Neighborhood Soup

The ghost of Austin appeared quickly on July 15, as 13 community groups made pitches to the Planning Commission for the two open slots in the city's pilot neighborhood planning program. As the first speaker for the first applicant wrapped up the first paragraph of her presentation, she described her coalition thus: "Basically, we're the old Sector 12."

Austinplan lives! Or at least it didn't die in vain. A decade ago, thousands of people spent more than three years putting together a weighty and detailed comprehensive plan for the Capital City, and within it "sector plans" (Sector 12 among them) addressing neighborhood concerns in block-by-block detail. And then the city council, in the teeth of vehement developer opposition and general public distrust of the big and far-reaching, spiked the whole thing. This left us with Austin Tomorrow, the noble, relevant, yet useless Seventies urban vision that's still the official and charter-mandated city plan. And when you look at Austin today, "well-planned" is likely not at the tip of your tongue.

Austin Tomorrow describes in fine detail an exemplary urban feast, laying out a menu of objectives that still appeals to Austin's tastes. But what we've needed is a cookbook for that feast, preferably one that starts by telling us how to boil water. Instead, we've had the weekly theatrics at Planning Commission and council, as citizens, developers, and the folks running this town try to cook up that banquet by trial and error in an ill-equipped kitchen. With each and every case, the community, and specifically its chefs and sous-chefs in city government, have to remember what we did last time, how it looked and smelled and tasted then, and decide whether we can do it again without ending up on the carving board with an apple in our mouths.

Austinplan was the first attempt to write the cookbook, but its recipes were a bit heavy and exotic for Austin's meat-and-potatoes tastes. Those tastes have since changed. The city has doubled in bulk, the kitchen is under new management, and people no longer want seven-course planning meals like Austinplan. Instead, they want to graze and nosh, bake bread one day and eat take-out the next, mix the new ingredients with the familiar staples. This is what "neighborhood-based planning" means today, and each of the 13 neighborhoods currently competing for the pilot program -- even if they aren't selected this go-round -- will end up being the hors d'oeuvres. Their success in coming up with the right recipes, the most appealing flavors and textures to the Austin palate, and the best techniques for creating them, will -- supporters of neighborhood planning hope -- leave us hungry for more.

Clearly, choosing two neighborhoods from the 13 contestants (see p. 20 for the full list) is going to be difficult, and the Planning Commission's approach has verily defined "deliberate." The commission's final recommendation to the city council has been postponed twice and is now slated for August 12, after the neighborhood-planning staff in the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department (PECSD) has time to prepare its recommendations. Several commissioners' terms will have expired by then, but the council is not likely to replace them until the commission chooses the pilot neighborhoods. Any parties aggrieved by the commission's choice will have less than three weeks to lobby the council, which wants to make the final selection by the end of August, and thus make any needed changes to the city's Fiscal Year 1998 budget, which will be adopted in mid-September.

Make the Plan Stick

And what do the selected neighborhoods get? It depends on what they want. There are some ingredients, of course, that are common to all proposals. Naturally, everyone wants help from professional planners on the city payroll. And everyone talks, at least in some ways, about the new planning verities -- sustainability, a compact city, New Urbanism, mixed use, and so on. And everyone sees themselves as a good model for other neighborhoods, which is the idea of a pilot program.

But more than all that, everyone wants to give their visions for their neighborhoods the force of law. (This is pretty much all that Hyde Park wants.) A year or so from now, the two completed pilot plans will be presented to the Planning Commission and city council for their approval, at which point they become bona fide sections of the Land Development Code. Not everyone is convinced that means a hill of beans, since Austin Tomorrow also has the force of law, yet the city it envisions does not exist anywhere in this time zone. But at least until the next council elections in 1999, the city's neighborhood establishment is the ruling political party, with dependable supermajorities on both Planning Commission and council, so don't bet the farm on another Austinplan debacle.

"From the very beginning, we wanted the project to find its way into a legitimate, legally binding framework -- whether that be a city ordinance, an administrative policy, a council resolution, or something else," says Jeff Jack of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, part of the team who created the pilot project. "There's a lot of different things that can be in a neighborhood plan -- if the plan calls for regular tree trimming, that's administrative, but if it calls for rezoning, that's an ordinance. But either way, it would be legitimized. I don't think many neighborhoods understand the power they would have."

