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Atlanta Is ‘Accentuating’ Itself With a Better Urban Design Process

Atlanta is no stranger to change. The symbol for the city is the Phoenix, the mythical bird that periodically regenerates itself through fire, as a way to represent the city’s rebirth after all but 400 buildings were burnt to the ground by General Sherman during the closing year of the Civil War. Atlanta was ground zero for the changes that came with the American civil rights movement being the birthplace of one of Dr. Martin Luther King. Now it is the face of the changing South: educated, diverse and cosmopolitan.

These changes have shaped the culture of the city in a identifiably unique way. But when it comes to the city itself, it has yet to be able to conjure an associable image in the general public mind. This might be about to change.

The Planning Commissioner for the City of Atlanta, Tim Keane, gave a speech last week at a ULI meeting in San Diego where he outlined his plans to integrate design into the fabric of the city. Keane came to Atlanta from Charleston, a city with a rich architectural history and a keen desire to keep it. Atlanta, he said, had a much different attitude historically.

The city center hit its peak population in 1970 at 485,000 inhabitants. At the time the region was boasting that it had just hit one million residents in a local ad campaign. Today the Atlanta metro has over six million people and is one of the fastest growing in the country, but the downtown area still only houses 485,000. “We have done phenomenally well at sprawl, as well as anyone,” Keane said, drawing chuckles from the crowd of real estate professionals and policymakers over their plate breakfasts.

He outlined that the first important step in integrating a design plan for a city is understanding what it has to offer. “The DNA of Atlanta is a dense urban core with single family and tree canopy around it,” Keane explained. “We have more tree canopy than any other city in America. Once we understood our city physically we could accentuate it and not try to change it or try to emulate what other cities were trying to do.”

He knew that the changes he was proposing had to be appealing to the citizens in order for them to accept. “People see something that they don’t want to see, they think all development is bad,” Keane said. “There are cities where they have done all this planning to enable development but the first building that was built was so bad that people said, “stop now,” and they had to go back and eliminate all the work that went into the proposals.”

To avoid this he wants to make the city a more integrated part of the development process. Currently, cities get involved in the design review stage, after the initial renderings have been submitted. This creates what he calls “Mr. Potatohead buildings.” He explained, “during a long public process, we end up attaching things to buildings, giving the building a hat, or a mustache to try to make it not so bad. Eventually, someone on the committee would say “this is taking too long” and we would push the design through.”

This resulted in a painful process for everyone involved and “C- buildings.” He wants to change this by being involved from the beginning of the planning stage, asking the designers about their vision, throughout the entitlement process. Helping craft ways for buildings to fit into the larger context of the city in both form and function and “reserving the right to say no to design even if it did get the zoning.”

This tactic seems to be working. It has helped change the city into a place where more people want to live and work. Atlanta native and startup founder Turner Levison told me that, “There have been a number of great civic project recently. The one impacted me the most personally is the work on traffic light technology to reduce traffic. While my company CommissionTrac was working out of Ponce City Market in Midtown last year during the Techstars Atlanta program, we were all directly benefiting from the reduction in traffic. They are piloting an intelligent lighting system that is all built to react to what’s happening in real time instead of on a pre-fixed timer. With Atlanta having tons of events, like the recent Super Bowl, NCAA football playoff games, or just our own Falcons and Hawks playing traffic can get crazy quickly when people are trying to get out of downtown/midtown. Reducing that makes it a much more attractive place to run a business.“

As Atlanta looks to yet again renew itself from the ashes of its former image there will likely be bumps along the way. Keane and his team expect the city to double its occupancy in the near future. That will likely get pushbacks from residents much like every other growing city in the country, if not the world, has. But they think that by keeping a design theme and working with the real estate community to make it easier to conform to it they will be able to accommodate the inflow and show the world that Atlanta has a downtown as vibrant and interesting as its people, art and culture.

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