Published on January 14th, 2016 |1
Turnout heavy for discussion of rewrite of city’s zoning code, city vision
Some 150-200 Atlanta residents, business owners, developers, lawyers and city officials gathered at south Buckhead’s Passion Church on Garson Drive Tuesday night to listen to a sermon (of sorts) about plans to rewrite the city’s zoning ordinance and create a vision of “the city Atlanta is to be”.
The presentation Tuesday night was not about specific changes the city wants to make in the zoning ordinance, but rather to let the audience know there almost certainly will be major changes coming to the zoning ordinance and some of those changes would be made in the short term and others over years.
Consultant Aaron Fortner with Canvas Planning Group, which is working with the city on this program, told the audience, January is being spent “identifying short-term fixes. We need to evaluate the entire zoning ordinance, and that will take years.”
He said the consultants, which includes TSW, will produce some final recommendations on strategies and steps by February and March and final community and stakeholder meetings will be held in April.
Relatively new Atlanta Planning & Community Development Commissioner Tim Keane talked about needing to have a “vision for the city” driving the process. “What is the city we want Atlanta to be?” he asked. “The ordinance will be coupled up with the design for our city.”
Thanking the audience for turning out on the cold night to this zoning code meeting, Keane said, “We appreciate how much this is going to have to be a partnership.”
There did not appear to be many in the audience who were ready to totally discard what Atlanta is today and flip it upside down without a tremendous amount of community input—preserving
much of what has made Atlanta unique over the years and its historic legacy neighborhoods.
Tuxedo Park resident Jim Morgan admonished Keane and the consultants to “caution against regulations of taste. I am not sure it is the city staff’s job to make those aesthetic decisions.” He said the ordinance “needs to be flexible enough to breathe.”
He also asked if it makes sense to have this new ordinance “sunset after 20 years.” He was concerned that the city’s present zoning ordinance, which was drafted in 1981 had not been evaluated in 35 years.
The residents came not only from Buckhead but from Midtown neighborhoods and elsewhere in the city. The seven attending members of City Council represented districts that have changing neighborhoods in multiple sectors of the city. It was a diverse audience—young, old and representing ethnic variety.
Fortner told the audience that the zoning ordinance focuses on use of land. “It is about how people live and that has changed a lot over the past 20 years.” And, the last time Atlanta’s zoning ordinance was changed was 35 years ago.
Fortner said the present zoning ordinance has its strengths: open space requirements; buffering requirements between residential and commercial development; industrial districts and historic and conservation districts; involvement of neighborhood planning units in zoning matters; quality of the zoning districts, Special Public Interest districts and overlap districts; progressive and aggressive parking requirements and requiring bicycle parking.
But he indicated there also is a long list of weaknesses: urban design requirements are replicated and complicated; streetscape requirements are
usually tied to zoning districts; parking requirements may result in demo or underutilization of historic buildings; coordination could be improved with tree ordinance and storm water ordinance; lacks many modern-use clarifications, uses or definitions; there are many disjointed transfer development rights; many residential neighborhoods do not match requirements, and the special administrative permit process has become burdensome for staff.
As to what Fortner and his crew learned from an assessment of the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan, he told the audience it addresses historic districts and providing affordable housing, but discourages surface parking lots and strip commercial centers while encouraging transit-oriented development.
But Fortner said what they heard in a meeting the day before and from staff and stakeholders was the zoning process is confusing, the role of the neighborhood planning units is unclear and there is a problem with the growing number of review committees in the system.
He added that the code structure utilizes outdated terminology, the code is not user-friendly, the planning staff is understaffed and more consistent enforcement is necessary.
As for the zoning districts, he told the audience his study found there are too many districts and they don’t match up with the existing neighborhoods. In terms of site building designs, he said they reflect the actual build-out of the areas, need to clarify design standards and delineate areas of the city that can be different.
The program then turned to looking at other major U.S. cities that were studied by TSW. Caleb Racicot of TSW said 95 percent of the cities are
following the same pattern Atlanta is. But he added, some cities are addressing a hybrid approach. Atlanta is aiming toward some of that, he added.
Racicot told the audience that locally, Decatur and Roswell have done a unified zoning code—putting everything in one document and having strong linkages between the requirements for private and public properties.
He said TSW studied four major cities—Denver, Raleigh, Philadelphia and Miami—to see how they stacked up with Atlanta.
Denver, a high-growth city like Atlanta which had not updated its zoning code since the 1950s, adopted a hybrid code produced in an easy to understand code with graphics and made sure everything in the code matched something important to the people in the area.
Raleigh also ended up with a hybrid code and consolidated its zoning districts. Raleigh took the Denver model to the next level. The graphics were better and all regulations are presented in a couple of pages, Racicot said. Raleigh created a very extensive use chart to explain the zoning regulations which eliminated subjectivity as a factor.
Philadelphia, which also adopted a hybrid code and a user guide to zoning and coupled that with a robust training program for the public.
Miami was the only city that did not use a hybrid code, but rather chose a “form-based” code. Everywhere in the city has the same uses and regulations. The city also reduced its zoning districts and established an easy to understand code for designating uses within those districts. For instance the zoning map can have a designation on it of T6-24-0. That means in district T6 that area can have 24-story buildings and the 0 stands for mixed-use.
When the meeting was opened up for questions and comments from the floor, it was obvious that a chief concern among those attending, as well as those who have taken recent polls in the city, is traffic, which is only going to grow in importance with the growth of residential and commercial developments.
But that was not the only concern. A resident of Inman Park wants more historic district friendly zoning.
Buckhead resident Ellen Adair-Wyche urged Keane and his staff to focus on creating a vision for the city and then adopting the zoning code to support that vision.
Keane agreed asking, “What is the city we want it to be?” He said the ordinance “will be coupled up with the design for our city.” He added in response to another question, “We need to have had conversations about where we want to be in the design process, not deciding it by one-by-one cases.”
In the end, what was promised to the audience was this: “There will be extensive engagement. It is a living document.” And with that, the 150-200 participants went to the tables and penned their concerns and wished on massive comment pages before calling it a night.