There are over 300 groups in the city's Community Registry -- the NA master list -- so a lot of folks have passed on the first course of the neighborhood-planning banquet. Besides any doubts about the plans' ultimate value, it's already hard work simply to oppose bad ideas, and a lot more work to come up with good ones to take their place. Few of the contenders in the pilot project are starting from scratch; in some cases, like the South Central applicants, the primary task of the planning team will be to bring existing ideas and projects together. The application process was designed to be both simple and flexible, requiring only filling out a five-page form, so that less seasoned neighborhoods would apply. But judging from the applicant pool, the pilots will likely take place in neighborhoods that already know most of what they want, and that have been working hard for years to make their wishes come true.

That dynamic may change when the rest of the city sees some developer's dreams dashed to hell. "The education here will come, I hope, when the Austin City Council says a project isn't consistent with an adopted neighborhood plan, and thus won't move forward," says Carol Barrett, head of PECSD's neighborhood planning staff. "Citizens in cities that have neighborhood planning don't see their commitment as excessive, because they know the respect with which the plans are treated. When citizens here see that as the outcome, they will participate, because they know it will count for something."

Competing for a Place at the Table

United East Austin Coalition member Lori Renteria (far right) with other members of the Cesar Chavez team. Renteria told the Planning Commission that all seven groups within her team's planning area would be invited to participate if the area was chosen for the pilot -- even the neow-reviled light-industrial properties targeted by the new East Austin zoning ordinance.
photograph by Jana Birchum

That glorious future isn't reserved for the two pilots alone. The city aims to adopt any plan that follows the criteria set forth in the pilot project -- a broad-based leadership team, regular communication, a focus on specific and feasible issues, compatibility with other neighborhoods, and the like. (We shall see if plans that don't meet these criteria, from the likes of the lately bloodied Austin Revitalization Authority, will conversely be tossed.) Beyond that, the PECSD has promised technical assistance -- mapping, statistical data, etc. -- to all neighborhoods that applied. And those not selected this time will get some priority in future years, when more funding might be available, presuming they haven't by then completed plans without the city's help.

All that aside, the choice of pilots is inherently competitive and a little political, and some neighborhoods already enjoy an advantage in the selection process. It's already been semi-decided, for instance, that one of the two slots will be filled by an East Austin applicant. And it's on the Eastside -- with the El Pueblo Network and East Cesar Chavez applications -- where the taste of politics is most evident.

Right now, all is calm between El Pueblo and Cesar Chavez; the applications have been presented as small and large, depending on the commission and council's size preferences, just like the three South Central applications, which were planned that way from the outset, while the Eastside ones weren't. Originally, Cesar Chavez was just one of El Pueblo's pueblitos; its solo application came to the city under an angry cover letter bailing out of El Pueblo entirely, which seems to have been ignored or forgotten.

This is irrelevant without knowing the players involved -- Lori and Sabino Renteria, whose United East Austin Coalition is the core of the Cesar Chavez team, and Robert Donley and Gavino Fernandez of El Concilio, which plays a major role in the El Pueblo plan and which has long claimed the Cesar Chavez/Holly Street area as its turf. (Almost all of the Cesar Chavez planning area falls within the East Town Lake -- headed by Donley -- and Barrio Unido NAs, both members of El Concilio.) This is one of Austin's longest-running neighborhood rivalries, and any effort that sees UEAC and El Concilio sitting at the same table for a year will be viewed with at least mild surprise.

Bouldin Creek NA's Kit Krankel says that residents of the South Central Coalition of Neighborhoods fear gentrification will push out South Congress' funky shops.
photograph by Jana Birchum

The Cesar Chavez team knows this, which is one reason why it includes two neutral facilitators from the UT planning program. "Our area has been generally neglected because of traditional disunity," Lori Renteria told the Planning Commission on July 15. "Everyone has been hands-off. That's why we're working with everyone, including the LI property owners" -- the now-reviled light industrial properties targeted by the new East Austin zoning ordinance (see sidebar). "And every group within our planning area can be part of our leadership team. There are seven groups in the Community Registry that include Sanchez Elementary. We intend to invite them all."

El Pueblo knows the virtue of cooperation as well, but that's a given for a proposal that covers nearly 20% of the city. If political expediency were the prime mover here, El Pueblo -- led by PODER's Susana Almanza, who in the wake of the recent East Austin "industrial use" zoning battle is currently the city's Number One community activist -- would certainly get the nod. But its vast size will likely keep it from being selected in its current form, if only because such a huge project would quickly drain PECSD's limited resources. (The council is free to alter the boundaries of the areas it selects, so a truncated El Pueblo would still be a contender.)

