Atlanta’s zoning code, a key factor in making a better city, is getting a much-needed overhaul

City kicks off years-long effort to rewrite zoning code, which hasn’t been updated since 1980s

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On a recent Monday night at Atlanta Metropolitan State College near Capitol View, Atlanta Planning Commissioner told the packed crowd a simple truth about zoning, the most exciting of topics.

“If we’re going to grow,” Keane said, “we’re going to have to develop in a way that more people can walk… A lot of this zoning in the 1960’s and 70’s imagined a future where everything would be monolithic and huge, and we would drive everywhere.”

That idea — making the city more accessible for people other than motorists — is the core philosophy at the heart of the Department of Planning and Community Development’s current “Zoning Ordinance Diagnostic.”

To most, the topic of zoning ordinances and building codes is a pretty mundane affair at best, but it’s a hot topic right now in Atlanta, and for good reason. As more people move into the city (and more expected to follow), the public is beginning to understand the significance of zoning. Zoning isn’t just how a city regulates private property; it’s the way citizens collectively decide the blueprint for how we grow cities.

To gain more feedback and public input, the DPCD hosted its first public hearings on their Zoning Ordinance Diagnostic, an approximately six-month process to evaluate and make recommendations for new zoning codes and to see what Atlantans think of initial evaluations of Atlanta’s current set of regulations. (Here’s a presentation of a recent meeting.)

Conducted by local firms Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh, the Canvas Planning Group, and the Zoeckler Firm, the process is simply a look at what regulations can be improved. And considering the regulations haven’t been touched since the last zoning rewrite more than three decades ago, when Atlanta was a different place, there’s a good bit to do.

“Our uses are very different now than they were in 1980,” said Caleb Racicot of TSW.

Atlanta has what’s called a hybrid approach to zoning; the zoning code applies different regulations to different districts, or types of areas. More suburban style areas adhere to “conventional” planning, like strip shopping centers, while more urban areas like Atlantic Station or the Old Fourth Ward follow different rules.

The conventional style of planning, Racicot said, is what leads to suburban sprawl. Such ordinances distinguish zoning districts based on building use — a shopping center, single-family housing, light industrial, etc. Form-based planning, however, emphasizes the efficient use of urban spaces and how buildings relate to the surrounding community. Think about the differences between Portland, Oregon and West Orange, New Jersey. Or driving through an arterial suburban road in North Fulton vs. walking in Inman Quarter, for example.

The firms and Keane’s department analyzed zoning ordinances in Denver, Raleigh, Philadelphia, and Miami to establish a list of “best practices” with the aim of increasing housing density, creating better access to transportation options, boosting walkability, and preserving the aesthetics of historic neighborhoods.

The regulatory strategies the planning firms focused on are transitioning from a hybrid zoning code to more form-based (but still hybrid) code, establishing metrics other than FAR (Floor Area Ratio) for judging development plans, lowering parking requirements, and more.

The planners claim that the new code will also be easier to interpret with simpler, more unified definitions and graphical illustrations to better explain regulations — and if the changes go through, the new rules could have tremendous effects.

Atlanta currently requires developers provide one and a half parking spaces per residential unit for multi-unit buildings. Lowering or even removing the number of required parking spaces for certain types of developments, such as small-scale multi-unit housing, opens the door for much more, much denser infill development, the planners said. Under current regulations, they said, smaller-scale buildings can’t be built because of costs of or lack of space for parking.

With more Atlantans choosing to ride MARTA, bike, and walk to work instead of driving, and with the looming arrival of autonomous cars that could all but evaporate any need for residential parking, the 1.5-spaces-per-unit rule does in some cases seem more than enough. Lowering parking requirements for developments could also help assuage fears from neighborhoods worried about the increased traffic that typically comes with new developments, the planners added.

Transitioning to a more form-based zoning code could help preserve the identities of historic intown neighborhoods — another major goal — by requiring developers and planners to propose projects that jibe with the design rules required for certain neighborhoods such as Candler Park’s bungalow style houses or Inman Park’s Victorian homes, for example.

By focusing more on the “urban form” – the layout of the area around a planned project, the height or setback of buildings from the street, where parking needs to be located, etc. – than the uses of individual buildings, the zoning ordinances will promote a greater design identity that the city traditionally lacks due to the dwindling number of historic structures. In many cases, the planners said, new developments under form-based planning regimes actually enhance the identities of their neighborhoods.

A hybrid of the two strategies is increasingly common in many American cities that are working to revitalize their downtowns and urban areas but have largely suburban surrounding metro areas. Hybrid codes are better suited for more suburban cities with dense downtowns and sprawling neighborhoods like those in Raleigh, Philadelphia, and Denver because they offer more flexibility for developers and planners while also promoting better urban form. Miami is the only city the planning group studied with a fully form-based zoning code.

The firms also worked with the DPCD to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current zoning ordinance. But according to Aaron Fortner of Canvas Planning, there seem to be a lot more of the latter than the former.

That isn’t to say that everything about Atlanta’s current zoning ordinances are busted, Fortner said, but there is a lot that could be improved. The planners commended the city’s requirement for urban greenspaces, the high level of neighborhood involvement in planning decisions, and the push for new districts with low or no parking requirements.

But the weaknesses definitely outweigh the strengths: “Parking requirements can result in the demolition or under-utilization of historic buildings,” “FAR is poor at regulating the form of development,” “The various procedures and committees within the city is confusing and inconsistent.” The list was two slides long, but you get the idea.

So how long will this process take? When Keane spoke last month at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture on “the kind of city Atlanta is,” he noted that other cities’ zoning overhauls typically take between five and seven years to fully implement. He’s hinted that there could be action to advance some of these goals sooner, such as reducing parking requirements. “There’s a lot of things that need to happen in Atlanta sooner,” he said.

Informing the zoning rewrite will be the Atlanta City Design Project, an 18-month citywide project that Keane hopes will help Atlanta finally determine its design identity and how it should evolve. Ryan Gravel, the visionary who dreamed up the Beltline as a Georgia Tech graduate student, has been hired to help produce the effort.

For Keane, whom the planning community has applauded since coming on board last July, bringing the city’s zoning ordinances up to date is not just a way to seal his legacy, it’s the best way to cement his ideas and planning expertise in Atlanta’s future. After Mayor Kasim Reed’s second and final term ends in January 2018, Keane could be replaced as planning commissioner by the new mayor. Or he could be kept on to serve under the next administration. By developing a modern zoning ordinance, he has the opportunity to set smarter planning practices in stone. 

To offer input on the zoning code and view the presentation, head to the website the city has created to support the effort