The City of Atlanta’s ongoing zoning code overhaul could impact how the city grows for decades to come, so it comes as no surprise that planning officials’ efforts have drawn both the praise and ire of residents across town.
Many affordable housing advocates and city planning experts are excited at the prospect of finding ways to densify Atlanta’s residential areas by way of diversifying our residential building stock. Many residents, however — especially those in communities predominantly comprised of single-family homes — worry the proposed changes threaten their way of life.
In July, Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi introduced legislation that seeks to allow for more dense development in residential communities within walking distance of MARTA stations.
Farokhi’s trio of ordinance proposals, which could go to a council vote in coming months, would pave the way for the development of small apartment complexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — such as basement or garage apartments or a tiny home in the backyard — and would lift parking space requirements at properties within a half-mile of the transit stops.
Opponents of such proposals, including leaders of neighborhood planning units (NPUs) around the city, worry those ordinances and other efforts of the city’s planning department are too much too fast, and that they’d open the floodgates for developers looking to build big in quaint communities.
Atlanta City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane, however, says misinformation about his office’s mission abounds. Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with Keane to try to demystify some of the nuances surrounding zoning changes that could decide the fate of the city.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Atlanta Civic Circle: Let’s start by zooming out, because I think a lot of people who want to understand zoning reform need to understand the Atlanta City Design (ACD) and the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP). Give me the crash course on what those are.
Tim Keane: The way we’re approaching reform is based on Atlanta City Design, the document that sets the framework for everything else. Everything else is a reflection of that. Period. So now the CDP is supposed to be a reflection of that, and basically puts in place general policies about land use and zoning. It’s not the law itself. CDP is the state-mandated requirements that set forth policies that then become law. So Atlanta City Design, that’s the framework and the guiding document. Then you have CDP, which is one of a number of different policies that the city adopts related to land use and zoning and transportation. And then the third part is the actual ordinances, which is kind of the implementation — how you actually put those ideas into law.
Your detractors say you’re straying from the pillars of the Atlanta City Design. In a nutshell, what’s really being proposed?
What we’re proposing represents a change in single-family neighborhoods. And I know [the zoning code rewrite] is completely consistent with the Atlanta City Design. They’re not bold proposals. They’re sufficient proposals, but they’re not out of character with our single-family neighborhoods. But we’re in an environment where, nationally, there’s this discussion about housing and density and single-family, which creates the backdrop that, to some degree, colors people’s focus on what we’re actually proposing.
Not everyone can be a city planning wonk, but people seem extra confused about this zoning reform mission. Why is that?
You have people that are actively trying to confuse everybody. I mean, the people in Buckhead make up a lot of the energy around this opposition to [zoning reform]. As you know, they’re interested in having their own city, and so everything that they’re doing is related to pushing this narrative that Atlanta is terrible, and we’re trying to destroy Buckhead — whether it’s about crime or single-family neighborhoods. I say that because we have responded directly to people in Buckhead, and yet they find ways to strike fear in people and their neighbors. And it’s based on erroneous information. There’s no way to get them off of that because their only interest is in creating fear and confusion. There’s nothing that will change that. No amount of truth matters.
Councilman Farokhi’s three pieces of legislation, which seek to densify residential areas near transit stops and, ideally, boost affordability, are kind of indicative of the main thrust of the rezoning efforts, right?
So Amir’s trio of proposals is just step one. More legislation will follow, and, ultimately, your office will have rewritten the whole zoning code, right? What’s the timeline on all that look like? Some opponents to these efforts claim you’re moving too fast.
No, this will take a while. When other cities have done it, it took between two and four years. I think we’ll make a lot of progress in 2022 toward the overall zoning rewrite, but because it takes that time, that’s part of why we didn’t want to wait on [Farokhi’s] housing ordinances. We just don’t feel like we have the time to wait for that.
What do the NPUs think about these proposals? We’ve heard from some vocal opponents of the rezoning efforts, but is that a common theme?
Yeah, I think most of them — I don’t have a tally of them — are in opposition to the plans, especially regarding the rezoning of properties within a half-mile of MARTA, where small apartment buildings would be developed. I think change is hard. So there are clearly people that are opposed to this — those who would definitely disagree with it if they understood it — but many are fearful of change. A significant amount of energy around this is coming specifically from people that are trying to divide residents of Atlanta and stoke that fear.
