drive long distances to get to work. This can increasingly be said for other parts of Atlanta and the region as well.
The most important thing we must do as a city is enable the private market to meet the rapidly rising demand for housing in Atlanta. There are many other important things we must do. The Housing Opportunity Bond and other ways to provide public subsidy for our lowest income housing is one example. Use of public land where possible for affordable housing is another. But finding appropriate ways for more people to build housing is the most critical. Cities have proven time and again that public subsidy alone will not address housing affordability. The threshold issue is sufficient housing supply – for everyone.
It is legitimate to say Atlanta is experiencing its most flourishing time right now. And this amazing growth we are experiencing can shape a better city for people that have lived here for years as well as newcomers. But that will be difficult without honest, sincere public discussion regarding the options we have before us. – Tim Keane