City of Dreams

Visions in Earlier Austin Plans Not Unlike Our Own

by Mike Clark-Madison

In the beginning, there was mud, an unruly river fed by unpredictable creeks, and hills and "fertile and gracefully undulating woodlands" whose beauty was remarkable even then, and General Burleson's tiny settlement of Waterloo. Then Mirabeau Lamar, vice president of the Republic of Texas, came by on a buffalo hunt, liked what he saw, and -- upon becoming president in 1839 -- helped swing sentiment in the Republic toward building a grand new capital (in his words, a "seat of Empire") in this Waterloo place. And Austin was born.

City planners past and present claim proudly that, in the words of the 1958 Austin Plan, "Austin was in a very real sense a `planned city' from the outset." Yet one need not go far outside the confines of the original townsite to find evidence that belies any such claims. For the first century or so of its life, Austin had no real planning at all, nor access to the sorts of planning tools -- zoning, subdivision controls, limited-purpose annexation, extra-territorial jurisdiction, a Planning Commission and public input thereto -- that form the skeleton of today's planning process.

A Long Line of Plans

Perhaps making up for lost time, starting with the 1928 City Plan, Austin has undertaken six city-wide comprehensive planning efforts -- three in the last 20 years -- along with a herd of special-purpose plans for downtown, the lakes, the creeks, the Eastside, transportation, and the like, and seemingly numberless proposals by local architects and planning officials, some followed, some not. Of the Big Five, only three have been adopted as presented -- the City Plan, the 1944 Moore Plan, and 1977's Austin Tomorrow.

The fourth -- the 1958 Austin Plan -- was rejected by the city council, but formed the major basis of the Development Plan crafted by city staff and adopted in 1961; this was later augmented by sub-plans for watersheds, community renewal (the so-called "Workable Programs" called for by the federal Housing Act), and the controversial 1967 Expressway Plan that nearly destroyed both Clarksville and the Inner Eastside. The fifth major planning enterprise, the behemoth Austinplan of the mid-1980s, was presented to council with great fanfare in November of 1988, only to collapse under its own weight and the ill will of those opposed to its 100 pages of land-use rules.

The Austinplan ended up being demoted to "guideline" status; one of its prescriptions, for a major planning review five years hence, leads us to Plan Number Six, the current effort of the Citizens Planning Committee. This body of citizens and board-and-commission chairs has made its preliminary report to council, and is now charged with making revisions to the Land Development Code, to point Austin toward such holy grails as mixed use, neighborhood-based planning, and a compact city.

Given the sorry fate of Austinplan and other recent reinvention efforts -- like the 1990 R/UDAT (Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team) report on downtown renewal, which begat a flurry of recommendations and proposed new capital projects, almost none of which have been implemented -- city observers wish the Citizens Planning Committee good luck and Godspeed. Given that, from the get-go, Austin has grown faster than its city leaders have expected, with dramatic shifts in the town's economic and demographic makeup, and that so many outside factors affect Austin's evolution -- the environment, the state's political climate, and the economic fortunes of Texas as a whole, to name three -- creating a master plan for the River City has given fits to many generations of planners and civic leaders.

Perhaps as a consequence, Austin's previous attempts at master-planning have oscillated between rigorous utility -- proposals so down-to-earth that they're obsolete as soon as the ink is dry -- and far-reaching, sometimes downright vaporous ambition. As, in later years, the plans became the province and product of huge committees -- the Austinplan adoption committee included well over 100 people -- they've tended to be both gritty and flighty at the same time. Indeed, when reading documents like Austin Tomorrow, Austinplan, and the R/UDAT report, one wonders why it wasn't someone's job to ensure consistency in the scope of the proposals -- one chapter will include policy directives to alter specific street intersections, while others will include, at the same level of policy directive, such nostrums as "Reduce auto traffic."

As much as by Austin's singular internal and external influences, the city's plans have been shaped by trends and models in planning nationwide and worldwide. When laying out Lamar's "seat of Empire," Judge Edwin Waller (later to become Austin's first mayor) took his lead from Washington, D.C. -- the nation's first truly "planned city," then still largely under construction -- and made his streets 80 feet wide, with Congress Avenue 120 feet wide. This was absurdly large for a little frontier town, capital city or not, but Waller's largesse has shaped Austin transportation planning ever since, largely mitigating any need for new high-volume arterials in the downtown district. (A large part of the 1928 City Plan deals with widening streets feeding into downtown, which then, as now, were not big enough to handle their status as arterials.) From City Beautiful to Technocrats The 1928 plan, by the Dallas architectural firm of Koch and Fowler, was shaped by two major contexts. One was the then-recent action by the Texas Legislature allowing cities to implement zoning and subdivision controls; the plan includes models for both, including five progressive zoning classifications (that is, Zone B equals Zone A plus other stuff) that aren't site-specific, along with height and setback requirements, suggested street widths and parkland requirements for subdivisions, and other basic tools of the planning trade.

