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Planning Czar Tim Keane Talks Steps to Make Atlanta Awesome

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Tim Keane serves as Atlanta's Commissioner for the Department of Planning and Community Development. With a background in planning spanning more than two decades — including both public and private sector work — Keane is no newbie in the field. But having just joined the city staff back in July, Keane has had to learn Atlanta's intricacies pretty fast. Immediately after taking the post, he shared his thoughts on Atlanta with Creative Loafing. Now that he has some time under his belt, we wanted to check in to see how things are going and find out what he has learned about Atlanta for this week's installment of Field Note Fridays.

Curbed Atlanta: You've been in Atlanta for a few months and have had a chance to take stock of things. What were your initial impressions of Atlanta's urban realm and have your thoughts changed?

Tim Keane: My initial impressions of Atlanta's urban realm were that it was disjointed and not very lively. This disjointedness is due to the highways, rail lines and suburban commercial corridors that affect so much of the city. An urban place is primarily about the safety and comfort of pedestrians. And in many cities, including Atlanta, a singular and aggressive concentration on vehicle travel over many years has had a huge impact on the city's urban realm. That said, I am also impressed by the quality of the neighborhoods. We have so many small- to medium-scale neighborhood main streets that are healthy and lively.

CURBED: From those impressions, what would you say Atlanta's been doing really well on and what areas do we need improvement?

TK: What's going well, planning wise, is the Beltline, downtown, Midtown and Buckhead — where there is a separate organization leading the effort. We have vast improvements to make in order for the City of Atlanta to have some control over the future of this place. In every area: design, zoning, transportation, community development, economic development, etc.

CURBED: Are there any cities (or specific elements in other cities) you look to for inspiration as you plan Atlanta development?

TK: I am inspired by most cities and try to understand what makes each successful. There is not one that is a model, I don't think. I'm most interested in innovation that comes from this place: Atlanta. As a student of other cities, I feel strongly that the best ideas about how to make Atlanta work will come from here. Right now I'm most interested in what's been happening for some time in Vancouver in terms over overall vision, design and density, and in Chicago in terms of transportation, infrastructure and public space.

CURBED: You have indicated that Atlanta has really built enough "landmark" projects (stadiums, etc.) and that what we need now is to fill the areas in between to bolster our "meat and potatoes" infrastructure. Can you elaborate on that?

TK: The vitality of cities is very much related to the street and sidewalk environment. That is, what is it like to walk the streets? The quality of that public realm is important to every aspect of the city's future — the economic future in particular. We have blown past the suburban era for cities. We are now solidly in competition to make our city more urban in order to be competitive with other cities in this country — not just San Francisco and Chicago and other very old cities but even Charlotte, Orlando, Houston and Dallas. This is not a short-term fad. This is a long-term shift that requires that we become excellent at enabling a lively, healthy public realm. This requires lots of little things — not big game changers — at this point. I think we need to concentrate on helping many individuals, small businesses and local organizations invest on the single storefront and building scale. Granular stuff. Let's make a bunch of city streets that are wonderful to walk on. That's what we need.

CURBED: Much of the infill going on today is developer-driven, and mixed-use has become the development buzzword around Atlanta in the last few years. What does the term mean to you, and what would you like to see these developments bring to the city?

TK: I think there are many high-quality, creative, private, mixed-use places being built in Atlanta. At times I think the architecture is a little Mr. Potato Head-like, but in many cases, the urbanism is good to very good. Atlanta is on the leading edge of a long-term generational shift to a more urban lifestyle. Two of the critical aspects of a successful future will be 1) protecting and preserving existing historic neighborhoods and 2) enabling great, urban, dense mixed-use wherever we can and providing better transit, bike and walking infrastructure. The private realm is ahead of the public realm. We need to catch up.

CURBED: Atlanta has been offloading major tracts of land (the Civic Center, Underground Atlanta, etc.) that will likely follow the mixed-use trend. What role do you feel the city has to play in land ownership like this and how do you think developers can make an impact on these high-profile sites?

TK: The city's role is to put clear parameters in place regarding the public benefits and expectations. These will have to do with use, affordability, design and other community benefits. It is completely appropriate for the city to be a catalyst for the kind of development we want through its real estate assets. We need private partners that will embrace the high-quality and creative approaches in every realm.

CURBED: Of late, there's been growing tension as many Atlantans feel their roads are being threatened by bike and pedestrian infrastructure. As the population in the heart of the city grows, how should we approach the creation of "complete streets?"

TK: The issue of our streets is in NO WAY a conflict between cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, etc. Every single Atlantan shares an interest in getting more people out of cars, whether you drive 100 percent of the time or not. The only way (that's right, the only one) to reduce congestion in a growing, dynamic city is to give more people the ability to get around on foot, bicycle and transit for some trips. Not everyone will do this, of course, but many will. More and more will. This is of great benefit to people who drive 100 percent of the time. The only way to give people more options is to make cycling, walking and transit safer, more enjoyable and convenient. This means taking space on streets for these other modes. It's counterintuitive, I know, but we will all see here in Atlanta that it's the best way to make this a better place to live as we grow.

CURBED: There have been reported sightings of you biking the Beltline, dressed to the nines with a big grin on your face as you cruise. What is your favorite thing about the Beltline, how do you see it progressing in the next few years and how do you keep that impressive head of hair in such good order with all that biking?

TK: I just got a very short haircut to address the intractable issue of messy hair on the Beltline. I use the Beltine almost entirely for transportation. I can tell you from considerable experience it is a hugely important and successful public investment for this purpose. I know all the other wonderful benefits it is achieving for Atlanta — but simply as a piece of transportation infrastructure it is an A.

CURBED: What are your favorite architectural and urban spaces in Atlanta?

TK: That's a good question. I don't have anything terribly insightful opinions on this topic yet. The one that is obvious but I will mention anyway is Piedmont Park. There is no better park in the South, I think. Also, the many little neighborhood shopping streets all over town — East Atlanta, West End, Virginia-Highland, Inman Park, Marietta Street and so on. The old buildings that remain at Georgia Tech. Fairlie Poplar, specifically Forsyth Street. Marietta Street between Peachtree and around Centennial Olympic Park has a great scale to me — terrific potential. Auburn Avenue is of most interest to me due to the variety of buildings and its history. It's wonderful to me that in Atlanta you have very urban places and quite rural ones. Roxboro Drive in Pine Hills is an example on the rural end of the spectrum. We need to protect that uniqueness.

· Field Note Friday coverage [Curbed Atlanta]
· Five Key Thoughts from Atlanta's New Chief Planner [Curbed Atlanta]