So let’s break down some of these complaints you’re receiving about the zoning code reform. One of the big things that I hear — mostly from northern Atlanta communities — is that your mission threatens historic architecture in neighborhoods. You seem to think that worry is unfounded.
Yeah, completely unfounded. We have many neighborhoods in Atlanta which have historic districts, where you can’t demolish a historic building without getting a special permit. Typically, you can’t get it. So if you have historic districts, then buildings are protected. But many neighborhoods don’t have those districts. For instance, in Virginia Highland, where there’s been discussion for years about having a historic district, the community has always decided against that. And what’s happened is we’ve had more modest older houses — some of them historic — demolished and replaced with much larger structures. Single-family structures. That phenomenon has been happening in Atlanta for years, and we’ve looked at it, going back to 2010, between 2010 and 2014. And we had thousands of single-family homes demolished under those circumstances. Our ordinances will not precipitate the demolition of historic single-family houses. That was precipitated years ago. As demand is rising in the city, people are tearing down single-family homes, and they’re replacing them with new, bigger single-family homes. To suggest that these ordinances would somehow trigger that is completely erroneous. And in cases where that phenomenon has already happened in proximity to MARTA stops, in this process of our city evolving and changing, we should get some housing units that are actually in those locations. We’re not proposing to rezone whole neighborhoods for these apartment buildings — only within a walk of a MARTA station.
One of the worries from Atlantans — particularly those who live in more suburban-style communities — is that a property that once held one home could soon have many. People seem daunted by the idea of, say, 12 residential units where their neighbor once lived.
Well, yeah, we are proposing that, but at very specific locations within a half-mile walk of MARTA station.
And a common refrain from skeptics is that such a change would alter the fabric of the neighborhood.
These would be small apartment buildings, which exist all over Atlanta’s single-family neighborhoods. We’ve had them historically in our single-family neighborhoods, and they have been the source of affordable housing in our single-family neighborhoods for generations. And so what we’re proposing to do is to permit them once again. So if you believe that that will somehow destroy the neighborhood, then go ahead and believe it. But before you make that decision, I suggest you go walk through some single-family neighborhoods in Atlanta. Small apartment buildings are everywhere. The thing that is most ironic about this is that they are condemning as un-Atlanta a proposal which is specifically taken from the nature of our particular single-family neighborhoods.
I think there’s also this belief that these proposals would just pave the way for the bulldozing of entire communities. But it doesn’t mean that your next-door neighbor is going to be replaced by an apartment, right? It just makes it easier for that kind of development to happen.
Right. And you can still have your single-family home. It’s not going to be every property, but it would permit [increased density] on those properties that are currently for a single unit. The details are important: You can get one to four units; you can get five to eight units, if one of those units is actually specifically designated for affordability for a 20-year period; and you can get nine to 12 units, if two of those units are specifically designated for affordability for 20 years. So, ideally, you’re not getting expensive single-family homes everywhere. I think that’s an important evolution because it’s about trying to create affordability throughout the city.
Maybe this isn’t as vocal a complaint, but I imagine you’ve heard people worry that density means suburban-style neighborhoods just get peppered with high rises. And it seems to me that a big mission of these rezoning efforts is creating what’s called gentle density. So talk about what that is.
Right now in Atlanta, most of the buildings that we’re getting that are residential are either single-family homes or apartment buildings that are 50 or more units. So you have both ends of the spectrum, but not much of the middle ground. That’s what this proposal is about: We need a much greater diversity of building types and, specifically, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and smaller apartment buildings from two to 12 units. We’ve got to so that we’re not a city with just the extremes. This isn’t about cramming a bunch of units on a property. It’s about being more surgical about it, which, we think, is a very Atlanta way to do this.
So we’re talking a lot about the character of Atlanta. I think some people have a picture in their heads of what that looks like — the so-called “city in the forest.” So talk to me about trees.
The complaint that we get most often about the destruction of trees right now is people tearing down single-family houses and replacing them with much larger single-family houses. The protections that exist for trees now would be the same under this ordinance.
What are the other sources of confusion for all this? If you had to write this story, what needs to be in here so people realize what we’re looking at?
My view of it is that people are just looking at things the way they want them to be, versus the way they actually are, like the diversity of housing types. So many of our neighborhoods include single-family duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings all over Atlanta. If we don’t continue to build like that, if we don’t make that legal again, and continue to build like that, this will become terribly unaffordable.