A chat with new Atlanta planning head, Tim Keane

New Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane knows he has his work cut out for him.

He began his job last month just as the city’s auditor released a report slamming Atlanta’s Office of Buildings as inefficient, glacially slow and at risk for conflicts of interest.

The problems are sizable, the report detailed. Though Atlanta increased its building permit fees in recent years to fund the streamlining of services, wait times for some permits have grown to months-long. At the same time, the office has accrued more than $28 million — money that hasn’t been spent on improvements. What’s more, the audit raised questions about potential kickbacks and favoritism inside the office.

Keane said he’s heard the complaints from, well, just about everybody.

“They’re all in the category of a business that is not connected to its customers,” Keane said of the problems. “The first order of business, of course, is to begin the process of making an operation that is courteous, helpful, fast, responsive and fair to all customers.”

His job isn’t just about improving the city’s beleaguered permitting process, however. Keane is poised to have a role in Atlanta’s development at the time the real estate industry is back to bustling.

Mayor Kasim Reed, known for brokering a swath of real estate deals while in office, said he hired Keane to bring cohesion to Atlanta’s choppy and sprawling landscape.

“Atlanta must be bigger than a collection of disconnected projects,” Reed said, adding that Keane will provide input for every new major development in the city.

Keane, who left behind a cozy job as planning director of Charleston, S.C., said he came to Atlanta because of its challenges. We spoke with him about how he plans to address them.

On permitting problems

Among the first tasks, Keane said, is to overhaul the permitting process so that permits are handled under one roof and separated by simple and complicated, residential and commercial.

“If you’re coming in to get a fence at your house, you should leave with that permit in 10 minutes,” he said. “The problem is, right now, the person getting the fence permit might be waiting behind someone building a 40-story building in Midtown.”

On the plethora of permits

Keane said he plans to evaluate all of the city’s required permits to look for instances of government over-reach.

“Sometimes an organization needs to go through the process and say: Do we really need to be doing all that? Do people really need those permits or have we overstepped?”

Confusing and overly complicated permitted processes also increase the risk of people ignoring them, he said. He wants the city “to make sure we’re in the realm of what’s necessary for public health and safety.”

On culture change

“There will be difficult decisions to be made, no doubt about it. And change in any operation like that will be difficult and people won’t want to participate, or won’t be able to,” he said. “But I think there is a tremendous amount of support in that office for fixing the situation.”

On public participation

Keane said public input is “fundamentally important.” A way to avoid roadblocks, he said, is to involve people and formulate plans based on a community’s values and aspirations.

“Everybody won’t agree. There will be disagreement,” he said. “But we would have involved them. They are part of the formulation of these ideas.”

On guiding growth

Keane envisions the planning department setting the development tone for the city, “so that we’re not reacting project by project, but have a very clear sense of how the city should be growing physically,” he said.

That will help inform people about how projects should be designed, he said.

“It shouldn’t be the developer saying: ‘This is what we want,’” he said. “It should be the planning department saying: ‘This is how the city should be growing.’”

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