Meet Atlanta’s new planning commissioner

Tim Keane leaves Charleston to help right Atlanta’s public realm wrongs

Tim Keane
Photo credit: Courtesy: City of Atlanta
Tim Keane - Atlanta's City Planning Commissioner

Tim Keane, Atlanta’s newly appointed planning commissioner, is saying all the right things.

Bikes? The Charlotte, N.C., native says Atlanta’s streets need to make more room for ‘em. Good urban design? It’s possible and necessary, he says. Traffic? Every great city in the world has it, and Atlanta should focus on helping people avoid gridlock with alternatives, such as MARTA.

Now all Keane, who recently started the City Hall job after leading Charleston, S.C.’s planning division, has to do is deliver.

The dapper 50-year-old told members of the Northwest Community Alliance on July 15 that he wants the city, one that for decades has been the epitome of erratic car-centric planning, to be more than just a collection of buildings.

“We are responsible for the public realm of the city — the spaces we share,” Keane said. “This is a big challenge ... There are many good things happening here. [But] if the city continues to be a series of projects, I will have failed.”

Keane will be tested on that promise. Between now and when Mayor Kasim Reed leaves, prospective developers plan to start work on the overhauls of the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center and Turner Field. Atlanta film mogul Tyler Perry will soon start turning 330 acres of Fort McPherson into a movie production hub. A South Carolina-based real estate developer will give Underground Atlanta an estimated $400 million makeover. There’s also the issue of reforming the department’s permits office, which the city auditor recently scolded for building a hefty reserve and not using best practices to prevent potential conflicts of interest.

Keane, who will have to convince Reed’s successor to stick around after 2017, acknowledges he has a steep learning curve ahead in Atlanta. Yet he’s already started touring the city, chatting with developers and business leaders, and brainstorming how the city’s urban core could evolve during this most recent building bonanza.

He declined to issue a grand vision for Atlanta, but noted that it’s up to him, city planners, and the community to make sure developers stick to the basics. For example, the first floor of a mixed-use building should work well with the street. And he echoed an earlier point: that the city can’t be just a series of disconnected projects.

But 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?

Keane says he loves the South, and that working in the region’s biggest city — one that came of age when cars were king — is an exciting challenge. Plus, he sensed from talks with Reed that the mayor cares about planning, urbanism, and more options for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. He thinks that Atlantans feel the same.

“There’s ground to cover,” he says. “But maybe we make a lot of progress relatively quickly. It seems like there’s a lot of consensus that these need to be done.”