The Road to Somewhere

Citizens' Planning Committee Draws a Map

by Louisa C. Brinsmade

Twenty-two people can change the world. Or at least the small world of Austin. That's the goal of the Citizens' Planning Committee, a group put together by the city council to look at Austin's urban planning process, or lack thereof. Since their mandate began a year and three months ago at Councilmember Jackie Goodman's urging, the CPC, a dangerous mix of environmentalists, developers, urban planning hacks, neighborhood leaders, and city commission leaders, emerged, limbs intact, with the beginnings of a plan of action. It's a 12-point program (see sidebar) that seems to make sense of the messy confrontation we call development in Austin. With that beginning, the CPC members -- all volunteers by the way -- went out into the community to develop actual changes in policy and process, which are scheduled for presentation to the council by January 31. The name of the game is "implementation," CPC members say, and if that is accomplished, theirs will outdo every other "master plan" created for Austin. Maybe you weren't aware this was even going on -- but you can bet your neighborhood association does. The 22 CPC members are divided into six subcommittees, in the areas of:

* development process;

* linkage of land use and transportation;

* urban core;

* neighborhoods;

* intra-government cooperation;

* parks and environment

These subcommittees are working on specific recommendations for the city council. To help them with ideas, they've recently asked the council to form several task forces with interested citizens and city staff. Things are moving apace, and the council seems willing, almost thankful, that someone's taking charge of this mess.

The CPC made their first progress report to the council at a work session on November 29. Committee member Darwin McKee, who is also chair of the city's Water & Wastewater Commission, outlined the city's problems with the development process. Pointing to a chart, McKee noted that in its current state, the process is: 1) the result of decades of evolution; 2) fragmented, with geography separated and information isolated; 3) unpredictable; 4) repetitive, since all projects involve rework; 5) lacking in communication; 6) confrontational; 7) rooted in distrust.

"The history [of the development process] is based on a case-by-case basis. It's unconnected and leads to a cumbersome and complex process," says McKee. He adds, "For example, a person starting out would need to get 63 permits or authorizations to get through the process. Overall, there are 49 sections of city and 12 departments that impact the development process. Our goal is to reduce that to a point where persons involved in development can have a reasonable way to get through that process."

When McKee and the other CPC members talk about smoothing out the development process, however, they're not just talking about meeting developers' needs. The picture is a lot bigger than that. Their goal is also to have an overall comprehensive plan for land use in Austin. That will require an overhaul of several city codes and regulations, including the land development code, the development process, and permits and fees. A plan as big as the one the CPC envisions will also include building a model for land use in each sector of the city, with mixed-use development, transit, pedestrian and non-motorized-friendly designs, and preservation of Austin's inner-city core and historical neighborhoods all a part. The CPC is even advocating fee and tax abatements for downtown and East Austin, and wants more leniency in the code for redevelopment projects in those areas. Transit planning just by itself is a huge part of the move toward a "sustainable compact city," says Heimsath. Although he won't commit his whole-hearted support to Capital Metro's light rail proposal as is, he says he sees it as "a tool we need to look at closely." As for other transit methods, Heimsath takes the modern urban planners view: that highway overbuilding has to stop, and our focus as a community must shift to accommodate public transit and non-motorized pathways. (See story on the state of Austin transportation on page 26.)

Many of the CPC's recommendations in their 12-point (that's point, not step) program are understandable in light of Austin's sprawling growth patterns, and much of it is palatable to even the most jaded of our community. But none of the CPC recommendations will be quite as fraught with controversy, gnashing of teeth, and infighting as the one dealing with neighborhood power.

Along with streamlining the development process, the CPC wants to, as they say, "empower" the neighborhoods. Part of their recommendations, and the focus of the subcommittee, is to create a better neighborhood representation structure, and to give legitimate neighborhood associations the authority to make the call on development in their community. Right now, anyone can register their group with the city and become a neighborhood association, despite overlapping territorial boundaries. This causes confusion when opposing groups claiming the same neighborhood come before the Planning Commission and the city council. In January, the CPC will recommend that a neighborhood association data base be created, and that city staff sort out all of the current registered groups to determine which ones really represent the majority of residents in their area. At that point, the CPC will recommend the creation, within each neighborhood, of an overall land-use plan supported by the designated neighborhood association, with city staff liaisons, to be ratified by the city council.

