What’s next for Atlanta’s contentious rezoning debate?

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the shadow of this year’s local elections in Atlanta, another divisive debate was unfolding over the future of the city’s housing supply and the design of its residential neighborhoods.

With backing from Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration, Councilman Amir Farokhi introduced legislation months ago aimed at increasing Atlanta’s residential density by allowing for more types of housing to be built.

The new laws would have rezoned over 2,000 single-family properties near MARTA stations to allow them to become small apartment buildings; permit more types of “accessory dwelling units” (also known as in-law apartments or carriage houses); and eliminated all residential parking requirements from the city’s code.

The proposals were met with pushback from neighborhood organizations and cheers from progressive housing advocacy groups. The issue of zoning, rarely a mainstream political issue, suddenly sparked intense debates on platforms like Nextdoor and prompted conversations about the city’s growth and how it gets input from residents.

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The opposition forces won the battle. The day before last week’s runoff elections, a City Council committee effectively killed Farohki’s legislation, which had been scaled back following neighborhood input.

But in the new year, when the council term restarts and eight new members join the 15-member legislative body, Farohki is able to introduce the ordinances again. And he plans to do so.

“The housing challenge is not going away. The solutions that were put forth, still in my opinion good policy solutions, they remain on the table,” Farokhi said.

He acknowledged the proposed ordinance may have been “more complex than it needed to be.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“There were very distinct concepts being put forward, but packaged together, I think it created opportunity for confusion and misinformation,” he said, adding that in the future the council may take the proposals one by one.

Many critics worried the proposals were too broad and wouldn’t work for every neighborhood.

“It was one of those sledgehammer things … of across-the-board zoning changes that didn’t take into account the particular issues of particular neighborhoods,” said Gloria Cheatham, the president of the Tuxedo Park Civic Association in Buckhead, who said she started an informal alliance with neighborhood leaders across the city to oppose the bill.

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Farokhi said he is also open to tweaks in the future, possibly going neighborhood by neighborhood to “talk about what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense.”

The timing of the proposal likely didn’t help its prospects; smack-dab in the middle of an election year, officials may be less likely to rock the boat on major zoning decisions. Uproar over the rezoning proposals has also become a rallying cry for leaders of the Buckhead cityhood movement.

During last week’s meeting, councilmembers opposing the legislation brought up the neighborhood opposition to the proposals: Of the city’s 26 Neighborhood Planning Units, 17 recommended the council vote them down.

That opened up a larger discussion about which residents have the most influence through the city’s traditional NPU process, where homeowners are typically the most involved.

“The voices of those who rent aren’t part of the conversation,” he said, adding that he is hopeful heading into 2022, when several new councilmembers — including several who campaigned on progressive housing platforms — are set to join the body.

Incoming Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, who won a runoff to represent an Eastside district, said the proposals should be brought up again next year, with improved execution and rollout, and a few gray areas ironed out.

“There needs to be outreach into each of the communities educating and preparing them for what’s coming down the line. A lot of people feel bulldozed and … density has become this trigger word that means pro-development in a lot of people’s minds and that’s understandable, so there’s a lot of misconceptions about it,” Bakhtiari said.

Cheatham said she is “convinced we’re going to have to fight the same battles all over again” in 2022.

The outcome could also depend on Mayor-elect Andre Dickens’ stance. At a campaign meet-and-greet in Ansley Park last month, Dickens criticized the public input and communication process the city followed, saying many officials and residents were confused about the proposal.

He said the city does need density in some places, but said the best way to do that is to build on vacant Atlanta Housing land. If the issue is revisited next year, he said, “we’ll be ready to have a full conversation with each neighborhood. ... You’ll never say you weren’t talked to.”

Anjali Huynh contributed to this article.