Atlanta planning commissioner Tim Keane and BeltLine creator Ryan Gravel explained their work on the city’s new urban plan to the Buckhead Community Improvement District board on July 6 at Tower Place 100. They fielded questions about transportation and discussed an upcoming affordable housing demonstration project.

Urban planner Ryan Gravel (center, standing) speaks while (from left) city Planning and Community Development Commissioner Tim Keane; Tony Peters, the Buckhead Community Improvement District’s director of programs; and Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling listen at the Buckhead CID board meeting July 6 at Tower Place 100. (Photo John Ruch)

Keane is overseeing a massive overhaul of the city’s planning and development processes. He brought on Gravel, an urban planner, to lead the Atlanta City Design Project, a long-range, citywide plan for what is expected to be a “much bigger city.”

Gravel said the plan will answer the questions, “What is Atlanta? What makes it special?” Then it will put those answers into a plan so that as the city grows “we become more who we are, not less.” It also will help shape an updated city transportation plan due in September 2017 and a completely new zoning code Keane expects to write over the next few years.

The city’s work makes for “perfect timing” for Buckhead to update its own master plan, the Livable Centers Initiative plan created 16 years ago, said Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling. She announced that Kimley-Horn has been nominated as the preferred contractor to update the plan in an upcoming public process, and the board authorized work to finalize a contract.

The city’s effort is partly inspired, Keane said, by projections that Atlanta’s population will increase anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people over the next 20 years—a huge boom for a city of roughly 450,000 today. The city also projects “double the employment,” Keane said.

Gravel said the intent is, “instead of fighting against [change], kind of embracing it and leveraging it to make it the kind of city we want to be.”

The plan will “focus on what makes Atlanta different from other cities…so we’re not just copying other places all the time,” Keane said. That could include tree canopy, historic neighborhoods and the Civil Rights legacy.

Higher-density, less car-oriented development is a certainty, Keane said. New road grids are unlikely, but the city generally has underused transportation capacity already, the planners said.

Affordable housing is a crucial aspect, they said. Keane said the city may hold a competition to design housing units available for $7,000 a year—meaning affordable to a family making less than half the area median income. “Let’s design housing at that number and see what we can get,” he said.

City Councilmember Howard Shook asked about how to respond to lower-income communities that want more amenities, but not “more neighbors,” apparently meaning higher-income residents.

“There’s a fear of gentrification and a fear of economic and cultural displacement,” said Gravel, adding that the urban plan will work “if we can come at it and address the displacement question head-on.”

The Design Project will have a more concrete proposal to present later this year, Gravel said. In the meantime, the city is taking public input through a temporary office that will operate in various locations and is currently at Old Fourth Ward’s Ponce City Market.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.