Urban on the Rocks

It's the Sprawl, Y'all

Problem is, nobody asked the folks in the Desired Zones whether they desired to be Desired. Rightly or wrongly, many who had endorsed the enviro cause -- including, one suspects, a healthy chunk of those two-out-of-three voters who in 1992 approved the S.O.S. ordinance -- really thought very little about water quality or endangered species. They were voting against growth, or against sprawl, and sprawl in the east was no better than sprawl in the west. Conversely, many in what is now the middle of the Desired Zone, formerly known as East Austin, voted against S.O.S. for precisely the same reason -- to keep growth away from them by allowing it to the west.

So Smart Growth can, to the untrained or jaded eye, look like a way to dump growth into established neighborhoods that don't want it, or can't handle it, or -- especially to the east and south -- are too disadvantaged or disempowered to do anything about it. All to protect the birds and bugs and salamanders and vistas, or to create new opportunities for developers who have reached the logical limits of sprawl and middle-class home buyers who want to bargain-hunt, or to serve the ivory-tower visions of social engineers. This view didn't exactly get dispelled by later steps on the Smart Growth ladder, such as the proposal of new development standards, designed to increase density and intensity, for "transit corridors" running along and through established neighborhoods, again without much public notice or input.

You might smell a lot of ignorance and NIMBY fit-throwing here, the sort of stuff that gives neighborhoods a bad name. We can't roll up the roads that brought us here to deter the endless waves of new Austinites, and Smart Growth -- which can trace its roots back to previous planning efforts, like Austin Tomorrow and Austinplan, birthed with substantial neighborhood involvement -- is a much better deal than the status-quo neighbor vs. developer demolition derby every week at Planning Commission and council. And clearly, the grasp of the Smart Growth basics is imperfect among the public at large. More than one ostensibly well-meaning and well-informed neighborhood leader at the April 17 event asked, "How did you decide these zones?"

But one can counter that ignorance of the shape and drive of public policy is only partly the citizens' fault. "There is an understanding gap, and I think the neighborhoods get beaten up over that," says Austin Neighborhoods Council president Will Bozeman. "The neighborhoods do have to deal with that, but the city needs to look at its public-involvement processes. Are they sufficient to build adequate understanding of the issues, what these policies mean? And is there, as a consequence, a durable consensus behind those issues?"

The city thinks not, which is why it threw the April 17 confab, along with other public-input sessions around town in the past weeks. "I think they'd admit that they need to change, and that both sides need to reconcile the past, because there is a bad, bad history between city staff and neighborhoods," says Bozeman. "If this is a starting point, we can get back to its grassroots origins, then we'll be okay."


The First Building Block

Which brings us around to the other side of the city's devilish dilemma. While the last council was preoccupied with enviro issues, Jackie Goodman spearheaded a thing called the Citizens Planning Committee, which focused much more strongly on nuts-and-bolts neighborhood issues and agendas. The CPC's recommendations, adopted way back in 1994, were supposed to be the blueprint for a brand-new approach to land use, in which neighborhoods were the essential building block. It was from the CPC that we got the neighborhood-planning program, which was understood to be the mechanism through which we created a citywide master plan through the back door.

McGarrahan and Rogers

Letty McGarrahan and Mark Rogers
hold plans for the property at 701 Waller

photograph by John Anderson

Then along came Smart Growth to turn this on its head, starting with citywide planning strategies into which the neighborhoods were supposed to fit. The top-down vs. grassroots dialectic describes not just the political process, but the very conceptual foundation of Smart Growth. Along the way, scarce city resources were diverted from the micro-level CPC issues to the macro-level Smart Growth causes. Five years after the CPC report, we still do not have what was supposedly its most important recommendation, an urban infill ordinance that makes it possible to do small stuff, like add a detached residential unit behind your house, to promote Smart Growth goals incrementally within the existing neighborhood fabric.

But the city has spent thousands of work hours fussing over suburban subdivision rules, creating a Traditional Neighborhood District (TND) zoning ordinance for new developments that has yet to be used, and midwifing one-shot custom deals like the CSC/City Hall project -- stuff that, valuable as it may be, does nothing to solve what most Austin neighborhoods see as their big problems. We do have a neighborhood planning program, but with its current resources and at its current rate of speed, it will take more than 40 years to plan out every Austin neighborhood.


Neighborhood Tales: Garage Apartments No, Condo Complexes Yes

Even though the city leaders on this front are, as a class, above the norm in both sensitivity and competence, most every neighborhood in Austin has a horror story about being jacked around by city staff, and most neighborhoods have long, long memories. So the road to buy-in is always going to be uphill. And such stories continue today. Witness the experience of Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation director Mark Rogers, who has been trying for more than two years to get city approval to build a detached, accessible, affordable efficiency apartment for a senior citizen -- a "granny flat" -- on an existing slab behind one of GNDC's affordable housing units on the Eastside. A perfectly Smart idea, right?

This involved herding cats to get the property appropriately zoned, to get the site plan approved, to get Austin Energy to cough up records ("It took me longer to get a utility bill than it took Kirk Watson to cut the CSC deal," Rogers recounts), and to determine what the development fees were, so that the nonprofit GNDC could get them waived. Then Rogers found himself in front of a building-permit officer who, after throwing up every procedural obstacle she could think of, finally said, "There are a lot of cities you could build in; you don't have to build in Austin." Says Rogers, "Anyone who doesn't have the understanding and the connections that GNDC does would have been totally shot down by the process. The pinky doesn't know what the thumb is doing, and we get stuck with the middle finger."

