The SWATS: Where Atlanta Hustles Just to Be Heard

Week before last, I shared that the Dept of City Planning (DCP) was dissolving the Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) R. The SWATs are a story in Atlanta’s hustle that speaks to Atlanta’s version of the American dream- where you hustle to make it, despite all odds. Everyone loves these stories of resilience. I’m no different. The lens through which I see it is informed more about the gritty details of how that really works. The sausage making of the government isn’t much for the faint of heart and I’m not so naive to think everyone plays fair.  The Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB) Executive Committee meeting last Sunday night, Saturday’s APAB General Body meeting, and yesterday’s Committee on Council meeting really spoke to this fact, with little more light shed upon that subject of NPU boundaries. We did learn there are a few “unmovable” dates though, (Oct. 11th and Nov. 5th as public comment periods) have been shared and teased out a few things due to the questions of others. The stir around this issue also brought out the presence of representatives from NPU S, NPU R’s Executive Committee, and even Progressive News coverage (h/t to my fellow NPU K member, Matthew Cardinale, for his responsiveness and Adrian Coleman’s presence on Saturday and yesterday’s Committee on Council meeting). Council has offered both a resolution and an ordinance requesting the COO to halt immediately and to assert their role in the process. I consider all of this a win and appreciate the new attention being given to this matter. The hostilities of a particular DCP Assistant Director and from a fellow board member during Sunday’s meeting aside, I’d say the juice was definitely worth the squeeze. What I’d like to talk about today is what we may see going forward. The opportunities and pitfalls that various paths could provide, and what each may mean for our city and region. Readers may have missed that part in my last piece where I asserted that NPU boundaries and the system itself need to be updated. I’ve written about the Center for Civic Innovation’s NPU Initiative previously and how all of this- the NPU system, APAB, and DCP contribute to the Comprehensive Development Plan and how each component provides advantages and disadvantages to citizens, depending upon where they find themselves in the city. I just happen to think that the city of Atlanta doesn’t need MORE government to listen to its people- it just needs a responsive one. The hustle has always been strong here- I just need the hearing of folks to be stronger.

Allow me to level set with some context. If you’re read my pieces before, feel free to scroll on down. Back in the first quarter of 2022, I started asking questions of the APAB Executive Committee about what is the role of DCP and its connection to APAB and the NPUs. I didn’t know, and as I’ve come to find out- that isn’t something DCP is willing to define nor is APAB willing to assert- even to the extent of the APAB President blocking a document I created to try to train our membership on what APAB is supposed to do and how it works. Spoiler alert: she wasn’t successful, but the effort engaged the rarely angered other members of the APAB Executive Committee into taking action. One can certainly hope the City Council and other APAB members can see the importance of defining these roles now as DCP asserts its power over both Council and APAB, yet whether or not that hope is well founded remains to be seen. Back in the first quarter of 2022, I also started asking council members and a previous city attorney about the roles of DCP, NPUs, and APAB in order to understand how we got to this mess. I’ve written about much of this and what I’ve learned fairly regularly. 

However, if you’re a new Peach Pundit reader and never read my pieces before: the NPUs are groupings of neighborhoods that are autonomous as they determine their own bylaws and set their own agendas. They are part of the larger DCP process of providing citizen input of support or opposition to things like liquor licenses, pawn shops, developers’ plans, etc. DCP provides the administrative support to NPUs by standardizing and distributing their agendas, sending them out via an email, and will facilitate their elections if NPUs are unable to conduct the elections themselves. DCP also receives comments on various issues, albeit that’s not entirely standardized. To be clear this lack of standardization isn’t because it hasn’t been suggested by citizens and APAB, it’s just that as I wrote in a previous piece, not all of APAB’s resolutions were passed onto the City Clerk nor City Council making this standardization possible. In some cases, DCP and APAB have overstepped this boundary of autonomy and intervened in elections (NPU J comes to mind but there may be others), probably because of that DCP Assistant Director having some personal beef with a member of NPU J, yet that’s another story for another day. Let’s just say that DCP and APAB meddling in affairs of NPUs and Boards, Authorities, Commissions, Etc. (BACE) across the city isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s kind of an open secret.

