Then There's This: This Isn't Portland

Comprehensive plan takes a public beating before council approval

By Amy Smith, Fri., June 22, 2012

Mary Arnold
Mary Arnold
Photo by John Anderson

Is Austin trying to be something it's not? Not everyone thinks so, but a fair number of people who spoke at last week's hearing on the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan advised the city to re-examine its priorities for growth – and stop trying to look like Port­land, Ore., wonderful city that it is. The comp plan, they said, should seek to look more like Austin.

And although the City Council unanimously approved the 30-year plan, many of the dozens of people who signed up to speak registered their opinion as either against or neutral. After two-plus years in the making and a splashy marketing push, Imagine Aus­tin still ended up on the receiving end of several hours of criticism. Austin is one tough crowd.

On the bright side, Council Member Chris Riley made the motion to approve the version of the plan that had been worked over and blessed by the Planning Com­mis­sion, meaning that the dreaded "dotted line" that marked State Highway 45 in southwestern Travis County is officially off the "growth concept map," and that existing and future neighborhood plans will trump Imagine Austin.

Just to make things perfectly clear for the city staffers charged with implementing the road map, Council Member Laura Morrison inked in a handful of amendments that commit to:

Protect the character of neighborhoods and environmentally sensitive areas;

Respect the neighborhood planning process;

Ensure consistency with Future Land Use Maps within adopted neighborhood plans;

Recognize the economic value of small, locally owned businesses;

Request that the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization delete SH 45 from its 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. (No one really believes that this action marks the end of the road for SH 45, but, Morrison said later, "it clarifies a formally adopted vision for this city ... the fact that this city is going to work toward that goal with our regional partners is to me a specific action that's more than symbolic."

Imagine That

Interestingly, some of the plan's harshest critics turned out to be several of Austin's doyennes of leadership and civic activism. They were united in their belief that the plan's language and growth map effectively dismiss the people and things already here and instead serve as a guide for disassembling and rebuilding a brand new city for the benefit of the 750,000 newcomers expected here over the next 20 years. At least two of these women of a certain age, Joan Bartz and Mary Arnold, had served on a Seven­ties-era citizens committee that crafted the original Austin Tomorrow Plan, which the city promptly shelved. "Nothing appears to have changed in the past 40 years," Bartz said, referring to well-intentioned citizen efforts that are often co-opted by "bureaucrats and special interests" who want Austin to look like Port­land or Seattle. "'Keep Austin Austin' – that should be our motto," she said.

Arnold echoed those sentiments: "Austin is different because of its geographic and natural resources and configuration. We do have some things that we can compare with other cities, but we need to make it all our own," she said. "Right now, it seems we're just busy making plans to tear things down rather than to preserve our historic structures and preserve our ­environment."

University Hills Neighborhood Association President Vera Givens told council, "The plan's emphasis is on the newbies ... at the expense of citizens who have supported Aus­tin for generations." She says she is especially concerned about the future of multigenerational housing in Austin's Northeast and East neighborhoods.

Land Grab

It was fitting that Ora Houston, a lifelong Austin resident and member of the comp plan's citizens advisory task force, was the first to speak. She was not there to champion the plan – she had registered her position as neutral – but rather to contrast and compare Imagine Austin to the city's 1928 comprehensive plan, which forced a once-vibrant African-American community to pack up and move east of what is now I-35. "This plan, like the 1928 plan, does very little for people who have limited or no resources," she said. "People with no power continue to be displaced from areas where rent was once affordable, homeownership a possibility, and forced to move somewhere else. Like the '28 plan, this new Austin is predicated on land grab – from people who are resource-poor and can't say 'enough is enough.'"

Houston went on to say that Imagine Aus­tin shows little imagination when it comes to preserving and rehabilitating affordable housing units. Instead, they are deemed "blighted and substandard" and therefore eligible for demolition and redevelopment – "code for 'land grab.'" In other words, she said, "expelling the 'have nots' so that the 'haves' can develop the land.

"I guess I'm not neutral after all," she concluded.

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