All hands are still wrestling with what, philosophically, is the ideal size of a neighborhood to be planned. The draft rules for the pilot set the target area size at 30 blocks or 5,000 residents -- which, if they're supposed to be equivalent, presumes a higher density than most of Austin has. But 5,000 people is consistent with today's planning trends -- indeed, it may even be on the high side. (One of the basic postulates in the 1977 book A Pattern Language, a holy text of the new planning pros, is the "Community of 7000," made up of neighborhoods of between 500 and 1,500 souls.) After the draft rules were reviewed, the 5,000-resident rule was demoted to a guideline, and now we have at least four applications -- El Pueblo, Oak Hill, and the larger two South Centrals -- that far exceed that number, and at least one -- Walnut Creek -- which bailed out, claiming to be too small.

If the resources at hand and the stamina of the cooks hold out, having a big plan and a little plan -- or two plans that differed in another, equally fundamental way -- would bring out the full flavor of the pilot project. "The point of having pilots was to illustrate the principles necessary, and if it were up to me, I'd like the selections to represent the outer ranges, based on the principles we're trying to prove," says Citizens Planning Committee leader Ben Heimsath. "If one has to do more with land use, it sets up a prototype for land use, and if one has more to do with social service delivery, it sets up that policy prototype."

Of course, in a "neighborhood" the size of El Pueblo or South Central, you're looking at questions of land use and service delivery -- and infrastructure, and public safety, and transportation, and economic development, and environmental and historic preservation, and urban design, and on and on. Of the two, South Central -- especially the "middle" application, with its natural focus on the South Congress corridor -- may be more practical for a pilot, since the component neighborhoods have already been working on the component issues, like prostitution and crime on South Congress, the economic revitalization of that corridor, and traffic around Auditorium Shores and Zilker Park.

"There's an incredible love and concern for the neighborhoods, and an incredible diversity of people and places," said Laura Toups-Berland of the South Central Coalition in her presentation to the Planning Commission. "It makes the community special and also points to our needs. We need the validation of an adopted plan to continue working together to enhance the community, but we can start by bringing years of work and dialogue to the table."

Conversely, the smaller applicants offer a chance to do a few things really well. In the Chestnut application, which does focus primarily on service delivery, "the small size of the neighborhood is intentional," said Jeff Travillion -- local NAACP director and member of David Chapel -- in his Planning Commission presentation. Noting that Chestnut had been identified by the city's Community Action Network as "one of the most affected by socio-economic problems," the David Chapel team is looking to "work with people instead of groups," said Travillion, "to develop community networks between organizations. We want the stakeholders in our neighborhoods to define their needs as consumers of social services."

Likewise, Hyde Park -- which most observers, including members of the Planning Commission, think already has an "official" neighborhood plan in the form of a special-zoning Neighborhood Conservation Combining District or NCCD -- actually is looking for help through the home stretch of the laborious NCCD process. The neighborhood, famed for its attention to urban design details like the placement of garages and the location of trash pickup, is used to being seen as "the model neighborhood, where everything planners now want to create already exists," said Karen McGraw of HPNA at Planning Commission. "But everything making up that vision is at risk -- there are no protections for anything in Hyde Park. Bad development can threaten every positive pattern in Hyde Park, and it could happen tomorrow morning." This is why the "official" status of the adopted pilot plans is so appealing up on the Avenues.

A central-city neighborhood like Hyde Park or Clarksville also gives the project a chance to show that smaller is better -- by promoting responsible infill development for a compact city, the taste Austin craves most. "Right now, we have a pattern where big development eats up lots of acres," says PECSD's Carol Barrett. "We don't have a commonly understood vocabulary for smaller-scale compact infill. We need to find those examples and build support for them from the neighborhoods up. Our goal of sustainability includes compact development and higher density as options, but we don't have a plan saying where or how it's going to happen."

If they don't go for big-and-small, the Commission and Council could go for old-and-new. "We could see one project that looks at perennial problems in East Austin, and another that focuses on issues in more recent developments," says Heimsath. The prime example of the latter is certainly Oak Hill, and it's heartening to see Southwest residents so clear-eyed about the planning problems there -- problems those same residents are often blamed for by uncharitable Central Austinites.

"The rapid sprawl is dramatically affecting the native environment, the existing neighborhoods and business districts, and the historic character of Oak Hill and Deer Park," said Deer Park West NA leader Jamie Wise in support of the application, noting that the National Wildflower Research Center overlooks a formerly bucolic landscape that's fast becoming spoiled. "We realize that such a large area presents broader planning concerns, but we need an opportunity for constructive planning -- a humane alternative to sprawl -- and we need it quickly, and this is the best chance."

