The Austin Chronicle

Corner to Corner

Top Ten Neighborhood War Zones of 1997

By Mike Clark-Madison, January 9, 1998, News

1) Northwest Corridor. People are selfish, and "community" is an almost meaningless word in today's age of entitlement. Such the annexation fracas has taught us, if we didn't know it already. Sadly, the Northwest Corridor is the last place we, as a "community," can afford to have endless mistrust and conflict, or else the whole U.S. 183 strip from MoPac to Leander will become the slums of tomorrow.

2) The Triangle. Hyde Park will never be a slum, and a lot of us are ready to stop caring what happens to the Triangle. But Central Austin's neighborhood spat of the decade has opened up two cans of Texas-size worms: the State's dictatorial power over development of its Austin lands, and the inherent inadequacies of the city's current neighborhood association system.

3) East 11th and 12th Streets. Most of Austin stopped caring what happens to East 11th and 12th decades ago, which is how a self-selected group of outsiders could appoint themselves "the community" and claim the corridor as its personal property. This is what each side in the dispute over the Austin Revitalization Authority thinks about the other, so this fight will go on forever unless a peace treaty is imposed from above, i.e., the city council.

4) Onion Creek. Many Onion Creek neighbors have had their property effectively condemned by the city's Drainage Utility, which last year decided the floodplain was much larger than previously thought. So imagine the surprise when these same neighbors found themselves battling a proposal to build Austin's largest trailer park -- excuse us, "manufactured housing community" -- along the self-same floodplain.

5) The Red Line. Folks who own vacant land along Capital Metro's proposed light-rail line think it's a great amenity; folks who already live along the tracks think it's a dreadful menace. Right now, the latter seem to have won, since light rail proved the catalyst for the near-destruction of Capital Metro.

6) RM 2222. Traffic, traffic, traffic. The Road to the Lake is already carrying more cars than it should, and things will get three or four times worse if all the approved development along 2222 actually gets built. Did this stop the city from trying to broker a sale of Balcones Canyonlands property along 2222 for more mega-development? Of course not. Go figure.

7) Riverside Drive. The threatened closure of the Riverside branch library further reinforced Southeast Austin's identity as the Land the City Forgot. That is, the city forgot that all the boomscape, all the people in the apartment complexes thrown up without regard to planning to fill in the spaces between the tax-abated tech campuses, would actually need city services like libraries, or parks, or decent roads.

8) East Cesar Chavez. Oh, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Perhaps to illustrate just how difficult the neighborhood planning process can be, the city picked for its first pilot plan an area that's been divided for years in a turf battle between rival neighborhood activists.

9) Downtown. With all the suits clamoring around the R/UDAT and Heritage Austin and the new Downtown Initiative, it's easy to forget that Downtown is a neighborhood, and that these efforts are actually front lines in a battle to keep it that way, instead of draining the life from the central city to make it an attractive "destination."

10) Deer Park. The battle between the incumbent homeowners in this Southwest subdivision and the new developer, Kaufman and Broad, hinges on narrow legal questions, but the larger issues it raises affect everyone on the perimeter: What kind of development do we want in the New Austin? And who gets to decide?

Top Ten Reasons for a New Comprehensive Plan

1-10. See above list.

Ten More Reasons for a New Comprehensive Plan

1. Embarrassment. The plan we have, Austin Tomorrow, is over 20 years old, which means that today is Austin Tomorrow's "tomorrow." Safe to say that Austin Tomorrow hasn't had the power of a drunken gnat in shaping today's Austin. Even Round Rock has a more recent general plan (adopted in 1990).

2. Regional cooperation. If the next two decades are characterized by the same city vs. suburb hissy fits that go on now, we can kiss the boomtimes goodbye, along with thousands of acres of land and scores of neighborhoods (and entire towns) destroyed by bad development. Ultimately, most of our satellites -- Round Rock, Georgetown, Cedar Park, San Marcos -- have been (at least a little) more serious about long-range planning than Austin. A region is a terrible thing to waste.

3. Infill, infill, infill. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. The city is working on code changes to make infill easier on its end, but we have yet to create an incentive for a builder to contend with lousy central-city traffic, cranky neighborhood associations, rival development interests, and deteriorating public services. A comprehensive plan that was actually followed -- even Austin Tomorrow talks about infill -- would at least make this possible.

4. Traditional Neighborhood Districts. The same truth shadows the city's attempt to promote "good development" -- i.e., sustainable, livable, NewUrb stuff -- on the fringe. Without a well-heeded comprehensive plan, we have little opportunity to actually reward, with incentives, builders who pursue TNDs instead of trash development, or to make clear that we do not consider "sustainability" and "livability" to be optional amenities.

illustration by Doug Potter

5. SB 1704.
Gee, nobody wants to build in the Austin city limits, because they're afraid of our "constantly changing" development restrictions, which the Austin-bashing Lege tried to preempt by passing Senate Bill 1704, which last year was (oops!) repealed by accident. Had we followed Austin Tomorrow, and passed ordinances consistent with it, our city would not have needed the citizen-initiated Save Our Springs water quality ordinance, and developers wouldn't have had this time-honored excuse. Interesting that developers in other Texas cities with long-range planning did not get their panties in wads over the repeal of SB 1704 -- most cities already have reasonable local development restrictions in place, such as building permits with iron-clad expiration dates.

6. Streamlining public participation. If every single neighborhood in town produced its own plan, and if all of them ended up being compatible with one another, which of course they wouldn't, we could deal with our planning needs on the neighborhood level alone. A comprehensive planning process which moved from citywide goals, to large sectors (congruent with single-member districts?), and then to neighborhoods within those sectors, would enable all citizens to have the same opportunities for input on the same issues at the same time.

7. Affordable housing. Moving into areas where housing prices are already below the citywide average, building a bunch of crap, and calling it "affordable housing" does nothing to solve the city's problems. What we really need is income desegregation, some sort of concerted effort to allow citizens of all means to live throughout town, and especially in town. Right now, vast stretches of Austin are financially off-limits to many citizens, thus forcing them into outlying areas and further burdening city services. This is a problem that only comprehensive planning will help solve.

8. Mike Levy. Good planning creates sound neighborhoods and business districts. Sound neighborhoods and business districts improve public safety. Improved public safety means that Levy, the publisher of Texas Monthly and Austin's most celebrated public safety gadfly, can stop worrying people with his exaggerated portrait of Austin as a city so ridden with crime that it's reached crisis proportions. That goes double for the rest of the media.

Cap Metro carries the heavy burden of selling light rail to a public already suspicious of the transit agency's management capabilities.

9. AISD and Capital Metro.
Battles over school site selection and the routing of transit systems have imposed upon AISD and Cap Met a responsibility that should ultimately not be theirs -- deciding where people should live and new urban centers should be developed. That is our job as a city and its citizens; if we had a good comprehensive plan, the transit corridors would be obvious, and AISD would know where to put its schools.

10. One of the world's great cities. The world's great cities take themselves seriously enough to want to have some control over their fates and futures. If Austin wishes to be among their number, it will need to get off the stick where sensible, realistic, citizen-supported planning is concerned. Enough said. Happy New Year.

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