APAB exists only because both DCP and NPUs exist. The municipal code defines APAB’s voting membership as either the NPU chair or their designee and sets the APAB voting membership at 25-that number is specified in the municipal code. APAB recognized it was absolutely ridiculous to expect NPU chairs to run their own meetings and then show up monthly to APAB meetings and all their committees therein, so APAB’s bylaws identify membership as NPU Chairs, Delegates, and alternates. This is a potential total of 75 members with each NPU having only one vote to remain in line with the code. APAB serves as an advisory board to the City of Atlanta specifically on, yet not limited to Planning issues- namely the Comprehensive Development Plan that is revisited every five (5) years. Our resolutions can call upon DCP, other departments, and the Mayor and Council themselves to do various and sundry things. APAB is advisory only- the Board cannot legislate, but it’s really kind of dumb not to take up our resolutions- APAB is the best thing the city has so far at engaging the entire city in coming to consensus on anything. 

Because I like to keep it real though: many Atlantans neither know what an NPU is nor engages with it, so even if you bring 25 NPU chairs, their delegates, or alternates together to speak to issues, to assert APAB has infinite knowledge of the city would be a gross overstatement. I find APAB to be a mashup of super involved problem solvers in the city mixed with folks who want an easily checked box for community service. It’s an interesting mix to say the very least. APAB can be as much or as little as a citizen wants to make it. That involvement is largely dependent upon the personalities within APAB and how much they work well with others. I will use myself as an example. I came to the board with a lot of questions and received few answers and a lot of brushing off. I found my questions weren’t the first times these issues were posed and discussed within the body, and the brushing off depended upon leadership’s ability to downplay those questions posed and the board’s reliability in not fact checking DCP and APAB leadership’s assertions. IMHO, I would wager most APAB members saw me as an annoying youngster (most members are 60+) that was trying to make a name for herself by her over zealous interest in the community. I’m not sure if they see me any differently now, but if nothing else, my hope is they pose better questions and check behind everyone- myself included.

There is no question that APAB has an involvement in the planning process of the city of Atlanta. There is a question of how much DCP wants, encourages, and facilitates that involvement. I will point out that DCP shared a powerpoint presentation to NPUs R, S, Q, P, and I to inform them of this dissolution of the NPU. I shared slide images of that presentation in my last piece that were shared with me. I’ve spoken to NPU chairs from R, S, & I since I wrote the last piece. What became very clear to me was that the matter wasn’t fully understood by all that NPU R was being dissolved. I do not fault DCP entirely for that- sometimes people just don’t pay attention. I will however say that it behooves DCP to make everything painfully clear and reiterated multiple times in writing and across platforms to ensure that the message is fully delivered and comprehended. If nothing else, it lessens the opportunity for legal liability.

I will also assert that DCP is fully well aware of citizens’ apathy and unawareness and exploits that. I have heard from many that the marketing/ roll out around this matter could have been better executed. To be fair, the City of Atlanta seems reluctant to update its salary ceilings and budget to reflect the employee’s actual needs. I’m not sure why. IMHO, if we’ve got money for a new Tech guru, we’ve got money for better marketing for NPUs

As an aside- the Technology Association of Georgia along with the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Georgia Tech, and Augusta University are partnering together on a multimillion dollar grant to invest in entrepreneurship in our state. There is specific interest in partnering with our HBCUs and working with already existing tech companies moving/ already located here (think Google and Microsoft). As I offered in a recent twitter thread, it is unclear to me why we keep reinventing the wheel on this issue. We literally have now at least a decade of work to build on of crowdfunding, tech startups, and platform existence here in the city. Why the Mayor doesn’t just chat with the folks around him who’ve been doing the work for some time seems really bizarrely ineffective.

On the opposite end of the scale, it is my personal opinion that DCP is fully aware that the majority of NPU leadership is made up of older people who don’t use technology nor fact checks and exploits this. I find in meetings more often than not DCP plays on the politics of respectability by reasserting the need for “niceness”. DCP repeatedly asserts that questions and feedback can be brought to them yet my questions always seem to be answered with hostility and as evasively as possible, if answered at all.

It seems DCP is well aware of the danger of a well formed question to the status quo.

In the recording from last Sunday’s meeting you can hear me and others point out repeatedly (1:16:33) that DCP could simply email the presentation out if the technology in the room isn’t something they are aware of how to use. If you keep listening, you’ll also hear our Treasurer (at 1:16:58) tell me to “not come for her” when I asked if she listened to the fact that this presentation has already been made to other NPUs. These cheap tricks of evasion by DCP are both insulting to the intelligence of the members of APAB’s Executive Committee and are wearisome, grinding out any drive to push for better in our city. These actions do not contribute positively to the welcoming of feedback or input from the community. If anything, it confirms citizen’s fears of what comes across as a cloak and dagger approach of the city to make changes. 

