Lynette Grant didn’t know developers were building a new apartment complex in her community before attending the latest Neighborhood Planning Unit meeting Wednesday night.
Grant was one of about 30 resident members of NPU-R who participated in the most recent monthly Zoom call to weigh in on issues happening in their predominantly Black, southwest Atlanta district, which includes Adams Park, Campbellton Road, Fort Valley, and Greenbriar.
Some on the call expressed concerns about how a new residential complex will affect traffic and parking density in the area. Others worried about zoning changes that allow developers to build apartment buildings with more affordable housing units in parts of the city where Black single-family homes have existed for decades.
Protecting their homes, both from gentrification and an influx of low-income housing, has been a major concern for Black legacy residents in NPU-R, according to its chair, Donovan Dodds.
“Part of the problem in some of our communities is that legacy homeowners who have been engaged in the NPU previously have lost a lot of faith and a lot of hope in the NPU system,” Dodds said.
Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson created the NPU system nearly 50 years ago to give residents a voice in the city’s development process. NPUs are advisory councils tasked with telling Atlanta leaders how constituents feel about issues affecting their communities, including the potential opening of new businesses, construction of residential buildings, public safety concerns, and zoning changes.
Today’s NPU leaders say Black participation and engagement at meetings is increasing this year, thanks in part to recommendations officials included in a best practices report finalized last September. However, some NPU chairs say city officials have been making zoning rule modifications that could change Atlanta forever and have a disproportionate impact on the city’s traditional Black population.
NPU problems and best practices
The size and makeup of each of the city’s NPUs varies. The same goes for leadership structure and how meetings are run. City residents have complained that NPU meetings are disorganized, unfair, and have unclear rules of engagement.
Dodds said some NPUs don’t allow community members who attend meetings to vote, or even speak, on policy matters.
“Some NPUs have a representative voting system,” Dodds said. “One person is elected per neighborhood and they are responsible for presenting their issue to the rest of the board.”
He said legacy residents in his district remember when NPU-R leaders avoided ceding power to new members and often disregarded input from their residents. In the past, that reputation discouraged many from participating in meetings.
“There’s essentially the old guard of the NPUs who have been relatively in control for the last 10, 15 years,” Dodds said. “Because I was young when I came in, they assumed they were going to be able to pull the strings in a way they weren’t able to when I [became] chair.”
City Council member Byron Amos introduced legislation last year requiring the Department of City Planning to create the report. Amos said he came up with the idea after hearing complaints about how some NPUs were being governed.
“I felt as if there should be some baseline on how all NPUs should be run,” Amos said. “These are pretty much guidelines or a road map on how the NPU should be structured, but we’re still leaving a lot of it up to the individual members of the NPU to have some type of autonomous voice.”
Department of City Planning staffers spent several months drafting their list of best practices after discussing what works and what doesn’t with NPU leaders throughout the city.
Their nine-page document outlines ways to make NPUs run better. It includes guidelines for assessing an NPU’s overall health, conducting efficient and transparent meetings, running fair board member elections, and improving communications with the public.
It also offers tips for conflict resolution methods to settle disputes between members and leadership, and ensuring elements of the city’s comprehensive development plan are adequately explained to and addressed by NPU members.
The CDP is city leaders’ blueprint for shaping how Atlanta will look and run in the future, including where certain types of houses, apartment complexes, businesses, and public transportation facilities will be located and operate.
It also outlines the city’s long-term priorities for a community, all of which can be addressed during NPU meetings. Some NPUs began implementing some of the city’s recommended best practices long before the document was finalized, according to Dodds, who began serving as chair of NPU-R in January after winning election in November.
Other best practice recommendations include performing annual internal reviews and membership polls to gauge how well an NPU is performing its duties, using Robert’s Rules of Order during meetings to keep heated discussions from spiraling out of control, and encouraging residents to participate in NPU committee meetings to better influence related projects.
Leah LaRue, the city’s assistant director of neighborhood planning, has worked with the NPU program for more than three years. She said the best practices report so far has been “very well received” by NPU members and leaders.
“This project was long overdue and the Department of City Planning was excited to take the opportunity to work with the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board to curate these practices into one document, which we hope will make it easier for residents and community leaders to work together to build safe, healthy, connected neighborhoods,” LaRue said in an emailed statement.
Sagirah Jones took over as chair of NPU-X — which includes Capitol View, Hammond Park, Perkerson, and Sylvan Hills — in January. She says the best practices guidance regarding leadership transition has helped her assume her new leadership role.
“We had a transitional meeting for the executive committee,” she said. “That was one of the biggest things that’s important to implement because that hadn’t happened before.”
Virtual meetings boost Black attendance
The recommended best practices include empowering residents to speak on issues raised during the public comment portion of meetings and making it easier for them to participate.
One official said socioeconomic factors make it much harder for many Black people to participate in the NPU process.
Some have lower-paying jobs that require them to be at work when NPU meetings take place. Others don’t have anyone to watch their children while they attend meetings. Many Black senior citizens have physical challenges that prevent them from traveling to in-person meetings.
But continuing to host virtual meetings has made it easier, NPU leaders say, for Black residents to join the conversation.
Most NPUs began hosting virtual meetings in 2020 during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall attendance at NPU meetings rose 51% between 2019 and 2022.
Anne Phillips chairs NPU-Z and also serves as president of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, a separate body made up of representatives from each NPU district that advises city leaders on how community members feel about neighborhood and citywide policy changes.
“It makes it a lot easier, too,” she said regarding Zoom meetings. “If you get bad weather, a pipe bursts in the building, something like that, then the chair has to scramble when you’re doing things physically in person, a lot of times.”
Phillips says it’s too soon to know how well the NPUs are adopting best practices, but participation in the process is becoming more critical as the city continues to gentrify. There is also concern from NPU leaders about legislation introduced by the City Council that would implement zoning changes that affect predominantly Black areas.
“Until the city makes it clearer in terms of what it intends to do and what areas they’re going to not try to gentrify with this zoning rewrite plan, they’re going to have issues with the residents,” Phillips said.
NPU recommendations are nonbinding, meaning city leaders don’t necessarily have to do what they say. Jones says that remains an area of concern for NPU participants, who often find out about zoning changes in their communities after they’ve already been authorized.
“Sometimes people feel like the [rug] has been taken out from under them because this change has happened and no one knew,” Jones said.
Amos said the city isn’t likely to increase NPUs’ power anytime soon, and it’s not something he would support right now.
“[After] we see how these best practices … how they’re affecting the current NPU system, then it may be something we can talk about at that time,” he said.