Mayor Andre Dickens has tapped local land use and zoning expert Jahnee Prince to helm Atlanta’s Department of City Planning, sending local urbanists and municipal leaders into a frenzy of anticipation and speculation about her goals for updating the city’s outdated zoning code.
Prince will bring more than 25 years of urban planning experience to the city of Atlanta. Currently, she’s the entitlements director at law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, helping real estate developers, solar companies, and other clients navigate planning laws. Before that, she served as DeKalb County’s deputy director of planning and sustainability, and she held a variety of other planning and development jobs before that.
When she starts at City Hall on Sept. 26, Prince will be charged with rewriting Atlanta’s outdated zoning code—a mission her predecessor, Tim Keane, embarked on before he left in February for a planning job in Boise, Idaho. The city’s current zoning ordinance was written more than three decades ago.
Keane aimed to reimagine residential zoning laws to foster more density and diversity of housing types in hopes of expanding affordable housing options, even saying he would do away with regulations that dictated suburban-style, single-family-only housing development.
It’s unclear, though, what Prince’s urban design approach will be once she takes office. She declined to comment for this story, saying she wants to wait until she’s sworn in and meets her new team. Dickens’ office also declined to comment.
Although they conceded that they were unfamiliar with Prince’s work, the urbanist bloggers at nonprofit ThreadATL seized on a glaring lack of reference to the zoning code rewrite in the mayor’s announcement of her appointment on Thursday.
ThreadATL co-founder Matthew Garbett told Atlanta Civic Circle this made him “cautiously pessimistic” about the Dickens administration’s goals with the new hire.
“How the hell does the most important thing before the planning department not make an appearance?” he said. “That really demonstrates the low priority of this zoning change in the administration and forebodes no real substantive changes.”
Darin Givens, another ThreadATL co-founder, echoed Garbett’s concerns, saying, “All we can judge at this point is the press release, and it’s very concerning that it contains no vision for the city’s future regarding the zoning rewrite.”
Givens also pointed out that city officials on Aug. 25 canceled the planning department’s Zoning Rewrite Workshop for the community, scheduled for Aug. 30, claiming they wanted to wait until a new commissioner was named.
That the zoning overhaul wasn’t mentioned, he said, “certainly raises concerns about how supportive Dickens will be of essential, bold ideas for the city that come out of that department.”
But after nearly seven months without a planning department leader, it’s positive that at least Atlanta has filled the vacancy, said Alison Grady, a co-founder and board member of urbanist advocacy group Abundant Housing Atlanta.
“I’m excited that, after a long wait, we finally have a planning commissioner,” she told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email.
“Atlanta is at a pivotal crossroads, and we have a clear choice to make: Do we want to be a city where anyone who wants to live in Atlanta can create a home here, regardless of income? Or do we want to stay on our current trajectory, and become less and less affordable, and accessible to fewer and fewer people?”
Grady added that she’s eager to work with Prince “to ensure that we choose option No. 1.”
City Councilmember Amir Farokhi unsuccessfully pushed legislation last year that would have begun Keane’s zoning code revamp by making some residential land welcoming to accessory dwelling units—like garage apartments or tiny homes in backyards—and eliminating parking space minimums.
“We have work to do,” he said in a text. “Our zoning code is overly complicated, decades too old, and not designed to manage the growth we have seen.”
Farokhi’s proposal was effectively killed in December, hobbled by pushback from most of Atlanta’s 25 neighborhood planning units and some councilmembers. He said he intends to work with Prince to create a new zoning code that addresses the city’s fast-growing population and responds to its rapidly rising housing costs.
Dustin Hillis, another city councilmember, said he hopes Prince will also help ratchet up the city’s permitting processes, which have been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland emphasized the importance of Prince’s new role as the overseer of the zoning code rewrite. “This is an incredibly important process that will dictate how and where we grow in the decades ahead,” he said.