It is appalling to me that the Mayor allows his citizens to be spoken to like this, and it amazes me that a single department is given so much unchecked influence, but I rest in knowing that now everyone else sees this as well. I believe my questions about DCP’s role is coming more clearly into focus for other APAB members and now they’re acting on it. If the papers offered by council are any indication, it seems Council is now also aware of this unchecked influence as well. While I ask questions directly and in writing, others work silently and behind the scenes. I suppose DCP can take their pick of which they prefer. I’ve always valued the members who forthrightly told me their stance. I’ve always wanted to know my vote counts before bringing them to the body, but maybe DCP prefers those members of APAB who call upon their Councilmembers to ask these questions instead. 

And that brings us to Saturday’s meeting and City Council’s actions thereafter.

The recording here began in the Committee on APAB’s meeting that agreed to ask for APAB’s action on the matter of NPU boundary realignment. You can hear my voice, and the voices of others as we decide what to ask for in the General Body Meeting, which the APAB President calls to begin in the background. That motion came up later in the General Body meeting and had a substitute motion offered by NPU R’s Chair that failed (I was supportive of it). For clarity, that request from the Committee on APAB was “APAB requests that the Department of City Planning involve APAB on the front end, of defining the process for redistricting NPUs, establishing the timeline, and setting a checklist of documentation for the process to help facilitate engagement” .

Disappointingly, DCP has now demonstrated to me a pattern of slow or no delivery of information to the citizens of Atlanta. DCP seems wholly unaware of how this contributes to an impression of duplicity- all of their own making. Most APAB members I’ve spoken with feel like

1)     neighborhood empowerment is good

2)     a realignment of NPU boundaries would be helpful and

3)     have this feeling that NPU R is a “problem” NPU, the latter of which I don’t have any personal knowledge. This is just a regular rumor.

To date, this PDF is the only information I have received as a member of APAB. The website they have set up for it doesn’t offer much more, albeit it does have the dates for public comment listed (no place, time, nor link though). If you listen throughout the recording of the Sunday meeting you’ll hear the DCP Assistant Director promise everyone that she will personally hand-sketch something to ensure we have information by Friday.

Unsurprisingly, APAB received this PDF printed on Saturday morning. As an aside- the first rule of managing expectations is to set them low. Overpromising and under delivering is a recipe for disappointment every time. To be fair, I would assert Atlantans are expecting far less of our city than our taxes should provide, but fiscal responsibility goes hand in glove with accountability, IMHO.

UPDATE: h/t to Adrian Coleman Tyler of Progressive News who recorded the DCP presentation and released it via Youtube. You can find the link to that video here. Channel 26 is the City of Atlanta’s entity for video recording. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, its video begins AFTER this presentation. I’d say this was a coincidence, but I think Peach Pundit readers all are too smart for that.

I’ve learned not to ask questions of DCP. Personally, after posing questions in email, public meetings, and in front of Council members, if they don’t include your feedback, why waste the breath? As I pointed out to a member of the Mayor’s Administration at the beginning of this year, a certain Assistant Director of DCP doesn’t like people to question DCP’s power, and I think that’s a real problem. Namely, because these actions and the way DCP is rolling this NPU boundary change doesn’t align with code. It seems the City Council members picked up on that, for which I’m grateful. Here’s the code I found regarding the NPUs, boundaries, and APAB. I’ve highlighted the portion that discusses the need for Council’s approval, citizen engagement, and the defining of APAB’s membership as 25-based on the chairs of each NPU. If you change the numbers of NPUs, you also change the number of voting members of APAB, which I pointed out in the last piece. If you want to poke around in the municipal code, here’s the link to it online as well.

It wasn’t clear from the APAB Executive Committee meeting on Sunday whether the APAB President was fully aware of this proposed dissolution. And despite DCP asserting that meetings with council members had taken place, their following papers submitted would indicate they either didn’t understand or have had second thoughts once they heard from their constituents. Personally, I find the Dept of City Planning asserts their power in gray areas unless one asserts their power back. They identify “neighborhood empowerment” as a goal, yet in practice I don’t find this to be carried out. In NPU K (my NPU), my neighbors and I asserted that we wanted a particular triangular lot to be rezoned as conditionally commercial- it was zoned as residential. Our planner told me the City tends to see that as spot zoning and doesn’t favor it-even though it was across the street from our park, on a corner lot, oddly shaped for a house, and along a state road. Oh, and other parcels in the same corridor were also zoned conditionally. More recently in NPU K, Howell Station has been in discussions with a particular developer for the Marietta St. corridor to push for more density, better building materials, and to align with the Beltline overlay plan. All of this was circumvented by the developer by using an Special Application Permit (SAP) that was signed off by a planner (not sure if it was NPU K’s regular planner or someone else) without any neighborhood notification- the latter of which is required. I find DCP hasn’t particularly been helpful in the listening to neighborhoods in practice in the past. I’m not sure how reducing the number of groupings of neighborhoods (NPUs) contributes to neighbors being heard better.