Complementing, or competing with, this focus on utility was the national trend, then at its tail end, toward grand urban-planning gestures, and though Austin was still a hamlet compared to the big Northern burgs, the Koch and Fowler plan includes such "City Beautiful" hallmarks as a civic center complex, a sizeable rail passenger terminal, a "modern" airport (where Palmer Auditorium now stands), and an extensive series of parks, parkways, and landscaped boulevards doubling as arterials. (The planners took great pains to justify such extensive parkland dedications by noting that the land in question was poorly drained or otherwise unsuitable for "all but the cheapest sort of development." While some of the Koch and Fowler planned parks exist today, others are now the locale for long-established developments, many of which are not what we'd call cheap.)

Conversely, the 1958 Austin Plan, crafted by Harold Wise and Associates, reflects an entirely different set of planning precepts. By this point, City Beautiful considerations had been sublimated to more technocratic aims, and the premier role of architects and landscape designers had been supplanted by a new class of professional city planners armed with vast arrays of demographic data. The Austin Plan drips with statistics -- every item considered seems to come with its own survey, charts pop up on every other page, and recommendations quantify such issues as the capacity of individual garbage trucks and the desired amount of retail floor space in the central business district.

Wise number-crunched his way through a substantially longer list of issues than did the Koch and Fowler firm, including economic development goals, an extensive discourse on parking requirements, and a utilities plan; while the council declined the Austin Plan in toto, it did incorporate its largest sections -- on land use, circulation/transportation, and public facilities -- into the 1961 Development Plan.

And Tomorrow Never Comes

The same issues formed the jumping-off point for Austin Tomorrow, which began as a process in 1973, presented the guts of its recommendations for adoption in 1977, and issued its final report (with implementation criteria) in 1980. Austin Tomorrow is still the master plan in effect for the City of Austin, although it wasn't until 1985 that the city charter was amended to require we have one. (It was in response to this amendment that Austinplan later came to be.)

Austin Tomorrow was the first of the city's plans to be a committee project, and its scope ended up being much broader than any plan before -- in addition to transportation and parks, the glossy document has policy chapters on the environment, housing and neighborhoods, government services, health and human services, and economic development. Instead of discussing land use directly, Austin Tomorrow leads off with a chapter on urban design, which -- like the rest of the document -- incorporates about every buzzword and trendy planning concept to emerge from the social-service revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. (The largest single section of Austin Tomorrow in its book form is actually the glossary, which guides the reader through then-novel concepts like "multi-modal," "impervious cover," "human resources," "native plant material" and "Community Development Block Grant.")

It has become an article of faith to debunk Austin Tomorrow as a pipe dream, or to castigate the city for so thoroughly ignoring its prescriptions, depending on your political perspective. This impression is in part due to Austin Tomorrow's temporal place at the beginning of the planning era from which we're now emerging -- since we're still talking about water quality, neighborhood conservation, and mass transit, the plan must have come to naught. But that isn't entirely true. And, of course, the Austin Tomorrow era has been dominated first by boom times that outstripped the city's capacity to respond, and then bust times that eliminated much of city government's power of the purse.

Nonetheless, the vision espoused in Austin Tomorrow, which its authors expected would be nearly reality by now, has been deferred. Some of the language has dated, some of the prescriptions are way too vague, and some of the major topic areas -- like housing and neighborhoods -- definitely need to be revisited. And the whole document could be tweaked to deal with areas like Downtown and the Eastside in specific detail, rather than through city-wide conceptual generalities. But these are not what you'd call rocket science, and the Austin Tomorrow vision seems congruent enough with the Capital City's dominant moderate-progressive paradigm to make one wonder why we've labored so mightily, not once but twice, to replace it. If we focused ourselves on coming up with an up-to-date implementation plan for Austin Tomorrow, we might have a damn fine city.

The More Things Change...

But then again, it's remarkable, looking over Austin's planning history, what little difference 70 years makes. From 1928 through the present day, plans have consistently hit upon the same points. Austin's environmental heritage, or at least its scenic beauty, are unique and should be preserved and highlighted. Downtown should be a mixed use, pedestrian-friendly, human-scaled district dominated by the Capitol and well-served by mass transit. Austin needs to promote a diverse economic base, build more neighborhood parks, empower its citizens in the planning process, and do a better job keeping up its streets. (Even the Koch and Fowler plan complains about street maintenance.) And no matter how much energy the city spends on keeping itself compact, it needs to control regional development, because growth will come. While some of the actual means and tools being discussed in connection with today's planning effort, like density controls and urban growth boundaries, are novel, the concepts underlying the New Austin vision aren't as revolutionary as we might think.

And it still may be too early to say that previous plans have failed us. One of the recommendations in the 1928 City Plan was that the city eliminate the one-block jog in Guadalupe Street at 19th -- today's MLK -- which, 67 years later, earlier this year, it finally did. Aspiring and ambitious city planners should remember that time is usually on their side. n

Next week: "Council Watch" reporter Alex de Marban looks at the city's land code revision recommendations, and "Hearth & Soul" columnist Suzy Banks shows us how to maneuver through the city's planning department for home renovations and infill projects.

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