In Memoriam, Leon Eplan, FAICP


Leon Eplan, FAICP, inaugural president of the Georgia Planning Association, died on 15 April in Atlanta. Eplan was a singular force in Georgia planning for more than 50 years, serving as Atlanta’s planning commissioner twice, president of the American Institute of Planners, and director of the city planning program at Georgia Tech. His legacy is broad and deep; his influence as a mentor, role model, and friend touched many.

A fourth-generation Atlantan and proud graduate of Boys High and Emory University, Eplan entered the planning profession at the University of North Carolina and following military service, joined Phillip Hammer’s consultancy and later Eric Hill Associates. He spearheaded Atlanta’s first neighborhood revitalization plans for Ansley Park, Vine City, Sherwood Forest, Adamsville, and Peoplestown and was a leader in the original design of MARTA. Eplan’s TSADS concept was the first system-wide planning for what we now know as transit-oriented development. He prepared the economic feasibility study for the original Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, later regretting the displacement that project caused.

Eplan was the first president of the Georgia Chapter of the American Institute of Planners (AIP), now the Georgia Planning Association; then vice-president and later twice president of AIP nationally, steering AIP’s merger with the American Society of Planning Officials. 

Serving as Commissioner of Budget and Planning under Mayor Maynard Jackson from 1974 through 1978, Eplan launched Atlanta’s annual Comprehensive Development Plan, Atlanta’s first Bikeway Plan, and set up Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) system, pioneering a new approach to citizen involvement that became an often-copied national model and which remains influential today.      

Eplan directed the Graduate City Planning Program at Georgia Tech beginning in 1978 and continued to teach there and later at Emory until 1990. Active in housing policy, he chaired HUD’s national conference on Reducing the Development Costs of Housing and was influential in Georgia’s state legislation on affordable housing, manufactured housing and state-wide building codes, and the creation of the Georgia Residential Finance Authority. He helped draft the national legislation setting up the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. 

Mayor Jackson brought Eplan back into city government as Planning and Development Commissioner in 1991 with the intent to prepare for the 1996 Olympic Games and to leverage those games in order to transform the City. During this term, the city achieved resolution of the 24-year dispute over the Stone Mountain Expressway, prepared Atlanta’s first Leisure Services Plan, completed a master plan for Piedmont Park, and created the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership.

Eplan and colleagues laid out the original plan for an Atlanta Streetcar system, was among the first designers of a Clifton Corridor streetcar proposal, prepared a North Georgia commuter rail network, and actively promoted high-speed rail between Atlanta and Chattanooga.  

With convictions for walkable/bikeable streets, public transit, citizen participation, affordable housing, green infrastructure, and the richness a diverse citizenry brings, Eplan was a planning visionary. “Leon was both a man of his times and also ahead of his times. Many of his ideas that were too much a stretch for the traditional thinkers of his day are now helping to transform cities,” said former Southface Institute president, Dennis Creech.

Paul Farmer, FAICP, recalls Eplan as especially gifted at expressing complex ideas with clarity.  In a group of big city planning directors in the 1970s, Farmer asked that they describe their overarching goal: “Eplan’s response? ‘We are trying to make the city tolerable to live in, and, I guess, the basic common denominator there is to design a city where you can raise a child.’”  

Eplan’s influence on the planners and community members he befriended, counseled, and mentored stands beyond his impact on projects, plans and communities. Open space planner Jodi Mansbach recalls, “Leon is the reason that I became a planner. What I most remember about him is his almost childlike curiosity combined with deep knowledge. He had almost a devilish grin when he told stories – and they weren’t short – but he always liked to listen and learn too.”

Randy Roark, FAICP, knew Eplan nearly fifty years, “Along the way he provided me many heated debates but also an abundance of his legendary twinkly-eyed optimism, both cherished gifts. I owe him a lot but I love him even more.”  Eplan, Roark, and Michael Dobbins, FAICP, are co-authors of Atlanta’s Olympic Resurgence: How the 1996 Games Revived a Struggling City, released by Arcadia Publishing and the History Press this month. 

Leon Eplan is survived by his three children, Elise Eplan (Bob Marcovitch), Jana Eplan (Craig Frankel) and Harlan Eplan (Jen Denbo), as well as six grandchildren. Dan Reuter’s hour-long interview with Leon Eplan, prepared as part of GPA’s Georgia Planning History project in 2008 is online