Planning chief’s overhaul of stretched-thin department meets pushback from some councilmembers

Uh oh. Councilman C.T. Martin says he is ‘not a happy camper’

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When Johnny Martinez and Brandon Ley started Joystick Gamebar, it took approximately 10 months to obtain a building permit from the city. When they decided to open a second business, the Georgia Beer Garden, it took 14 months. The delay ended up costing them a little over $60,000, Martinez says.

“And we followed the rules,” Martinez said during a June 8 Atlanta City Council meeting. “Some people don’t follow the rules to get these permits. But I don’t think someone should be punished for following the rules.”

For Tim Keane, the commissioner of Atlanta’s department of planning and community development, these stories are not news. In fact, Keane says, the department and city council often hear grievances about many of the tasks they oversee. Chief Operating Officer Dan Gordon said that he hears an “escalated” amount of complaints about the job that DPCD does compared to other city departments.

Keane has a plan to overhaul the department, a move that has been met with some resistance in City Hall. Last week, the commissioner briefed some members of the Atlanta City Council about his plans to reorganize the department, a move he says will help the staff do their jobs. But some councilmembers, particularly Councilman C.T. Martin, pushed back against his plans.

“My role is to put everyone in a position to be successful,” Keane said on June 8. “We have gifted employees, but they are not in position to be successful. We have a fundamental issue in the way we are organized.”

Keane’s reorganization of the planning department — he says it would not require new funding from the general fund — increases the number of offices in the department from three to five. One of the offices will focus on streamlining the dysfunctional and frustrating permitting process, which has been one of Keane’s priorities since taking the job last July. Others would focus on mobility and transportation and housing issues.

Another new initiative is the Office of Design, which would encompass the recently launched Design Studio in Ponce City Market — it’s planned to set up in other parts of the city as well — that asks residents for input about city projects.

In an interview several weeks ago, Keane said the office would give him tools to help improve developers’ proposals and foster a better built environment.

“We have no capacity,” Keane said during the interview. “Without this Office of Design, I have nothing to give you other than an opinion. I can give an opinion, but I’d much rather work on it, like give you a drawing. Whether it’s remaking Peachtree Street Downtown, working on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and trying to make that street work well.”

He added: “You see these designs we get in the city, these terrible buildings. And all you can say is, ‘I don’t like it.’ I can say that the window proportions need to be better, you need better windows themselves, the ground floor isn’t working. We can say these things. If you don’t have the tools to draw it and say ‘this is what you need to do’... that’s something we should be able to do. And we have no ability to do that.”

Keane previously proposed creating another new division called the Office of Neighborhoods. That planning division would have focused its efforts on the community level. Doing so makes sense, Keane said, because “everyone experiences the city at the neighborhood scale.” Reed Spokeswoman Jewanna Gaither says the initiative has since been folded into the Office of Zoning and Development. 

The overall reorganization has confused some councilmembers and ruffled the feathers of others. It’s one thing for councilmembers to watch City Hall bureaucrats ask for additional funding to operate their departments. It’s another to be asked to OK the creation of new offices and expand a department, while also potentially shuffling some staffers with whom councilmembers have built relationships.

Most critical of the overhaul is Councilman C.T. Martin, who represents parts of southwest and west Atlanta. During the May 18 and June 8 meetings about the plan, Martin was focused on whether some employees of the long-underfunded department would be affected and whether the community would lose any oversight of development proposals. (He also kicked the June 8 meeting off on an awkward note by insinuating that Keane had lobbied for a Curbed Atlanta article published the day before the work session and said if the commissioner wasn’t happy with the process, ”he should leave.” Keane said he was not involved with the piece.)

Martin asked pointed questions about whether Keane and the mayor’s administration, which supports the reorganization, adequately educated councilmembers beforehand. During the meetings he said he was disappointed by — and did not know who was responsible for — the lack of diversity in the audience. 
“I’ll tell you right now, starting off, I’m not a happy camper,” Martin said on May 18. “I hope everybody who needs to hear this knows.”

Other councilmembers’ comments have ranged from praise — Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd said she was excited about the new programs and focus — to in-depth questions about building inspectors. Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms questioned whether creating new offices would actually make the department more efficient or create more headaches when she would try to get answers from department staff.

At the June 8 meeting, members of the public, including Martinez, applauded the idea of the reorganization, especially in the permitting office. Councilman Andre Dickens is sponsoring the legislation that would OK the changes. The Community Development and Human Resource Committee is scheduled to discuss the changes today at the 12:30 p.m. meeting. Councilmembers have until the end of the month to vote on the budget.