The City Attorney also reiterated that the code identified Council’s involvement in this process. That recording is in pieces- I apologize; I attended the meeting to offer a letter from APAB on the redistricting of Council district lines, not NPU boundaries. As the Committee on Council floated between the two topics (which could be helpful to link the two as a matter of process) I recorded and stopped between other topics. You should also be able to find the video online as well. 

Now that Council is involved, some will say this is a victory, others will consider it a loss. I fall somewhere in between. It’s clear to me that the code requires Council involvement and citizen participation. I believe this was outlined for a reason. In my last piece I identified that there was no public comment period, whereas DCP asserts that there exists on-going comment and feedback received on this topic (and any others). I would assert that depending upon who offers that feedback to DCP may depend upon whether that feedback is shared widely or not, contributing to an overall feeling that citizens aren’t ‘heard’. DCP also shared in APAB’s General Body meeting last Saturday that there are certain “immovable dates” of Oct 11th and Nov. 5th for public comment. I think public comment is really important- not just for a dog and pony show, but to help citizens hear from one another and perhaps coalesce around shared goals. 

If the City really wants to address this update of the NPU system in a systematic way vs this piecemeal method, they need to:

1.      Define roles of DCP, NPUs, and APAB within it

2.      Define terms, timelines, and methods of process along with documentation of everything

3.      A marketing plan on how to provide information to citizens

4.      Provide a standardized means of public comment delivery that doesn’t go through gatekeepers that can filter necessary information out. (I may have some experience with this.)

This latter part is pivotal. What I appreciated most about Saturday’s APAB General Body meeting was hearing directly from NPU R’s Chair and a member of their Executive Committee along with NPU S’s delegate. Despite DCP’s assertion that most were in agreement about moving forward with this plan that has yet to be released, I recognized the nuance of their positions-and they seemed to as well. NPU S’s delegate asserted he didn’t want APAB’s involvement to slow down the process of what he sees as a positive movement for SW Atlanta. NPU R’s Chair is in favor of moving the boundary lines and dissolving the NPU. It is my understanding that there is a group of “oligarchs” that dominate NPU R within the Campbellton Rd. corridor. The NPU R Chair sees DCP’s dissolution of NPU R as helpful for moving the area forward, even at the sacrifice of his personal chairmanship, APAB involvement, etc. The NPU R Executive Committee member stated in public comment that he saw this process of dissolution as picking on a “soft target” and that there were many like him who did not see this dissolution of the NPU as beneficial.  Divide and conquer seems to be an effective tool of the city. Like the highway system before it, these roads serve as dividing points now-made-into-spines of neighborhood boundaries and it would probably behoove the folks along them to be united- not divided lest they be forced to compete for the city’s resources.

I find these perspectives about NPUs are all pretty common across the NPU system and the city of Atlanta. Some Atlantans (like myself) see the NPU system as necessary and potentially helpful if improved. I am sort of an anomaly though in that I am 40, middle class, and white. Most of my economic and racial peers and the 40 and under crowd aren’t in favor of the NPU system. They see it as a mechanized NIMBYism as well as just a group of whiny Karens. Many Atlantans would prefer to rid the city of the NPU system. These folks neither feel their voices are heard and they are impatient with the older folks who seem to be most involved yet adverse to change. IMHO, this is where if previous APAB resolutions of standardizing comments from the public had been heeded, folks might feel differently. So too, if you’re affluent in Atlanta, you only engage with the City when you need it or it encroaches upon your pursuit of happiness.

DCP seems to be aware of those that see the utility of the system- older, less affluent, often Black and Brown, although not exclusively. In fact, in Sunday’s Executive Committee meeting I found it somewhat humorous when DCP asserted that ‘Buckhead didn’t need help’…and didn’t ‘cause problems’. Except for that whole city-wide succession thing. And that state-wide ban on densification compliments of the northern members of the Atlanta delegation. I mean, that seems like a problem to me upon which the previous Commissioner decided to exit stage left

I do not live in NPU R. I also don’t want Peach Pundit readers to interpret my words as speaking for them- quite the opposite. I want the City of Atlanta to be forced to hear them LOUD AND CLEAR in all of their diverging opinions. It is my opinion that the only way citizens can hold DCP accountable is through their Council members. I think it’s important that these citizens and their neighbors are the ones whose voices should be amplified to DCP and to Council. 

