Talk of the Towns Q/A interview

Raised in Charlotte, he now runs the planning show in Atlanta

Atlanta skyline. Photo: David Hunter [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Charlotte for years has had a love-hate view of Atlanta, with civic leaders envying their fellow southeastern metro for its big-city status, achieved decades earlier than Charlotte’s. But sprawling growth and traffic congestion in the Georgia capital city fuel a We Don’t Want To Become Like Atlanta counterpoint.

Last year a Charlottean became Atlanta’s planning director. Tim Keane grew up in Charlotte, graduated from UNC Charlotte and went on to be planning director 1994-1999 in the north Mecklenburg town of Davidson. There he helped pioneer Davidson’s traditional town development ordinance. From Davidson he went to Charleston, where he was director of planning, preservation and sustainability 2009-2015. He was hired in July 2015 to be commissioner of planning and community development for the City of Atlanta.

PlanCharlotte editor Mary Newsom interviewed Keane recently as he visited family in Charlotte. The conversation, part of our Talk of the Towns interview series, was edited for clarity and brevity. For a longer version of the interview, click here.

Q. For decades Charlotte has been one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Watching your hometown grow so rapidly, has that influenced your philosophy of how to be a planner?

Tim Keane, Atlanta commissioner of planning and community development. Photo: City of Atlanta

A. I haven’t paid much attention to Charlotte. The most attention I paid was when I was in Davidson, because I was in Mecklenburg County, but at that time in north Mecklenburg – Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville – we were kind of our own thing.

Q. After you got to Atlanta, Creative Loafing Atlanta asked, “Why would a planner in one of America’s most beautiful coastal cities, where officials seem to care about preservation, public spaces, and urban design, want to come to a city that bulldozes much of its past and rushes toward its future, planning be damned?” So, why?

A. I always had an interest in going from a small town to a small city to a big city. Part of the reason to leave Charleston was that Mayor Joe Riley, who was my boss, was retiring. Going to Atlanta – which is not known for planning and where the planning department needs significant change and improvement – that was appealing to me. It’s a city where, if you can make preservation important, if you can make planning relevant, if you can drive the design of a very fast growing city – then you can have a really big impact.

Q. Let’s talk about Atlanta. People in Charlotte say, “We don’t want to be just like Atlanta,” but they do want to grow like gangbusters. What lessons do you think Charlotte might learn from Atlanta?

A. I’m not sure they can learn lessons from Atlanta. But Atlanta is an interesting city, and there are fundamentally good things happening urbanistically in Atlanta. Of course the Atlanta BeltLine is prime among those.

Q.  Can you describe the beltline project?

A. The beltline is 22 miles of old railroad rights of way that ring the city and are being made into a bike-pedestrian corridor. Ultimately, transit will run in this 22-mile loop around the city. The first section is open on the east side of town, about 2 ½ miles. We’ve got another section under construction – just the bike-ped aspect of it – on the west side. The transportation sales tax vote [which passed in November] will fund a huge investment in transit, potentially putting transit on the beltline.

[On Nov. 8, voters in the city of Atlanta approved an almost half-cent (0.4 cent) sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements such as the Atlanta BeltLine and street designs to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles as well as motorists. The tax is expected to generate $300 million over five years. Atlanta voters also approved a half-cent sales tax to expand MARTA’s bus and rail system. That tax is expected to generate $2.5 billion over 40 years.]

Really good things are happening in Atlanta, but there is so much to repair. The city is the textbook example of a region that grows and the city that doesn’t, where you invest everything in the highway infrastructure. There are highways everywhere – I mean, little streets are highways.

But the beltline is changing people’s expectations about the public realm, because they see it. I think for the first time they say, “Wow, we can have things people like to travel to, and be in Atlanta.”

A part of the Atlanta BeltLine under construction in May 2012. Photo: By Keizers (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Q. What do you think Atlanta could learn from Charlotte, or from Charleston?

A. The lesson from Charleston is preservation – how important that is to a city. We’re doing that now in Atlanta. We’ve had some issues around old buildings since I have gotten there, and every one of them has been protected.

Even a city like Charlotte or Atlanta, where a lot of the fabric has been destroyed, saving what’s left is really important. It makes everything better. It’s unlikely you’re going to design and build a new building that’s better than an old one. So incorporating them in what you do is usually important.

I think giving up on traffic is another important lesson. Just saying we’re not ever going to solve that problem. So let’s get over it and start working on other things.

