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By Gloria Cheatham, Guest Columnist
With the election only months away, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms says she’s hitting the pause button on the sweeping scope of her controversial Housing Initiative, but the push continues — both inside and outside City Hall — for citywide zoning changes that will dramatically increase density in Atlanta’s residential neighborhoods.
The City’s Director of Housing is still touting a density “goal” of 10,000 people per square mile — almost three times as many as we have now — a number that would make Atlanta’s neighborhoods even denser than the infamously congested ones in Los Angeles. And all that begs the question: Why? Why on earth would we want to make our neighborhoods among the densest in the country — especially when we have so much vacant land?
It can’t be because Atlanta needs denser neighborhoods. City Planning made that clear beyond doubt in The Atlanta City Design — the impressive 400-page design plan laying out the vision and values on which the Housing Initiative was purportedly (although apparently not actually) based, “By organizing growth in already-dense zones like [the] Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead [business/commercial districts] and along strategic corridors like the Atlanta Beltline, we can easily accommodate our anticipated growth ‘without encroaching on existing neighborhoods.’” And lest there be any question: Yes, that statement was based on precisely the same 1.2 million population projection cited in the Housing Initiative.
It also can’t be because such dramatic citywide increases in density would produce affordable housing. With the ready availability of cheap capital, developers have already been buying up every bit of land they can lay their hands on for some time now. And those developers have been squeezing every last dollar out of every last purchase because that’s what they do, building the most expensive thing they think they can sell in the smallest possible space. Witness the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recent piece on once-blighted Bankhead Highway, where developers are reportedly putting up $500,000 condos — hardly the stuff of “affordable housing.” And if developers are building half-million-dollar condos on Bankhead Highway, do you really think they are trying to further the City’s affordable housing goals in popular neighborhoods like West End or East Atlanta or around the BeltLine — at the expense of their own bottom line?
Neighborhood leaders in areas challenged by gentrification are already fighting speculative, high-priced development that would compromise historic and other neighborhood character and push prices up and long-term residents out. Even upscale neighborhoods are not immune from such high-priced, compromising development, as developers regularly try to shoe-horn dense collections of “cluster-mansions” onto small pockets of land, or build massively oversized spec houses out of scale with the surrounding homes, or subdivide historic properties so they can build multiple equally expensive (but nonconforming) homes on lots that once held only one.
If the City proceeds with its current plan — reducing minimum lot sizes citywide, likely by half or more — it will at least double the numbers of properties for such speculation, even before the allowance for accessory dwelling units on every single-family lot. And that will be a bonanza beyond developers’ wildest dreams. One neighbor recently wrote, “They should call it the Developers’ Feeding Frenzy Ordinance.” But whatever it’s called, it is unlikely to create any significant degree of affordable housing, although it will certainly destroy the unique and, in many cases, historic character of many of Atlanta’s 242 neighborhoods.
Worse yet, that’s not all the city’s density mission would destroy. Seventy-seven percent of Atlanta’s famed tree canopy — the trees that give us our “City in the Forest” distinction and that protect our watersheds and our air quality and our public health — are located in single-family neighborhoods. That tree canopy — rightly called “the lungs of Atlanta” by The Atlanta City Design — uniquely positions us among major cities to weather the health effects of carbon emissions and climate change. But the City’s high-density zoning would literally put Atlanta’s trees on the chopping block, as developers routinely thumb their noses at the City’s Tree Ordinance, clear-cutting properties with impunity, knowing they are subject only to modest fines — and in the process compromising not only much of what makes Atlanta Atlanta, but also the health benefits the tree canopy in our single-family neighborhoods provides to the entire city.
Atlanta’s affordable housing crisis is very real. And there are real ways to address it: incentivizing private employers to provide subsidized employee housing near their jobs, leveraging the 4,000 acres of Atlanta’s publicly owned land for public or other affordable housing, better protecting the affordable housing we have now, requiring developer set-asides for low-income residents, and better yet, requiring developer “donations” to the Atlanta Land Trust, an organization that removes land from the speculative market, keeping housing affordable for low-income first-time homeowners. The list could go on.
For starters, though, the City needs to return to the vision, values and directives laid out in The Atlanta City Design. Those values include Progress with Integrity — which calls for the city to temper growth with “protection and preservation of those things we value,” expressly including our historic heritage and “Atlanta’s defining natural feature — our forest.” The design plan includes other values as well — equity, ambition, access and nature. It lays out directives — such as “Protect and celebrate the existing, historic, tree-covered neighborhoods of the city” — for how all these values can be realized.
Not one of them remotely envisions turning Atlanta into a dense and treeless city.
Gloria Cheatham is a retired lawyer who serves on the executive board of Neighborhood Planning Unit-A. This article is in memory of Leon Eplan (1928 – 2021) creator of Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit Program.
(Header Image: The Atlanta Skyline from Piedmont Park. Image via Unsplash.)