To the surprise of many, it was Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman who provided the swing votes in the 5-2 first reading approval. Both are seen as neighborhood-friendly, both are conducting petition campaigns to get on the ballot for the May council election, and neither can be too happy about the calumny being directed their way this week.
But if you're going to rake the council over the coals, don't do it over this narrow issue -- as important as it may be for the development of the Guadalupe corridor. Instead, roast them for the underlying cause: Because over the past year or so, the city has systematically gutted its own city-planning functions, leaving it unable even to defend its own planning interests.
Six years ago, Jackie Goodman announced that she would run for council for one more term, with the specific aim of completely reinventing the city's Land Development Code, which everyone agrees is unwieldy, poorly organized, and often ambiguous. The LDC rewrite, as you may recall, was for a while supposed to be Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell's baby. But after a couple of years of foundering on the shoals of detail, that approach was abandoned in favor of the much-ballyhooed Neighborhood Planning process, under which neighbors would work with city planners to develop locally appropriate standards all over the city.
But now, council has pretty much abandoned that effort as well -- amid staffing cuts and organizational sleight-of-hand. And we're back to the bad old days of council fighting out individual cases on the dais, largely in the dark, except for the advice of lobbyists on either side.
I mean, here we are, talking about rezoning a whole block of prime "smart growth" real estate, atop a crucial car-bike-ped(-rail?) nexus, and the one question no one is asking on the public's behalf is: What's the best mix of uses for this site? What sorts of development could work economically while complementing the neighborhood and best serving the literally tens of thousands of people who will be affected by the decision?
Those are legitimate questions for city planners to ask when considering a zoning change, because zoning is among the most profound and long-range planning tools the city has. And the city has no obligation to grant a change in zoning if it's not convinced that the new zoning is in its best interests. But of course, the city doesn't really have planners any more, and its planning tools are all out on loan to anyone who can still afford a lobbyist and a construction crew. So North University/Hemphill Park doesn't have a comprehensive plan, city staff doesn't have time or money, and no one really knows if this will be a good project or not.
Me, I can see both sides. I think it probably makes a lot of sense to put extremely high density on this specific tract, given its strategic location along the Drag. But is a luxury apartment complex the right thing to put there? To me, the monolithic use doesn't sound like a good fit for the street, and the parking garage would exacerbate an already messy stretch of 29th Street. But would more retail, or less parking -- or any of a hundred other conditions the city could demand in return for the massive density -- be the subtle touch that would make all the difference? I dunno. Neither does the Planning Commission (which turned this proposal down), and neither do Daryl or Jackie. And there's no one on city staff whose job it is to figure it out. How do you like that?
Here's a modest proposal: Put a moratorium on all zoning changes that fall outside of established neighborhood plans -- unless they can be incorporated into such plans or have the unanimous support of the surrounding neighbors. Let's live with that for a while, and I bet we'd get some action on real planning reform.