A Back-Door Master Plan

Mary K. Isaacs, who helped formulate the Oak Hill/Deer Park proposal, argues that explosive growth in her environmentally sensitive area makes it a natural for the planning project.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Choosing between all these flavors is hard enough. What may be even harder is assembling them into the cookbook for a balanced diet -- that is, a comprehensive plan that guides macro- as well as micro-development in Austin. "I don't think you'll be able to paste together the neighborhood plans into a citywide plan, because the neighborhoods each have different issues that are more important to them," says PECSD's Carol Barrett, echoing one of the lingering knocks on Austinplan. "But they would establish the framework for a comprehensive plan -- I suspect we'll end up with a hybrid of neighborhood plans, and then the neighborhoods will ask the city for broader guidance on broader issues. We'll meet somewhere in the middle."

In other cities that cook this way, most famously Portland, Oregon, the smaller "neighborhood plans," which focus on Hyde Park-esque urban-design issues, form larger "community plans," which deal with transportation and infrastructure and such, and these in turn make up the city's comprehensive plan. The large and small applications may allow for the pilot to address both "neighborhood" and "community" issues. "The seams between the squares in the quilt -- the neighborhood plans -- are the transit corridors, the waterways and watersheds, the major public facilities like parks and libraries," says Heimsath. "Ultimately, those will have to be dealt with systemically, and any local decision is going to have to match a city policy. But we can jump-start those policy decisions through these prototypes.

"But it's absolutely part of our strategy that we're back-door master-planning," Heimsath says of the CPC's expectations for the project. "We asked how we could prove to the city that overall, coordinated planning doesn't have to be sinister and foisted on the neighborhoods by developers, or unwieldy and all-at-once like Austinplan. Some of the interests and jurisdictions that make the big regional decisions" -- like the Austin Transportation Study -- "are going to have to change the way they make those decisions, so that the local plans can fit into a regional framework that they helped create."

If any one of those interests is opposed to neighborhood planning, they're being pretty quiet about it. "I'm looking forward to it, because it would certainly make my job a lot easier," says Greg Guernsey, current-projects manager with the city's Development Review and Inspection Department and referee of the Tuesday night fights at Planning Commission. "It builds in the predictability that everyone likes to see -- the developer, the incumbent property owners, the residents. They can anticipate that the property is going to be developed a certain way."

The hard work here might be selling the concept to the citizens themselves. As we've seen with the Triangle, one neighbor's meat is another's poison -- the NA leadership team that's been working to improve Triangle Square sure looks like it would create a good neighborhood plan, but now faces revolt from within its ranks. And as Sanchez Elementary's location within seven NAs points out, too many cooks may end up spoiling the neighborhood broth.

"Whoever the leadership team is, they have to do their homework to make sure all the neighborhood is participating," says ANC's Jeff Jack. "You're never going to get 100% consensus, but you need to get consensus on the areas where there already is some agreement. That way, you won't have eleventh hour opposition" from neighbors who feel left out.

The project envisions the pilot teams remaining in place to implement and update their completed plans, which would likely mean that these teams, and not individual citizens or their NAs, would be the folks whose views get heard and accepted by the City Council. This isn't going to please some NAs, especially in places like East Austin where many groups compete for the same turf, but it's more pleasant than the alternative -- a standardized system of NAs, where each citizen is part of one and only one neighborhood group. This was considered, but quickly abandoned, by the Citizens Planning Committee. "It doesn't have to be just one neighborhood voice, but there has to be one answer and one action," says Ben Heimsath. "There can be multiple organizations, but they should have a consistent response to each issue and solution."

For all the spills and messes we'll see, as a new set of cooks starts working together in the neighborhood kitchen, the menu will -- one hopes -- be a lot closer to everyone's tastes than we've ever seen before, and the supporters of neighborhood planning hope that will ensure that everyone cleans their plate and comes back for seconds. "Fundamentally, the process could be the most democratic thing we've done in our political system for a long, long time," says Jack. "It gives power back to the people, asks them what they envision for their future, and mandates our elected officials to deliver on that vision. That's a plus for everybody."

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Mike Clark-Madison
Austin at Large: Back (and Forth) to the Future
Austin at Large: Back (and Forth) to the Future
At some point Austin history will stop looping upon itself. Until next time …

March 17, 2023

Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late
Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late
It’s going to be sad, so sad, when Mayor Pete’s money comes if Austin’s not ready

March 10, 2023

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle