Raised in Charlotte, now planning Atlanta’s growth

Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Talk of the Towns Q/A interview: Long version

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 shorter version of the interview, click here.

Q. Your career has taken you to some iconic places in the South, but you grew up in Charlotte. For the hometown folks where did you go to school?

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

A. We came to Charlotte when I was very young. St. Gabriel’s Catholic school and then Charlotte Catholic high school and then of course UNC Charlotte for undergraduate and graduate degrees, so I am all in on Charlotte, no doubt about it.

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?

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. Before we talk about Atlanta, I want to ask about Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. He’s a huge figure in the world of mayors and city planning. What did you learn from him?

A. Well, that could be a long boring answer, because you learn so much from him. It’s hard to describe what it was like to watch him at City Council meetings. The City Council chambers in Charleston is in the very historic city hall, at the Four Corners of the Law [a historic intersection with the federal courthouse, Charleston County Courthouse, Charleston City Hall and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church]. You go in the space and it’s like you’re going back in time it’s so gorgeous and so old. And his desk and chair sat on this kind of plinth looking at City Council. Like a throne. And you have City Council and the citizens on either side, and these massive paintings of John Calhoun and George Washington. The space was just so impressive.

And then he presided over public service in a way that I wish everybody could watch. Every City Council meeting you learn something about what cities are about – I mean in the sense of public service, not just in terms of city planning. Whether it was a recreation issue or public safety issue or whatever, it was just an education. He was so collaborative – this is a person who knew there was a solution to every problem and loved coming to solutions with people in the room. It was a very exciting thing to be a part of.

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. There’s so much repair to be done in terms of the public realm, it’s enormous.

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. Mayor Reed is a champion of that. He agreed that we are not going to tear down old buildings.

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. Atlanta is in that mode right now. People are finally saying we can become great by making places for people to walk safely and enjoyably, and bike and use transit.

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. Mostly it’s neighborhoods – Inman Park, Cabbagetown, and so on. 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. If a building is a designated landmark can it be torn down? In Charlotte it could be saved for a year but after that, goodbye.

A. Not without our approval.

Q. What’s your commute to work like?

A. I ride my bike to work a lot. I live in downtown Atlanta and I would say that I have a good mode split. And MARTA is awesome; 55 miles of fast train exist in Atlanta, and it works wonderfully. Keith Parker, the CEO of MARTA, is doing a fantastic job, bringing a lot more riders to MARTA. He was in Charlotte when I was in Davidson. [Parker was an assistant Charlotte city manager, then CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System.] I drive some, too.

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

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 transit vote will allow dramatically improved transit service in the urban core. Which is where it should be, because there are a lot of people who can use transit.  It’s not like you’re going to get some tiny increment of people way out in the middle of nowhere to maybe go to a park and ride lot. The dynamics of Atlanta right now are really positive. That’s all I concentrate on.

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. There was no design aspect of the Planning Department other than a regulatory thing. We’re responsible for transportation planning, but it needed more emphasis. We’re responsible for building permits, and that needed a complete overhaul after decades of audits and reports on how broken it was.

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.

I hired Ryan Gravel to run the city design project. He is the one that came up with the idea for the beltline when he was a student at Georgia Tech, and he’s recently published a book about his work around the country [Where We Want To Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities].

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, but we think growth and more people in jobs is an essential element in being a better place to live.

Atlanta hasn’t looked at itself like that. To be successful we had to reorganize ourselves to have the talent and the capacity to do that.

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.

We have retail hours – Tuesday through Saturday, something like 10-7. The point is to be completely open and engaging everybody on these issues with talks and lectures and different events.

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 a lot of what I witnessed 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. You have worked with Charleston, with Davidson and Atlanta’s zoning regulations. What would you recommend for a place like Charlotte?

A. I don’t know that I have anything super-interesting to say about it. I think simplification is important. There’s been a period when people have felt like form-based codes have solved every problem in the world.

Q. Explain to non-planners what a form-based code is.

A. It started to become a thing in the early 1990s, the New Urbanist idea that all these heavy legal regulatory zoning ordinances didn’t have anything to do with places – that we should organize our zoning around design and place and the form of a city versus basically negotiating property rights. If you focus on form – what streets are like and what buildings are like – you end up with better places. But I think you can overdo it, overthink regulations. There’s probably just a few things you need to regulate and not worry about everything else.

[highlight]“If you’re going to be hyper-regulatory in some areas, let it go in other areas. Stop trying to regulate everything.” — Tim Keane[/highlight]

Q. What should you regulate?

A. The height, where the building sits on the property, where the entrance is, things like that. But you get past some basic things that you do need to regulate, and you get into areas where you wonder do you really need to do that? If you’re going to be hyper-regulatory in some areas, let it go in other areas. Stop trying to regulate everything. If you’re going to be really precise about the in-town neighborhoods of Charlotte – which warrants some precision, whether it’s Elizabeth, Plaza Midwood or Dilworth or wherever, places where you want to be really protective and it deserves it. If you build there, you’re going to have to build a good building.

But some areas you just let it go – you know, who cares? Like, when you get out on a highway and you’re arguing with people about the landscaping or the signage. It just doesn’t seem right. Devote your resources towards really excellent urban places, but then let it go in other places.

Q. I’m going to give you a little push back, because I work in a part of the city, at UNC Charlotte, which for years was just kind of out on the highway. And they did sort of let it go. Now you’ve got 28,000 students and 4,000 faculty and staff, so it’s essentially the size of Mooresville and it’s not at all a village kind of place.

A. I think the scale of that whole area is impossible. Within the university area you would have to say, “These are the areas that we are going to make into really walkable places.” Let’s get specific about how those places within this huge area are going to be really good. And other areas we’re going to let it go.

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.