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Then There's This: Time Flies

Dave Sullivan is ready to pass the torch ... just preferably not to a 'gray-headed Anglo'

By Amy Smith, Fri., April 27, 2012

Dave Sullivan
Dave Sullivan

Dave Sullivan achieved a major milestone on April 11 when the city Planning Com­mis­sion that he chairs passed, on a 7-0 vote, the voluminous Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, which the City Council will get its first look at today (Thursday, April 26) when it receives a briefing from staff and sets a public hearing for May 24.

Sullivan's second major turning point will be his just reward. Approximately 60 days from now, Sullivan will knock off early, leaving the commission he has served on for 16 years, before his term expires in July 2013. So if you're a young urban planning and policy enthusiast who wants to help determine the city's course – ideally with Imagine Austin as a roadmap – start polishing your résumé and get your application in to the office of Council Member Chris Riley, who will make the appointment.

The unpaid position requires considerably more time and commitment than the two Tuesday evenings a month that the panel meets, meaning Sullivan will have some free time on his hands. He's considering his options – playing softball, maybe, or volunteering for the Red Cross or the food bank at his church. "Or maybe I'll move to another commission," he says.

Sullivan has been talking for some time now about passing the torch to a member of the next generation, but the chief reason he has extended his stay is because he wanted to see the years-in-the-making comp plan through to its final adoption. People who invest that much energy into a forward-looking project like this one start to think of it as their baby after a while.

Change Happens

Anyway, it's easy to fear the worst about an enormous plan for growth that spans more than 400 pages. But, as people behind Imagine Austin keep reminding us, the plan has built-in flexibility that can be updated and amended over the years. "The bottom line is that we're doing a comp plan with a 30-year horizon," Sullivan said the other evening as he walked his bicycle down the street with one hand and talked on his mobile phone with the other. He was headed from Dean Keeton to a bus stop on Martin Luther King Boulevard to take the bus home from work, part of his hybrid commute from his job in Northwest Austin. "A lot of people are alarmed that there would be so much change over the course of their lives. Of course, when you think about it rationally, that's bound to happen. If you're 40 years old, you know that the world was a lot different in 1980 than what it is now," he said. "So the point is that change will come about, but when you actually show it to people, it can be alarming – and I get that. I'm sensitive to that."

Indeed, if someone were to have told Sullivan in 1994 – his first year on the commission – that he'd still be on the same panel more than a decade later, he would probably have been horrified.

"But you know how it gets, time flies as you get older," he says. "I think about how my wife used to bring my daughter – she was born in 1995 – so the first time I was on the commission [between 1994 and 1999], she was bringing my little infant daughter to the old City Council headquarters and hanging out in the back while the meetings were going on."

Different Sensibilities

Sullivan left the commission in 1999 to help craft his neighborhood plan in old West Austin. Meanwhile, the city was growing so fast that the commission was having trouble keeping up with the pile of cases. So it was split into two bodies – the Zoning and Plat­ting Commission, and the Planning Com­mission. With the two commissions in need of more members to fill the seats, former Council Member Jackie Goodman wooed Sullivan back to the commission in 2001, and he's been on it ever since. "I think at that time it was probably Daryl Slusher who actually appointed me," he recalls of his comeback. It was Max Nof­ziger who first appointed him to the commission, then Slush­er, then Lee Leffing­well, Randi Shade, and now Chris Riley. "I hope I didn't leave anyone out," says Sullivan, who works as a research scientist at the UT Center for Ener­gy and Environ­ment­al Resources, based at the Pickle Research Center.

Since Sullivan was relatively young when he joined the commission, he'd like to see someone younger than him fill his seat. "I'm 54, and the thing is ... I complain very often that many of the decisions are made by gray-headed Anglos, and we're all college-educated. We need young people growing up who have different values, different sensibilities, and are more diverse. I'm not talking about somebody right out of college, but definitely young people with different life experiences who will be around longer."

At this point, Sullivan's bus rolled to a stop, and he had to hang up. He was headed home.

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