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Atlanta mayor says density-focused zoning changes could be “scaled down”

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The City of Atlanta’s ongoing zoning code update, which planning department officials have said would make the city more welcoming to truly dense development, might not be as drastic as urbanists and housing affordability advocates had hoped, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Wednesday during a Zoom discussion hosted by Leadership Atlanta. 

“It’s a process,” Bottoms said, referring to the Atlanta City Design Housing Initiative, which has been expected to pave the way for more dense development and welcome more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — think a tiny home in the backyard or an apartment over the garage — in town. There are a lot of new options on the table, she said, “but that’s not what’s going to come out in the wash. It’s going to be something that’s much more scaled-down, and it may not even look like what was put on the table initially.” 

Bottoms added that the reformed zoning code likely won’t include blanket policies, but instead ones that cater to neighborhoods differently. “It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all for the entire city,” she said. “It will very likely be tailored to specific communities.”

In short, maybe ADUs could become more accepted in communities that want them, but not in the communities with NIMBY — “not in my backyard” — attitudes. 

Local urban design wonks aren’t happy about that.

Darin Givens, head of urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL, told Atlanta Civic Circle, “Leadership has to stop prioritizing wealthy homeowners in cul-de-sacs.”

Dan Immergluck, Georgia State University urban studies professor, said the “tailored” approach is all wrong.

“That is how we got to where we are at,” he said, nodding to Atlanta’s housing affordability and income inequality crises. “It will result in more affluent, lower-density neighborhoods rejecting density, and only lower-income, less politically powerful neighborhoods will be left to accept it. It will, over time, increase segregation in an already highly segregated and unequal city.”

Immergluck said density should be added “systematically, and across the entire city,” especially if Atlanta hopes to accommodate its ongoing population boom.

Atticus LeBlanc, CEO of affordable housing-focused start-up PadSplit, said he agrees with Immergluck. “I am disappointed and disheartened to see this,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle. “NIMBYs are clearly a powerful political force.

“We have a vision to create a diverse city where everyone has access to opportunity,” LeBlanc continued. “Either we’re serious about achieving that, or we aren’t.”

No doubt, density-focused zoning reform will be met with staunch opposition. Take, for instance, the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, which has voiced criticism of ADUs in the past. Even Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore has said she thinks ADUs sharing properties with expensive homes could cost a “pretty penny” and potentially yield “a bunch of short-term rentals,” according to Atlanta Intown reporting

However, LeBlanc said, “The facts, history and trend lines around housing and the need for zoning reform are irrefutable. There is no data on the NIMBY side, only fear and discrimination.”

Immergluck also said that Atlanta officials need to find a way to harness the property value increases that stem from significant upzoning. 

“This should take the form of linkage fees or inclusionary zoning that provide either directly for on-site affordability or for providing dollars to an affordable housing trust fund,” he said. “Also, subsidized affordable housing developments with at least 50 percent of the units affordable to those under 60 percent area median income should be granted by-right upzoning anyplace in the city. This follows models of cities like Cambridge, Mass., and other places.”

It’s still unclear exactly how different Atlanta’s zoning code could look in coming months and years, although planning department chief Tim Keane told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview last month that expanding the potential for the development of ADUs and other densifying methods “is a central part of what we are doing” with the Atlanta City Design Housing Initiative.

How exactly Mayor Bottoms plans to “scale down” that effort remains to be seen. 

Bottoms’ office did not address Immergluck and LeBlanc’s suggestions and concerns, although city spokesman Michael Smith told Atlanta Civic Circle in a statement that the zoning code update is an ongoing process. “Listening to the needs of our communities keeps them involved in the process,” he said. “That practice is longstanding, and over the years has resulted in decisions which benefited their neighborhoods, and the city overall.”

(Header image, via Maria Saporta: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, as seen at an Atlanta Press Club event.)

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