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Then There's This: Tuning In to Austin

Before revising land code, city performs field work with 'Code Next'

By Amy Smith, Fri., Sept. 27, 2013

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City planning staff and a team of consultants spent this week hosting a trio of "listening sessions" across town, gathering details about what residents like about their everyday stomping grounds and what they'd like to see changed – or not changed at all.

You may recall that the City Council last year adopted the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, a road map for how and where the city is to grow. At the time, several neighborhood leaders expressed their ambivalence about the plan possibly usurping their existing neighborhood plans. After obtaining assurances from staff that Imagine Austin would not trump the groundwork that neighborhoods have already laid, Council adopted the measure on a unanimous vote.

Needless to say, there's still a fair amount of trepidation out there, but it's on to the next step – Code Next, to be precise, a branding name for this week's listening tour and other field work that will help shape the overhaul of the city's 30-year-old Land Development Code.

As George Zapalac, development services manager for the Planning and Development Review Depart­ment, explained this week: "Our existing code has been amended hundreds of times over the years, in piecemeal fashion, but we've never taken a comprehensive look at how all the various amendments impact each other." To best illustrate how much things have changed since the 1984 adoption of the current land code, Zapalac finds it useful to show a photo of the first Macintosh that Apple introduced the same year.

The first session kicked off Monday at Bowie High School in Southwest Austin, an area of town that can be described the same way as the campus itself: big, sprawling, and comparatively new. From Bowie, the city took its ear to more urban environs – Kealing Middle School in East Austin on Tuesday night, Lanier High School in North Austin on Wednesday night.

I attended the first meetup down south and was surprised to see people there from all corners of the city – not counting the overwhelming number of city employees on hand, as well as City Hall regulars, many who serve on an advisory group formed to make recommendations about the code revision process.

After Zapalac's opening remarks, Daniel Parolek of Berkeley, Calif.-based Opticos Design, the lead consultant on the Code Next project, provided an outline of what's involved in the code revision effort, a four-step process that's expected to end in a proposed new land code going to a new Council sometime in 2016. "This process is more than about creating a [land code], it's really about maintaining and creating great places ... the types of places you all love," Parolek said. Perhaps in an attempt to tamp individual neighborhood concerns, Parolek said part of the consulting team's work will involve fanning out across the city to "extract the DNA of Austin neighborhoods to try to pull out what makes those characteristics unique; this is very, very important to tie that to Imagine Austin." The design consultant also encouraged attendees to start thinking more creatively about housing – what he terms affordable "Missing Middle" housing – small-scale infill developments such as duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts that offer more housing choices in neighborhoods.

At the breakout sessions that followed, tablemates were asked what part of town they live in, where they work, where they hang out, and what they like or dislike about certain parts of town. Transportation may not have been the designated topic of the evening, but traffic congestion (and the absence of urban rail) was easily the most reviled citywide characteristic that came to mind for most attendees. In the round-robin discussion, neighborhood activist Cory Walton, who lives in the Bouldin Creek community, went first, and said he preferred leaving the existing code the way it is now – but enforced. Another person at the table agreed that the city grants too many variances. A man from Southwest Austin allowed that many residents either chose or were forced to move out of Central Austin in search of larger, family-sized homes, schools, or simply because they were priced out and couldn't afford to live anywhere else. The problem with Southwest Austin, he said, is that it doesn't have the destination spots more readily available to Central Austin residents. He'd like to see something other than chain restaurants in his neighborhood, he said. A newcomer who said he moved to Austin from the Washington, D.C. area just within the last week noted he was already overwhelmed by the traffic, but he was happy with the dining and entertainment options available in North Austin's Anderson Lane area.

At the table where I sat, it was clear that several participants, regardless of their philosophical beliefs, don't hold much love for city government. An Oak Hill woman said her Southwest community has been hamstrung by an inability to move forward and progress. She cited the paradox of a highway system – US 290 and SH 71 West – that's unencumbered by environmental rules while the same rules prohibit new development from going in. "The development in Oak Hill is old, we've lost [a sense of] community, and," she added in exasperation, "Imagine Austin ignores the 'Y' in Oak Hill" – the landmark where 290 and 71 converge in a commercial area. Sure enough, a closer look at Imagine Austin's growth concept map doesn't recognize it with any future-use concept.*

To be sure, staff and consultants got an earful this week. And that's just the beginning of what's supposed to be a similar series of city-sponsored listening sessions between now and January. Stay tuned for a schedule.

*The city's George Zapalac contacted us to follow up on the Y’s role in the Imagine Austin plan. He writes: “The Growth Concept Map in the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan identifies the area around the Y as one of five activity centers for redevelopment in sensitive environmental areas. The plan recognizes these centers as already-developed areas with ‘opportunities to address long-standing water quality issues and provide walkable areas in and near existing neighborhoods. State-of-the-art development practices will be required of any redevelopment to improve stormwater retention and the water quality flowing into the aquifer of other drinking water sources.’ [Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, p. 106.] The intent is to encourage redevelopment of these areas as activity centers while ensuring protection of groundwater quality.”

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