The other week I showed up at City Hall to attend Atlanta’s Zoning Review Board meeting. I was there to support zoning amendments introduced by Councilmember Jason Dozier that would eliminate minimum parking requirements and prohibit new drive-throughs and gas stations within a half-mile of the Beltline.
The Zoning Review Board (ZRB) is an advisory committee that meets monthly to make recommendations on all zoning issues before they are presented to the City Council. Most of the 8 board members have experience working in real estate or government and they are volunteers appointed by the council. Usually there are about 8-10 items on the agenda, mostly requests for rezoning or exceptions, but they also provide input on wide-reaching proposals like Dozier’s Beltline Overlay legislation. For each item, the board allows 10 minutes to speak in support, and another 10 minutes for against. In almost all cases, the only pro speaker is the applicant but when proposals are getting neighborhood pushback it’s not uncommon to see a handful of NIMBYs ("Not In My BackYard") show up to speak against.
For the first item on the agenda, the Atlanta Land Trust was proposing to rezone a vacant lot near the Beltline in West End from single family to allow 4 new homes (a duplex plus 2 accessory dwelling units) which would be sold at below market-rate and deed-restricted to enable permanent affordable homeownership. This proposal had already been recommended by the Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) and by the Department of City Planning. No one besides Amanda Rhein, the representative for the Atlanta Land Trust, spoke in support or against the rezoning (I would have liked to speak in support, but I didn’t realize this was on the agenda).
After a few minutes of deliberation, the board voted 4-2 to recommend denial for the zoning request, citing that the proposed units were “out of character with the surrounding homes” and that the alley access to the backyard accessory dwelling units would bother neighbors. This was an incredibly disappointing recommendation. Essentially they decided (with zero evidence) that the neighbors probably wouldn’t want to live next to a different style house, and that’s more important than allowing 4 households to own an affordable home in a gentrifying neighborhood.
Onto CM Dozier’s legislation, there were a handful of attendees including myself who testified in support of these measures. Ultimately the board voted to recommend the measures that would remove parking requirements and ban new gas stations within the Beltline Overlay 🎉! This is good policy that will allow mixed-use and commercial developments to be built with less parking, which will enable more affordable options for people who don’t need a car. However the board didn’t endorse the ban on new drive-thrus. One board member cited concerns over equity, since the ban would limit needed economic opportunities in the less-developed parts of the Beltline Overlay. While I don’t doubt her good intentions, I’m not convinced that car-oriented fast-food franchises that contribute little in taxes, endanger pedestrians, and pay low wages are a good solution for equitable neighborhood development.
All of these measures still have to go before the Atlanta City Council for final approval, and I’m hopeful that they’ll support these measures. Nonetheless, the outcome of these meetings are important for the message that they show to our council. Council members treat NPU and Zoning Review Board meetings as the official “voice of the community” on zoning issues. Today, unfortunately, it takes courage for our council members to be pro-housing. If NIMBYs use the NPU system to oppose new housing, it’s hard for a council member to ignore NPU recommendations and support it because it appears like they’re not listening to their constituents (even if only a fraction of the neighborhood showed up). However, using these systems we can also shift the political calculus to make being pro-housing and pro-affordability the path of least resistance.
Overall, I have a few general takeaways from the whole rezoning experience:
- There are no experts at the table. Despite the fact that zoning and planning is shrouded in cryptic language, the decisions being made aren’t technical—they’re political. There’s no engineering evaluation or economic analysis happening. The decisions being made are more like “would the hypothetical neighbors be annoyed if this house turned into a duplex?”. Anyone that knows their neighborhood can be qualified to make these kinds of qualitative judgements. (The actual experts in the process, the planning staff, are actually routinely ignored by the City Council. Instead, council members prefer to accept NPU recommendations, because agreeing with the NPU is almost always politically safe!)
- Huge decisions can swing on a single statement. For zoning meetings, no one comes with much research. Comments only last a couple minutes, and deliberation is even shorter. Decisions can be made in the moment based on just one or two points. A single negative comment like “we can’t approve this project because there’s not enough parking” can lead discussions down a spiral that ends with denial. Likewise, if someone comments “we need more housing like this so people can afford to live in our neighborhood” it reframes the entire discussion in terms of how a project is valuable to its future residents. Especially when there’s only a handful of people in the room, public comment is powerful.
- It’s not actually that hard to tilt this system in favor of housing! While the results of Thursday’s board meeting were mixed, the poor decisions were fairly close votes (not to mention that the most progressive board member happened to be absent that night). It’s not hard to imagine that just a few more positive voices in the room could shift the dynamic toward positive action. There’s probably fewer than 100 citizens that set the tone for land-use decisions in Atlanta. If even a fraction of the people who receive our emails (yes, that means you!) start showing up at NPU, Neighborhood Association, and Zoning Board meetings, we can fully change the perception that Atlanta neighborhoods fear change to realize that they’re itching for bold housing reform.