The Neighborhood Planning Unit system that reviews planning, zoning and other big issues for Atlanta city government is getting a review of its own. A downtown nonprofit called the Center for Civic Innovation has begun a quiet, but potentially influential, series of meetings and surveys that aims to have reform recommendations for the 45-year-old system on the table by March 2020.

“There are things about [the NPU system] that are amazing, and things that we need to have a lot more conversation about,” said CCI Executive Director Rohit Malhotra, describing the review’s mission as helping the public “reimagine what it could be.”

Founded in 2014 and funded by some major Atlanta corporations and foundations, CCI aims to boost “social entrepreneurs” who do programs for the public good – especially those that reduce inequality — while making money, such as urban farmers. Malhotra says no one hired CCI to review the NPU system and instead the nonprofit is motivated by an interest in improving grassroots input on city government.

“No one at any point has commissioned us to do this,” Malhotra said, and CCI doesn’t want to dictate outcomes, either. “We know it’s messy, it’s complicated… But the end goal for us is not around us saying we need this to happen or that to happen…. This is going to require a lot more listening than talking.”

The basic idea, he says, is “to treat NPUs like you would any million-dollar start-up.”

CCI already gathered NPU leaders for an initial conversation in November, and Malhotra said it has spoken to every City Council member, though Buckhead-area Councilmembers J.P. Matzigkeit and Howard Shook say they have not met with the group.

Brink Dickerson, chair of NPU-A, one of Buckhead’s three NPUs, said he did not join in the meeting, but the board has participated in CCI surveys. In part, Dickerson said, he didn’t attend the meeting because NPU-A feels it deals with fewer major issues that other NPUs, “and the city considers NPU-A to be one of its best-functioning NPUs.” Leaders of two other Buckhead-area NPUs, B and E, did not respond to questions.

Matzigkeit declined to comment on the state of the NPU system, but Shook weighed in, including on what he sees as the potential political suicide of shaking it up.

Reviewing the NPUs is akin to “running with scissors [or] putting your tongue on a frozen flagpole,” Shook said. “I can’t imagine anything more life-threatening than messing with the NPU system.”

But Shook has some of his own ideas. He said that he has long heard wishes on the City Council for a more uniform process among NPUs, but he likes some local character, noting that NPU-B was set up to have businesses represented on the board. “They’re all different and I think there should be a recognition of context,” he said.

Shook said he is also concerned that NPUs often lack up-to-date information from city planners, and because many of them meet on the same night, it can be hard for officials to attend. He has suggested a “hotline” that NPUs can call on meeting nights to get instant clarifications from city planners.

Kyle Kessler, CCI’s policy and research director, said he’s heard some similar comments in the early stage of the review.

“From political leaders, the most common phrase we heard was, ‘Bless your heart,’” he said with a laugh.

“When we brought NPU leaders together… [there were] a lot of complaints around representation,” he said, including that NPU boards needed to be more inclusive or that they lacked funding for outreach. There were hopes for better public understanding of the NPU system and concern that the review might “try to dismantle this or take this away.”

The differing processes of various NPUs was a discussion point, with some meeting jointly, other separately, and some electing leadership by general vote and others by board vote only. And the Atlanta BeltLine is a big-picture issue, as the city-transforming park and transit project in many places runs along NPU boundaries, raising the question of whether boundaries should shift to put major projects in one NPU.

The NPU system was established in 1974 by Mayor Maynard Jackson as a way for residents to give input on the city’s long-term development plan, in an era when many American cities created similar neighborhood groups. Today, there are 25 NPUs around the city, each named for a letter of the alphabet, serving a broader purpose of giving and getting information on virtually every city department.

CCI, on the other hand, is five years old and, while it hosted forums in the 2017 city elections and runs a 10,000-square-foot meeting space downtown, has a relatively low profile. Its funders include Spanx, Equifax, Arby’s, the United Way and the foundations of Arthur Blank and Chick-fil-A. According to the CCI website, the funders of the NPU review project include the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the Annie E. Casie Foundation, the Kendeda Fund and the Blank Foundation. Among CCI’s other staff members is Andrea Cervone, who is also a member of the City Council in Clarkston.

While grassroots input is among its missions, CCI does little marketing and contacting its leadership directly can be a challenge.

What makes CCI qualified or trustworthy to review the NPU system? And does it have the capacity to do so?

“You have reason to be skeptical,” said Kessler, whose main experience with NPUs was during his time as president of his local Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association.

He said CCI will earn trust by listening to advocates from both the civic engagement and real estate development sides, without anyone “breathing down our neck” with a particular agenda. Besides speaking with the NPU leaders themselves and other civic advocates, they have also engaged with “people who think the NPUs are a nuisance… All of this stew of opinion and conversation is exactly what we’re looking for.”

“Obviously, we can’t force anyone to trust us,” said Malhotra.

He believes CCI can be seen as an “honest broker” and facilitator for conversations.

CCI will not advocate for getting rid of some form of input system, Malhotra said. “The city should have a formal vehicle for hearing people,” and it needs to be “amazing,” he said.

CCI recently held a meeting with various other nonprofits that might collaborate on the NPU review; Malhotra and Kessler declined to identify on the record pending formal agreements.

CCI’s next steps are to survey “tens of thousands” of people around the city in late summer and early fall; report to NPU leadership again in November; and propose some short-term fixes by March in a report to the public and the City Council. Longer-term reforms and discussions are likely to be proposed as well.

CCI also has enlisted students at Georgia Tech and Georgia State University for research. The GSU students are studying similar input systems around the country that sprang up in the 1970s, often due to requirements of the federal Community Development Block Grant program. Particular attention is being paid, Kessler said, to Seattle and Portland, Ore., where officials are reviewing their versions of the NPU system.

John Ruch

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