Q. Those buildings being preserved – what’s the tool or the policy mechanism to do that?

A. We have 18 historic districts in Atlanta covering 2,000 properties. Something like 10 percent of the properties in Atlanta are within a historic district. We have the local ability to designate properties for preservation. One we’ve recently protected is not in a historic district, it’s an individual building. Someone wanted to tear it down and make a gas station out of the property. It’s not an architectural gem, but it’s definitely a building that adds to the historic fabric, that you wouldn’t want to lose on an important street.

Q. The City of Atlanta is in a large, sprawling metro region, Balkanized politically, and you work for the City of Atlanta. You can’t do anything about a Gwinnett County or any of the other places. As a planner, how do you handle that?

A. I get that question a lot in public meetings: “What about the region?” And I should have a better answer for this because the answer is just, I don’t care.  I mean that’s the answer.

Q. You do realize that this is going to be put online?

A. Well, that’s fine. I don’t mind that. It’s just the City of Atlanta is my responsibility. That’s all I care about. In a way, it’s a competition. We don’t want the region to grow that way anymore.  My whole intention is for the City of Atlanta to be the fastest growing part of the region. It actually is right now, over the last few years. We think that trajectory can continue. So what happens in the suburbs? I don’t know.  The dynamics of Atlanta right now are really positive. That’s all I concentrate on.

Atlanta's interstate highways cut through the heart of the city. Photo: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Q.  You got the City Council to OK your plan to overhaul the whole department of planning and community development. Why? And what’s next?

A. I don’t think that department was seen as something that has had a great, positive impact on the city. I was brought there to try to help make a valuable, successful planning department. It needed updating.

One of the things the mayor and I totally agreed on is that we would do Atlanta City Design

Here is the premise: The city has been static or shrinking in population as the region has grown dramatically. We’re now a region of about 6 million people and a city of 450,000. The region is projected to grow by 2.5 million people over the next 20 years, but Atlanta’s amount of that growth is projected to be quite modest.  We want to change that, and we think that we can.

We’re doing a design for the city which says we want to capture maybe 25 percent to 30 percent of that growth, which will put the city’s population between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people. And a bigger city with a larger population is a better city – if we design it.

What would the city of 1.1 million to 1.5 million people look like, specifically? How would we absorb that kind of density in a way to make the city better, at 1.5 million people, than it is at 450,000? That’s the whole point. It’s not to have a bigger number, it’s to be a better place to live.

Ponce City Market. Photo:  Stevens-Wilkinson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Q. You’ve launched a design studio for the city [Atlanta City Studio] that will move from place to place. It’s now at the Ponce City Market. What’s the idea?

A. The mayor has great interest in thinking about design issues. And we have huge public-realm-related design projects to work on. So we were going to create an office of design and bring in design expertise.

We decided to do the studio because there’s a second aspect of this. There’s having the design skill within the planning department – check, that’s one thing. The other thing was to have us out in the community, because if we’re going to be doing this design for Atlanta and saying this city of 1.5 million people is going to be a heck of a lot better than a city of 450,000, people would go nuts. “We can’t get around now, it seems really dense here already, so how do we handle another million people?” So to do it in public at a studio that’s out in the community and not buried in city hall was really appealing.

We started at Ponce City Market, which is in an old Sears and Roebuck, 2-million-square-foot, 20th-century warehouse building on the beltline. They gave us the space for six months for free. We decided to do it as a pop-up. It will be at Ponce City Market until about January, then we would move to the southwest part of the city and pop up somewhere else.

Q.  Atlanta, like Charlotte, has launched a project to redesign its ordinances. What do you hope will emerge from that process?

A. People say we don’t regulate enough, because there is a lot of density already permitted, especially in places like Midtown and Buckhead, where people are concerned about all the density. On the one hand they say you guys are too forgiving, but then on the other hand there are tangles of regulations that don’t really have anything to do with the kind of place you want to be.

The team that was hired to do the zoning rewrite has recommended a path for an overhaul that will take three to four years. The cities we looked at as examples, for their overall zoning rewrites, were Philadelphia, Miami, Raleigh and Denver. It took each of them between three to five years.

Q. One final thing. You seem to catch a lot of flak about your hair.  Atlanta Creative Loafing called it “perfectly tousled.” The Charleston City Paper headlined an item about you saying “Best hair to leave City Hall.” They call it a “fiery mane that captivated a community” and described it “thick and untamed like a thriving amber forest untouched by civilization.” 

A. That’s ridiculous.