Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane
Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane

The city of Atlanta’s new top planner says he sees his job as finding ways to pull the city together as it continues to grow, rather than develop as a series of “isolated projects that could be anywhere.”

“It’s important we look at Atlanta as a whole, not project by project,” new city Planning and Community Development Commissioner Tim Keane told members of the Northwest Community Alliance on July 15, just a couple of weeks after he took office.

“This is a place that has a soul,” Keane said. “What is the soul of Atlanta? [That] is very important to me. We are responsible as a planning department that the city not continue to be a collection of projects. …There are many good things happening in Atlanta, but if the city continues to be [just] a series of projects, I will have failed. Fire me.”

He said city planners should “make sure all those great investments people are making add up to something.”

Keane, who was educated in North Carolina and who moved to Atlanta from Charleston, S.C., where he was director of planning, preservation and sustainability, introduced himself as a Southerner. He said Atlanta’s reputation as the biggest city in the South was part of what attracted him to his new job. “And that it has all these issues, challenges for a planning department is great for me,” he said.

His chat appeared to meet approval from many of the 30 or so people at the gathering. “I think he’s like a breath of fresh air,” said James Arpad, a real estate investor and developer. “He has some really good ideas of what he’d like to see develop.”

Keane said he thought public transit and historic preservation both will play a part in how the city develops in the future.

Keane said he felt historic preservation was “hugely important.” “Part of what I’m interested in is those kind of places where there’s real Atlanta stuff that can distinguish the city,” he said.

And when looking into Atlanta’s future growth, “MARTA is a great asset,” he said. “Cities all over the country are trying to figure out how to build rapid transit. Atlanta already has it. Our plan for the city is going to be built around public transportation – densities will be based on that.”

But, he said, no amount of planning or public transit will eliminate traffic troubles. “My feeling is the focus needs to be on what are you going to have other than traffic? Because we’re going to have traffic. You go to the best cities in the world and they have traffic. London has traffic. What are you going to have other than traffic? What’s this place going to be?”

The city of Atlanta, he said, “is as a low a density city as you can find.” Copenhagen, he said, contains about the same number of residents, but in a much smaller area. “It’s not the number of the density that matters, it’s the beauty of the public realm that we’re all responsible for,” he said.

Keane said with new development projects coming to Atlanta, planners face great opportunities to direct a rethinking of the city.

“By ‘project by project,’ I’m thinking of the big projects that will change the city,” he said. “I feel very responsible for that… It’s not something that we hope to get involved in. It’s something that’s fundamental to the success of this office.”