How Atlanta Decided It Can’t Out Suburb the Suburbs


Atlanta's planning department is pursuing a zoning overhaul that would alter the character of the famously sprawling place.

Atlanta skyline

Atlanta's planning department is pursuing a zoning overhaul that would alter the character of the famously sprawling place.

Another famously sprawling Sun Belt city is trying to become more urban.

For 35 years, Atlanta has grown by the rules of its zoning ordinance, the basic set of standards for new development.

Those guidelines created a place with a distinctly suburban feel, despite Atlanta’s role as a major population and business hub in the Southeast.

Case in point: the area earned a dubious honor in 2014 when the advocacy organization Smart Growth America measured the country’s most compact and most sprawling metropolitan areas. The Atlanta area ranked number one in the country for sprawl.

But the city hopes that it won’t maintain that distinction for much longer.

Ambitious plans

Atlanta is rewriting its zoning ordinance in hopes of growing into a more “urban” place in the coming decades, said Tim Keane, commissioner of the Atlanta’s Department of Planning and Community Development, which is spearheading the rewrite.

“The concepts in the 35-year-old ordinance were very, very suburban, in that a fundamental expectation was that people would drive to do everything and park directly in front of where they wanted to be,” Keane said. “It bears very little resemblance to Atlanta today and the way we want to become more urban.”

The city’s planning department went on a barnstorming tour of community groups at the start of the year, hoping to convey to residents citywide the idea that Atlanta needs a new way of developing. At the same time, it sought feedback from neighborhoods about their own wishes. By next month, the department hopes to unveil the findings of its outreach tour, which will form the basis of a new zoning ordinance.

Atlanta leaders say the new code needs to incorporate affordable housing and assisted living options. They also want to push developers to build projects that include residences, retail space and offices near transit. They say it needs to make neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly, and it should include a mix of housing options (including apartment, row homes, and single-family housing).

And, crucially, they want all those changes incorporated into a document that features easy to understand graphics and visual depictions, rather than the jargon-filled matrix it has today.

“You need a PHd to understand our zoning ordinance today,” Keane said. “We need to simplify and clarify so much.”

A different approach

To do that, Atlanta is taking a cue from a few other cities that rewrote their development standards in recent years, including Denver, Philadelphia and Raleigh.

Each of those cities instituted a new type of zoning. Rather than simply separating what types of activities can occur on a property – heavy industrial here, homes over there, retail somewhere – those cities also incorporated what’s known as “form-based codes,” or zoning that’s based on physical elements, such as the size and type of a building and the size and design of streetscapes and sidewalks.

It’s those physical descriptions that are supposed to make development rules easier to understand. A traditional zoning classification indicates whether a site is reserved for residential, along with a number that corresponds to the number of homes that can be built per acre. That technique likely doesn’t trigger an immediate understanding of what a new project might look like.

But a snippet from Denver’s zoning code – part of the presentation Atlanta planners have been giving residents – show another way. It outlines the physical restrictions on new projects and demonstrates what they might mean in practice for a new project in the neighborhood.

But the new development guidelines aren’t just meant to make it easier for people to understand the rules.

Another priority, Keane said, is to customize the restrictions for the wide range of neighborhood types in the city of Atlanta.

“We have areas in Atlanta that are very suburban, and some that are quite urban,” he said. “Our new ordinance will respect that full range.”

In the areas that are already urban, the plan aims to provide even greater population density, taller buildings and lower parking space restrictions to discourage automobile use.

Changing relationship with automobiles

Changing Atlanta city dwellers’ relationship with their car, Keane said, will be a big part of the program’s success or failure. Today, the zoning ordinance forces developers to provide more parking than they need.

The alternative, he argues, should do just the opposite: don’t force developers to design for parking garages or surface parking lots at all. Instead, force drivers to fit cars where they can. Likewise, he said, the plan should not try to directly decrease traffic; rather, it should break residents of the expectation that they should drive everywhere they want to go.

“We cannot make your commute take less time,” Keane said. “What we can help with is enabling development that allows more and more people not to drive.”

“Atlanta cannot be a better suburb than the suburbs,” he said. “If your lifestyle equation is based on driving, we can’t do it better than Fulton County. But we can be a better city.”

That’s a major shift, predicated on achieving the difficult task of persuading people to change their lifestyles.

But Scott Doyon, an Atlanta-based urban designer and planner with the firm PlaceMakers, said the city’s going about it the right way.

Winning buy-in

For one, the city has put a priority on neighborhood outreach. That’s essential to winning buy-in, he said

And the good news, he said, is that Atlanta residents are already voting for the plan – whether they realize it or not – with their dollars. Even if residents roll their eyes at a menu of development buzzwords thrown at them – mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented, and the like – market forces are showing that’s exactly what people in Atlanta seem to want.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority is already redeveloping some of the parking structures near its rail stations into dense, urban projects, Dyon said, though existing zoning regulations don’t always make those types of projects easy.

“(T)he market is saying this is where it’s going, and the city is catching up,” Doyon said. “But you don’t want you M.O. to be catching up. You want to lead, and the visioning opportunities over this year make that possible.”

And the MARTA system, Keane said, is a distinct advantage Atlanta has over other cities. As other sprawling urban areas look to boost their transit services with new, expensive rail projects Atlanta is in the rare position of already having an existing rail system. Officials just want development to take advantage of it.

“The entire city could grow only within a 10 minute walk of existing stations for the next 20 years,” Keane said.

Responding to critics

Of course, even if the private market may indeed be pushing Atlanta into embracing its role as an urban place, that doesn’t mean all residents will embrace it. Keane said he is prepared for pushback from residents who aren’t eager to see new and bigger buildings come into their neighborhoods. After all, he said, even traditionally dense, urban places like Philadelphia run into stiff opposition when they try to decrease parking requirements.

“But look: Atlanta is projected to grow by 2.5 million people in the next 25 years,” Keane said. “So the choice isn’t between something and nothing; it’s between something, and something else.”

Right now, “something” is the 90 percent of that growth expected to occur in suburban parts of the metropolitan area, designed for driving and subject to the complaints that come with congestion. The “something else” Keane proposes is a scenario in which a portion of that growth – say, 25 percent – goes in urban neighborhoods where people can choose not to drive. Incremental improvements, like nudging suburban residents to consider other modes of transportation besides driving, just sometimes, can make a difference.

“The good news is, if you want an urban lifestyle you can walk to things, get on the train, whatever,” Keane said. “If everyone goes to the suburbs, we’re left with the traffic, and we haven’t gained a more urban place. It’s a hugely important thing, and it’s a big challenge for small and large and more and less urban cities. Believe me, every city is working on this – Charlotte, Nashville, Orlando – people get this.”

Andrew Keatts


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