I fear the past will be repeated if we don’t learn from our mistakes. I reside directly off of MLK Jr. Dr. Under the Reed administration, my street was repaved with medians that don’t allow my neighbors to turn left out of their driveways and don’t allow emergency vehicles to pass around stopped MARTA buses, UPS, Fed Ex, and fire trucks. While the intention and theory may have been a good one, the application of this plan was not. Instead of slowing down traffic, cars race to beat the gauntlet the medians create, and sometimes don’t make it. The sign directly in front of my home has been beaten severely and was toppled in the short 2 years it’s been placed there due to the number of cars swiping it. And the left turns happen- now they just occur as unlawful U-turns. This could presumably have been presented if the city had received public comment. My husband and I tried to attend as many meetings as we could and spoke up about what we were seeing. Yet nothing changes. I expect the same for the Campbellton Rd. corridor.

In addition to the actions of Council yesterday, I want to call attention to a few things that were highlighted in the Saturday APAB General Body Meeting that I fear folks may have missed. Namely- DCP said this NPU boundary change is supported by the Mayor. That tells me this idea has legs and probably money to make it happen. This is yet another wedge between the Mayor and the Council, which seems problematic. The focus DCP presented in both the APAB Executive Committee meeting and Saturday’s APAB General Body meeting is on SW Atlanta because DCP (and presumably the Mayor) see this change as a means of delivering resources to this area. I highlight this for a couple of reasons that I didn’t share in a previous piece:

  • The new Planning Commissioner comes with a resume that has ties to Dekalb County and the Collaborative firm. If you are unfamiliar with the latter, it is the firm of Michael Hightower- a previous Fulton County Commissioner and I would liken as the partner to the Council for Quality Growth. While the Council for Quality Growth largely works in white spaces, the Collaborative Firm works in Black. As an aside, I met Hightower when I worked with Dekalb County. He is an incredibly astute businessman, humble, and is a far better embodiment to me of the city’s ‘Too busy to hate’ phrase. 
  • The grant I referenced earlier via TAG, RCIE, Tech, & Augusta University will provide generational wealth opportunities if maximized. The development of SW Atlanta’s workforce and the Atlanta Hustle is a pivotal; component of activation of this opportunity. While I don’t know that an NPU boundary change will further this opportunity, I know not engaging SW Atlanta in this would be a missed opportunity of interlocking economic development that would be tragic for the region- not just Atlanta alone.

To me, there are means of empowering neighborhoods without dissolving NPUs. I feel like this dissolution of NPU R is a bizarre assertion of DCP power that has the mark of someone or some group outside of DCP. It isn’t clear to me who or what, but despite the assertions of DCP’s Assistant Director of NPUs that this is uniquely her vision, it seems rather glaringly obvious it isn’t if she is getting opposed by Council at this point- and seemed unaware of Council’s required involvement as written in code when I questioned her about it in Sunday’s meeting. At 57:26 in the recording you can hear me question DCP. Subsequently, DCP asserts that another NPU will be created, just that it’s not a part of the Southwest realignment. This realignment is supposed to happen, then another NPU is to be created and code changed- concurrently. 

It’s all about as clear as mud to me.

At a previous gathering last year I actually asked the Mayor if he would consider providing DOT planners to NPUs much like the DCP planners- to facilitate the actual planning of the transportation corridors and neighborhoods around us. Economic Development flows along effective transportation routes. I mean, our ENTIRE CITY came out of a railroad crossroads. I’m not denying that transportation and planning go together- I’m just saying the people who live there deserve to have a clearly outlined process for how they get to offer feedback and how that feedback will be incorporated in the plan that has yet to be released yet already has immovable dates. I need someone to make that make sense to me.

I asked Atlantans to contact their city council folks, and clearly they did. 

Now I hope Atlantans will likewise call upon their Council members to do the good work of defining DCP’s role more clearly within the space of NPUs and APAB so that this situation doesn’t happen again. I hope they ask their council members to not throw in the towel of NPU system updates, but to build out a clearly defined process (with LOTS of citizen input) on how the NPU boundaries can be realigned across the city instead of doing this in parts. I hope Council uses this opportunity to deeply think about how they’d like their city designed to facilitate growth, density in stages, affordable housing so current residents aren’t displaced, and economic development for everyone- especially in those areas that have been hustling just to be heard for far too long. 

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