The neighborhood plans would have to be adhered to by developers with proposals for projects and by the associations alike. Changes in the plan, supported by the developers or the associations, would be hard to come by, especially if a development fits into a plan's land-use patterns. The CPC wants a process that's inclusive, where all the "stakeholders" -- i.e. neighborhoods and developers both -- "share accountability" for what happens in a given area.

Such plans will be built from what Heimsath calls a "community design charrette process," which he defines as an "intense collaborative design session, used to evaluate different alternatives and development design and plans to capture the shared vision." The charrette "visioning" program, which will come up with ideas for how to design a land-use plan for a neighborhood, is being led by Kent Butler, the director of the University of Texas' regional and community planning department. Butler is currently running a design charrette program through mid-January. (For all you urban planning and neighborhood association junkies, see the end of this article for a number to call for info.)

The structure for such an empowerment of neighborhood groups is enormous, much larger than the one we now have, and will require city staff support and the eventual creation of a "community council" to oversee and approve the neighborhood plans as part of a larger regional plan. The regional plan, since it will require the cooperation of several organizations and governmental bodies outside the city limits, will likely take years to develop. At this time, however, and into the near future, says Goodman, the Planning Commission will have to serve that function until such a regional plan can be worked out. Reception to the CPC's plan has been somewhat cool for at least one regional organization -- the Austin Transportation Study committee chose not to get behind the CPC's 12-point program -- but Goodman, who is on ATS, says she's not giving up. "We need to talk regionally. I wanted to get the ATS to adopt the [CPC's] plan, because they're an existing regional body. In their next meeting (February 12), I'm going to ask them to adopt just points 11 and 12." Those two points deal with the City of Austin helping outer communities coordinate growth, and having taxing jurisdictions and governmental entities coordinate planning.

That's a lot of public hearings -- to get the neighborhood input, and the regional input necessary to build this structure -- and that's exactly the point, says Goodman. "We want neighborhoods to have power. The developers have a legitimate gripe, but we don't make that better by taking public review out of the process. Otherwise, we're going to ferment confrontation." As Heimsath told the mayor at the work session when Todd raised the issue of some neighborhood leadership excluding developers from presenting projects at association meetings: "As the current Hyde Park president, I can assure you, there is another frustration equal to the one you described, and that is, all the work and time that's gone into an organization like ours, in planning and having good standards and reasonable solutions, and unfortunately no chance to say anything about it to anybody until the very end of the process. So, sometimes, perhaps we sound like we're complaining, but that's because we had essentially a system that never allowed us to interface, in any way, until it's too late."

The group is basing this model of neighborhood representation and power on the one used in Portland, so highly touted by urban planners. (For details, see The Austin Chronicle Vol. 15, No. 16, Dec. 15 cover story on the Portland model by Mike Clark-Madison.) Although the CPC's plan appears to have the full support of the city council, a highly developed neighborhood system here, with the authority to call the shots, is not looked upon favorably by all. "There are some rumblings among developers who are doing fine under the current system," says Heimsath, "but they'll have to explain to the public why staying where we are is better."

Developers who like the status quo are not the only source of opposition to neighborhood empowerment -- our local daily has problems with the idea, too. In an October 29 editorial, the Austin American-Statesman decried the bureaucracy that will likely be created by a highly intricate neighborhood system, and the cost incurred from city staff hours working on neighborhood issues. Goodman commented that the editorial stance taken by the Statesman does not please her, but that she understands their concerns. "There's been opposition from neighborhoods to some of the language in the draft of the CPC. Cecil Pennington [chair of the CPC's neighborhood subcommittee], did a trial run on how a neighborhood association would be organized, and got into overkill. But we're confident some of that can be easily changed." Over the next few weeks, Pennington told the council that his subcommittee and the entire CPC membership will continue to hear comments from neighborhoods, community leaders, and organizations about what they'd like to see in the CPC's recommendations to the council in January.

Staying where we are is not an option to members of the CPC. As Heimsath told the council, "Austin needs practical and pragmatic solutions. The only interest we have is in getting these things implemented so that the real world makes use of them. The consequences of not having these implemented, to heck with my volunteer hours, is we have decisions being made now and in the near future which are going to be either good decisions based on choices that we benefit from, or else we miss the boat. And Austin will go down the path of many, many American cities where the inside city is flat or craters, and the outside perimeter rings have more growth than they know what to do with. That pattern is already here, and we must take active change now to work on it." n

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