Meanwhile, most central-city neighborhoods can also point to a case where some atrocity got dropped in their midst under the guise of Smart compact-city redevelopment, often with a bit of the same lubricant that got so lavishly applied to CSC. Pecan Street Station, the behemoth venue project that sparked a moratorium on all redevelopment in the Eastside industrial corridor, is only the latest case. "The road to this point has been paved with good intentions and bad, unintended consequences," says Bozeman.

More examples: "In the alley behind Z'Tejas [on West Sixth Street] a humongous condo complex is going up, and next to it, just to the east, is a beautiful old single-family home with a lovely yard," says "longtime neighborhood activist and irritant" Karen Akins, pointing to an example in her own Clarksville precincts. "It's just so incompatible. If that's what infill is going to be, then people are scared of it." And, of course, the original proposal for Triangle Square, which was touted by its developer as Smart and New Urbanist, was so roundly reviled that it has changed public policy for the entire state.

Projects like the Clarksville condos -- often made possible by anachronistic zoning in central-city neighborhoods that presumes they'll never remain viable -- "are a classic reason why we don't want to give up compatibility standards," says Akins, referring to the code requirements that pose a major challenge to Smart Growth-inspired redevelopment, densification, and mixed use. "People need to understand the history here: These central-city neighborhoods were totally written off, and the people who lived in them were willing to dig in their heels and fight for them. And now they're here to stay."

A paradox: Most of the Urban Desired Development Zone is "urban" only in the sense that it's closer to downtown. Its neighborhoods were developed as suburbs, back in the day, and have retained, by and large, a density that is way, way lower than what one finds in most big U.S. cities. That's what people like about them -- that their kids can ride their bikes in the street within walking distance of the State Capitol. And as the metro area sprawls, the "urban core" grows by the minute, to encompass more and more neighborhoods for whom "suburban" is not a nasty word.

These established neighborhoods find much to fear in Smart Growth, but it's unclear that anything can be done to keep these neighborhoods from being transformed into more typical urban ones. "Whether change is good or bad for a neighborhood, 40% of the people still won't like it because they haven't expected to change," says city neighborhood-planning director Carol Barrett. "I'm not sure there's a good public policy for them. Many people don't want a neighborhood plan; they want a single-family homeowner residential conservation plan. That's a perfectly good objective, but it's not the one the city embarked on."

But whether they want the growth or not, the neighborhood plan, right now, is the only real armor the Smart Growth Initiative offers to neighborhoods in its path. So far, it's been areas that are either very old (Hyde Park, Clarksville/ Old West Austin), or traditionally less advantaged (Chestnut, Dawson), or both (East Cesar Chavez, Montopolis), that have seen themselves as the most fragile and have been the most serious about getting into the neighborhood planning pipeline. Most of them "are definitely looking for land-use tools that don't exist in the code," says Barrett -- things that might be addressed in the CPC's desired infill ordinance -- "They want to promote infill, but they want to maintain compatibility as well as small-scale open space, pocket parks. They don't want every single piece of land to be developed."


Smart Growth Realities

As wonderful and necessary a tool as neighborhood planning is, it has several shortcomings as the single means for preserving street-level control over Smart land-use decisions. The first, of course, is that it takes a long time, and the city does not have the resources to do many at once. "If we had a way to just focus on land use and urban design -- since that's the burning issue in so many neighborhoods -- that would be cool," says Barrett. "But that runs against the grain in this city that we have to plan for everything all at once." She also notes -- as do many neighborhood leaders -- that "maybe we don't need plans in these neighborhoods, but rather a lot better zoning enforcement. We don't have nearly enough resources to do the job we should enforcing the existing laws, and maybe if we did, residents could see city-and-neighborhood as a partnership rather than a prizefight."

The second shortcoming of neighborhood plans is that, at least right now, they guide rather than bind. "We already have an incredible neighborhood plan from 1983, but it's just a plan," says Karen Akins, whose neighborhood (Old West Austin) is currently working with Barrett's team on a new one. "Unless it forms the basis of something binding -- like a capital-improvement project or an NCCD -- then it will always be subject to the politics of the moment."

An NCCD, or Neighborhood Conservation Combining District, is like a neighborhood plan written into ordinance, but doing one has been so daunting that, in the many years it has existed on the books, only two neighborhoods -- Hyde Park and Guadalupe -- have come anywhere close to getting an NCCD adopted. "We still think an NCCD is the way to go," says Rogers, "because it has real teeth, unlike a neighborhood plan on its own. But there's no money to do them, so a neighborhood is on its own."

The third shortcoming is that neighborhood planning goals often cost money to implement. "It's sad that, if you have kids, you need to move to a neighborhood where the improvements for them are already there," says Akins. "Because if your project didn't make the [November] bond election, you'll have to wait six years. The city has been neglecting the maintenance and infrastructure in the neighborhoods for so long that there's a lot of skepticism."

And the fourth is that the neighborhood planning process is somewhat biased toward change, and thus not as well suited to neighborhoods which want to lock their status quo into place. "If a neighborhood is really mostly built out, satisfied with the way it is, and doesn't see much opportunity for redevelopment, then they probably aren't a good candidate for neighborhood planning," Barrett says.

"But if that were really true, then they'd have nothing to fear from Smart Growth, and we wouldn't need a public policy to protect them," Barrett adds. "In reality, neighborhoods change every single day, and there's no legal mechanism we can put into place that will stop change. If there is a magic bullet, I'd love to see it."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 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  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

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