Poncey-Highland Planning working group recommendations

Our community working group has spent more than 25 hours studying the 2010 Poncey-Highland Master Plan as well as many newer city planning resources.  Over the course of two months, we heard from experts in urban planning at Tunnel-Spangler-Walsh, the Urban Design Commission and the interim director of the Atlanta city planning department.  We reviewed case studies outlining best practices of smart urban growth from around the country, and conducted a walking tour and photo audit across all ends of our neighborhood.

After all our due diligence, we recognize that the 2010 PH Master Plan largely got it right and remains a foundational framework that we can build on for future growth . We also recognize that the city of Atlanta approaches urban planning in phases, and is currently working with select neighborhoods to provide better opportunities to provide input. Therefore, we strongly believe that we as a neighborhood need to utilize the city of Atlanta’s willingness to improve its available tools and help us codify the Master Plan Recommendations and Implementation directives we can influence immediately.  

Specifically, we want to reaffirm these unifying values adapted from the original Master Plan:

  1. Accommodate and encourage smart growth and redevelopment while respecting the neighborhood’s character, businesses and residents.

  2. Protect and enhance an urban form that supports greater accessibility, stronger community life and more beautiful places that instill civic pride and order.

  3. Create a stronger identity and character for Poncey-Highland that commits to maintaining the neighborhood’s diverse mix of incomes, ages, and lifestyles.

  4. Support standards that better define our historically contributing neighborhood structures and discourage their wholesale demolition.

Working group recommendations

Based on our findings and desire to reinforce key provisions of the PH Master Plan, we as a working group make the following recommendations to the Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association:

  1. Create a regulatory tool to manage character, design and architecture in the neighborhood.

  2. Use the City of Atlanta’s Historic Preservation Ordinance tool as a starting point to let us collaboratively address historic preservation and new development in our neighborhood.

  3. Work with the City of Atlanta to create custom zoning regulations within this tool that enforce key provisions of the Poncey-Highland Master Plan and the community vision for our neighborhood’s future.

  4. Use geographic subareas to acknowledge and address different visions for different parts of the neighborhood, as described in the PH Master Plan.

  5. Move forward together with appropriate deliberation; we need to take action on this issue rather than doing nothing.

Why use the Historic Preservation Ordinance – Risks & Rewards

We evaluated all the available strategies and policies. We considered not recommending action and letting the existing zoning regulations dictate redevelopment. The working group came to believe that option is unsupportable considering the absence of protection for historic buildings and that the existing zoning regulations do not ensure quality new construction. 

The working group recognizes the rapid redevelopment of the residential core in nearby neighborhoods and recently within Poncey-Highland.  As neighbors we respect each other’s right to renovate or expand their homes or businesses. Over the past decade, however, we have encountered numerous instances where developers introduced plans that demonstrated a lack of concern for the permanent alterations they could cause to the fabric of our community.  Therefore, we absolutely affirm the Master Plan’s aspirations to preserve and protect Poncey-Highland’s quality of life for the benefit of all ages, incomes, and stages in life.

The working group also recognizes that the “one-by-one” rezoning/zoning variance approach to handling applications has led to situations where the neighborhood association has been given very limited opportunities to review or comment on design. The land use committee, the Poncey-Highland board of directors, and involved neighbors have spent countless hours over the past two decades reacting to complex and sometimes controversial land use changes.  For this reason, the working group recommends we use the historic district tool to eliminate one-by-one zoning applications, balance the development playing field, reinforce community standards for future growth, and put customized zoning regulations in place.

The working group recognizes, and many have witnessed over the last decade since the Master Plan was adopted, that the document itself does not ensure that what the neighborhood approved or desires is what ultimately gets built. Some recent examples:

  • 675 N. Highland: changes were made to the height of the building at the sidewalk, development changed from townhomes to a much taller commercial/apartment building at Seminole/Blue Ridge, and the use of materials on the façade changed.  In this case what the neighborhood was shown by the developer matched the Master Plan and was used to get the neighborhood’s vote of support to rezone the properties so the development could be built. But the above changes were made after PH approved the rezoning and our desires were not enforceable once the rezoning was approved.

  • 1099 North Ave townhomes: had the Master Plan truly been enforceable, the neighborhood would not have wasted so much time debating whether townhomes are an acceptable change of use from the MP’s stated redevelopment plan for this part of the neighborhood.

  • Manual’s parking lot redevelopment:  same as townhomes above.    

The working group recognizes that we live in a special place and that we are a neighborhood of neighbors.  We represent a diverse mix of backgrounds, whether we’re just getting started or firmly established, putting down roots or just passing through. So many of us know one another, are friends and enjoy each other’s company. The mix of historic housing types and historic neighborhood commercial make it possible for this neighborhood to be a home to people at all stages of life, and a place for small independent businesses to open their doors to us. The existing historic residences and commercial buildings are what make this possible.  The historic district designation is the best tool available to preserve our sense of place.

Ultimately, we have an opportunity RIGHT NOW to help steer the future of our neighborhood by partnering with the city to create our very own, uniquely zoned place within the city, preserving our cherished historic aesthetic - both the residential core and neighborhood commercial buildings - while defining a framework for the next phase of development.

As residents, we treasure these characteristics and want to help preserve them as much as possible. We also know that change is inevitable. Per the Atlanta Regional Commission, “the 20-county Atlanta region will add 2.5 million people by 2040 – the equivalent of adding all of metro Charlotte – bringing the region’s population to more than 8 million.” The Working Group anticipates higher density and economic pressures that will alter the look and feel of the neighborhood, and potentially displace current residents. Therefore, our challenge is to acknowledge that change is coming and balance it with a desire to keep the good qualities that we love about Poncey-Highland - the very ones that make our neighborhood so desirable for us and for others who will become our neighbors.

What is the Working Group?

The Working Group (WG) is a group of neighbors who volunteered to spend time thinking about Poncey-Highland Planning. The aim was to appoint 10 people. Nearly triple that number applied, a wonderful show of support for doing something important and lasting for our neighborhood. As a result, we were able to put together a working group that was representative of Poncey-Highland in almost every way -- length of time in the neighborhood, property owners, renters, business folks, geographic distribution, super involved to just getting started -- and with expertise and interests that will made our work better.

The WG spent time over several months examining the recommendations and implementation directives in our Poncey-Highland Master Plan – now almost 10 years old. That document has helped the neigborhood because it was adopted into the city’s comprehensive development plan (CDP).  However, the master plan has NO REGULATORY AUTHORITY. Our neighborhood is still very susceptible to the whims of the city planners as well as the whims of PH leadership/membership at any given point in time (those in leadership and those attending meetings). Pressures from anyone who wants to redevelop within the neighborhood can cause decisions to be made that are not in the neighborhood’s best long-term interests.

 The WG had several meetings with city planners – both high level directors and independent consultants. They read and educated themselves on the wider issues of development and how development is being dealt with in Atlanta as well as in other major cities. There is nothing that will stop density.  However, Poncey-Highland is being given an opportunity to dictate how much, where within the neighborhood, and what that new development and density will look like, down to the architectural style and specific exterior materials that can be used.

In mid-August the WG presented its findings and made a recommendation to act now to codify the Master Plan recommendations and implementation directives.

Thank you to the WG!

Working group members

Audrey Sederberg

Betty Barnard

Bob Kay

Jim McMahel

Jordan Hylton

Lauren Westmorland

Mary Beth Wilson

Nash Tehrani

Robert Hamburger

Thomas DiNatale

Ellen Heath - Facilitator

Steering Committee

Beth McDonald - PHNA president

Lisa Malaney - PHNA land use and planning chair