Over the next week or so, tens of thousands of people will descend on Austin, and many of them will experience an epiphanic moment and decide to move here. The Austin-or-bust-moments that occur this time every year are just one small but meaningful example of how Austin has become one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Bearing in mind that the population is expected to double over the next three decades, it's important to have a plan.
Call it serendipitous or poor scheduling, but the Planning Commission will hold its first public hearing next week on a new comprehensive planning document to address how the city is going to accommodate the new arrivals without losing sight of the folks already here. The hearing is set for March 13 (6pm at City Hall, barring last-minute changes), which happens to land during the South by Southwest Film Festival, on the last day of the Interactive Festival, and the evening the Music portion begins. It'll be interesting to see how many people brave the crowds and bypass the stimuli to weigh in on a lay-of-the-land vision of how the city wants to grow.
The Comprehensive Plan – called Imagine Austin – is a joint effort by the city's planning staff and a truly dedicated group of citizens that started working on a vision two and a half years ago and produced roughly 400 pages of enterprising ideas and goals, as well as guidelines for implementing them.
When Imagine Austin made its public debut last September, the prevailing criticism was that it wasn't really a plan but just a skeleton of ideas. With that criticism and other feedback, the Citizens Advisory Task Force hunkered down again, meeting 25 times since October, to flesh out those ideas and provide mechanisms for actual realization. The plan is unique because of its built-in flexibility, which allows elbow room for annual evaluations and major revisions every five years. Not everyone on and off the citizens task force was happy with the final document, and we'll likely hear more specifics as the process plays out, first from the Planning Commission and then City Council.
On Feb. 21, the task force voted to approve the document, and a week later, the task force and city staff formally handed the voluminous result to the Planning Commission. First up for introductions was Greg Guernsey, director of the Planning and Development Review, who added a personal, nostalgic touch as he recalled buying his own copy of the 1979 Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas in the early Eighties. Guernsey quickly recapped the city's actions that followed the Tomorrow Plan – a series of significant charter amendments in the mid-Eighties, the creation of another citizens task force in the mid-Nineties, and then the celebrated launch of a neighborhood planning process in 1998. Imagine Austin, he said, is a continuation of the journey that started with the Tomorrow Plan.
Some task force members spoke next, starting with former District Judge Margaret Cooper, charged with riding herd over a large group of people with "different points of view" but nonetheless "very tolerant of one another." When she wrapped up, committee member and political operative Mark Yznaga addressed the commission. "It's a bit of a testament that 10 members of the committee would come here and urge you to support this plan," he said. "It says how much the plan has improved and how much it deserves your support." Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin, told the commission that the city, with its wealth of talent, should have no trouble putting together a brain trust to help execute the plan for future generations.
Enough with the feel-good stuff – get to the controversy, already. The most pleasant surprise (for some of us) is that a hotly debated road plan – State Highway 45 – was removed from Imagine Austin's growth concept map (posted with this story online). The road would link FM 1626 in Hays County to an existing arm of SH 45, traveling a route that crosses the Edwards Aquifer. Its placement on the map at the Imagine Austin release party last fall caused a good deal of consternation among task force members, who had removed it from the plan because it doesn't jibe with the Imagine Austin transportation vibe of crosstown connectivity by way of sidewalks, bike lanes, and rapid transit. We'll get into more detail about the road and other key elements of the plan later on. But for now, you can Imagine Austin all you want at www.imagineaustin.net.
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