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Neighborhood Character and Zoning

As we embark on the public engagement journey for Atlanta’s Comprehensive Development Plan, there’s something that’s been on my mind: neighborhood character -- specifically “single-family neighborhood character.” As discussed in our last post, 50% of Atlanta’s land use is currently designated Single-Family Residential (SFR). This includes land in the city’s in-town neighborhoods, near the Beltline, and near MARTA stations.



Here’s the problem: the existing character of many of these places does not match the SFR land use designation. While single-family homes certainly exist within this land use, many other house scales exist with various uses: duplexes; small apartments; and neighborhood-serving uses like offices, schools, parks; and small retail such as corner stores. But because these uses are often zoned Single-Family, they are thought of as “single-family” in character. They are not. It needs to be said: being zoned Single-Family, or having a Single Family land use, does not mean something is actually single-family. Similarly, simply conforming to Single-Family zoning does not mean something is “in character” with the existing neighborhood pattern. This is an important distinction. Zoning and land use do not control for character, and what we consider “neighborhood character” is often not a product of the laws that presently guide our city’s future.


Atlanta Existing Pattern Analysis


Before Atlanta began this zoning reform process, the city conducted a city-wide Pattern Analysis that made clear the city’s huge amounts of zoning inconsistencies. In other words, much of the physical city does not conform to our current zoning rules. Why? Well, much of the city was built before our zoning code was written and would be ILLEGAL to build today. The intent of this extensive analysis was to better align our future zoning with the strengths of our existing urban patterns.



The study identified 18 subareas to conduct Neighborhood Scale Analyses, which provide great detail on the existing patterns and nonconformities. Rampant nonconformities were found for the following metrics: lot size, setbacks, lot coverage, FAR, use, and number of units.



North Boulevard Park Pattern Analysis



While my neighborhood shows up on the map with a ton of red in the Pattern Analysis, it wasn’t one of the subareas that was studied in greater detail. So, I decided to do it myself. I live in Virginia Highland, in an area that was first known as North Boulevard Park because it is located around the intersection of Park Drive and Monroe Drive, formerly Boulevard. This section of the neighborhood was developed in the 1920s, prior to Atlanta’s first Zoning Ordinance. 



Most of the area is zoned R-4 (Single-Family), with a handful of commercially zoned lots on the edges. The land use is all Single Family Residential. Most lots are 50’x150’ or 7,500 SF. The current R-4 zoning requires 70’ frontage and 9,000 SF minimum lot size. This means that almost every lot is considered existing nonconforming. And some lots are much smaller! My favorite lot is about 3,000 SF. Why have we made small lots that enable smaller homes illegal? There is an answer, but we’ll save that for another post…




While lot coverage and setback nonconformities are also abundant, the most important nonconformity to call out is the use. While the predominate use is single-family, a variety of housing types exist throughout the area including attached ADUs, detached ADUs, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments (4-7 units). A preschool, an elementary school, a park, and the Beltline also exist under R-4 zoning. These uses all exist in the same form and scale or character of the single-family units, allowing them to blend seamlessly into the neighborhood fabric.


Why are these uses important? Because they allow diversity -- people with different housing needs and budgets -- to live in the same neighborhood! Imagine that. The attached and detached ADUs provide rental units for students, young professionals, family members or live-in help. They provide flexibility for the homeowners to pay down their mortgage or have a multi-generational household. The duplexes and small apartments allow for more affordable homes for people who might not be able to afford a larger single-family home in the neighborhood: our workforce, students, young professionals, and young families. My children’s preschool teacher (and her family of four!) lived in the duplex across the street from my house. The attached ADU across the street houses my neighbor’s brother. The attached ADU next-door houses a long-term resident (a librarian who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years! Hi Steve!). The duplex next to that used to house Steve, but now is a medium-term rental where my in-laws stay when they come to visit; it is planned to be used for a live-in nurse for my aging neighbor who has lived in the home for over 30 years! These stories exist all over the neighborhood, but this housing would be illegal to build today in the same places in the same way (this is what we call “existing nonconforming”).


Another important thing to note is that these uses exist throughout the neighborhood, not just along Monroe (an arterial street and an important corridor for the city). We hear a lot of talk that more intense uses should only exist on such major corridors. I would argue that if the use is the same form and scale of a single-family home, allow it anywhere you allow a single-family home. Clearly, there is precedent for this. The first ten images shown below are located on local streets. The final four are located on Monroe. As you can see, the number of units doesn’t correlate to the form of the building nor the scale of the street. 






The Unit Map also notes another category: Teardowns. Often, when we talk about allowing uses like duplexes and small apartments in “single-family” neighborhoods, we hear big pushbacks for fear of changing neighborhood character. But we don’t often hear about neighborhood character changing when existing homes are torn down to make way for new, often much larger single-family homes. These teardowns are completely legal under current zoning and stand out much more in my mind than the existing nonconforming uses. Let’s take a look.





We need to ask ourselves: why is a 3-story 5,000 SF house that rents for $24,000 a month completely legal but a 2-story quadplex that rents at workforce AMI is not?


Takeaway


We need to recognize that our existing “single-family” neighborhoods are not purely single-family uses, and that they are more diverse and more vibrant because of that. If this area conformed to its current land use and zoning, it would have an entirely different character. We need to re-legalize traditional neighborhood patterns, which is to say, real neighborhoods: their zoning, their land use, and their character. What we love most about the character of our in-town neighborhoods is the form and scale of buildings and uses that fit “under the treeline.” This means 1-3 story buildings with a certain form and a certain relationship to the street, regardless of their use. To support this type of development pattern, we need a land use that allows for Traditional Neighborhood Uses: single-family homes, duplexes, small apartments, and small commercial uses like schools, offices and neighborhood retail. Things people can walk to! In our minds, these are the things that give a neighborhood character. We encourage you to show up to the CDP engagement meetings and advocate for less “single-family” restrictions and more “neighborhood character.”

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