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Patenting the Formula

Back in the day -- to be precise, back in 1994 when the city first formed the Citizens Planning Committee, whose report is the Magna Carta of Austin's neighborhood ascendancy -- we still considered "planning" to be about land use and related issues. After the city had failed to implement Austin Tomorrow (the city's now-25-year-old comprehensive plan) and then failed to replace it with the laborious and ill-starred Austin Plan, a Neighborhood-Based Solution looked like the only way to do real planning that captured local values and could resolve seemingly intractable developer vs. neighbor vs. enviro conflicts (speaking of three-legged stools).

So a neighborhood planning program was one of the key CPC recommendations, championed on council by now-Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and duly kicked off by the city in the summer of 1997 with three pilot projects, selected from 12 applicants after lively political maneuvering. Between then and now, two funny things happened.

The first is that neighborhood planning, along with other CPC recommendations and stray city efforts on other fronts (like transportation, water quality, and downtown renewal), got wrapped up with a big bow and dubbed "Smart Growth." In the Smart-Grown city, we were told, every neighborhood would have its own plan, based on its own values, and those decisions would guide growth toward where it was wanted. It all makes perfect sense -- until you get to the details.

After having made Neighborhood-Based Solution a major ingredient of Smart Growth, the city then promptly issued forth a flood of Smart ideas, proposals, and products, quite separate from the neighborhood planning process, and without a lot of buy-in from the neighborhoods themselves. By earlier this year, after flaps and fumbles over transit corridors, downtown development projects, infill standards for urban-core neighborhoods, and revisions to the Land Development Code, the city was apologizing to the same people it was trying to help, who had firmly decided that Smart Growth was a threat, not a boon, to their interests.

"People told me nobody really wanted to change anything," says Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, "and I didn't believe them. But now I'd agree that there's a lot of truth in that. It's almost impossible to find a consensus for any change." Perhaps as penance for what Futrell freely describes as "the failures of Smart Growth," she now spends her evenings at various focus groups and listening sessions with representatives from "established residential neighborhoods" who rake her over the coals. "We do a lot of debriefing," she says, noting that many of the fears of neighborhood destruction are based on misinformation about what's been discussed, proposed, or adopted down at City Hall. (For the latest what's-up with the city's various Smart Growth initiatives, see "Where Are They Now?" p.26.)

Part of what, in retrospect, seems like undue haste and zeal was really the city staff's natural reaction to a cold fact: Austin has, at least in urban legend, 400 neighborhoods, and at a rate of three or four plans a year, we could not possibly plan them all in time to influence our growth. So big, broad, and fast initiatives that could later be fine-tuned with neighborhood planning were the order of the day. They are no longer.

Which leaves up in the air a lot of work by a lot of bright, talented people who thought their mandate was to do what the progressive power structure had always said it wanted done. Expect these ideas to be introduced via future neighborhood plans, especially in the urban core. "We're finding that whatever issue we tackle, it's a completely different scenario when we look at it neighborhood by neighborhood," Futrell says. "With very few exceptions, we probably could avoid doing any citywide guidelines" for transit corridors, infill development, and other Smart Growth apparatus, "and instead bring those ideas to bear in neighborhood plans."

It's Alive!

The need for speed became ever more pressing as it became clear that neighborhood plans took longer -- in some cases a lot longer -- than the one year originally anticipated. The last of the three original pilots, East Austin's Chestnut neighborhood, was just adopted by the City Council last month after two years of development, and the seven neighborhoods that entered the pipeline last year are likewise not ready for council prime time. As jaded city dwellers, we're supposed to be unsurprised that a city project would take twice as long as planned, but what's really at issue here is the second funny thing that happened to the Neighborhood-Based Solution: It grew.

Toby Futrell, photograph by John Anderson

photograph by John Anderson

"When the proposal to do neighborhood planning in Austin was first being fleshed out, issues like social services and public safety didn't appear on the list of topics," says Carol Barrett, principal planner and manager of the Neighborhood Planning Program in Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services. But as the City Council got involved in shaping the program, she says, "it was 'suggested' -- in that special way that the council can 'suggest' -- that comprehensive planning for neighborhoods needed to address whatever issues were of concern to the neighborhood.

"At that point I knew, if we went into neighborhoods with significant issues that weren't already organized, it would become a two-year project," Barrett continues. "The original vision was working with neighborhoods that were already organized and raring to go." (That would certainly describe Hyde Park and Old West Austin, two of the second-round neighborhoods in the pipeline now.) "But the scope has changed in at least some neighborhoods to include community organization."

The plan for the Chestnut neighborhood, adopted by the council last month, shows how the neighborhood planning mandate has been reshaped. The plan was conceived as a tag-team effort between the city's planning and health and human services departments, partly to facilitate the sort of front-end organization that neighborhoods like Hyde Park have been doing for eons. For example, one of the tasks of the planning effort was to create a Chestnut Neighborhood Association, for none existed; the neighborhood's application for the pilot was coordinated by David Chapel Baptist Church.

And as it turned out, "land use and transportation," the anticipated meat of the neighborhood planning process, is only one of the Chestnut plan's seven themes (which in turn produced 87 separate objectives and action items -- this in a neighborhood with only about 1,500 people). The other themes are parks and environment, housing, economic development, public safety, youth services, and health; and the action items range from implementing a detailed zoning overlay, to crafting a micro-loan program for businesses, to forming a neighborhood youth orchestra. "I did not envision just how creative the neighborhoods could be," says Barrett. The other two adopted neighborhood plans -- for the East Cesar Chavez and Dawson neighborhoods -- also go beyond land use, though not to the same extent as Chestnut.

DIY a Dud

Now, Chestnut is far from the most disadvantaged neighborhood in Austin, but if you and your neighbors could identify 87 big things that needed fixing in your little neighborhood, you'd probably deserve more than the ordinary attention from the city. The rest of y'all, it was thought, could potentially do your own plans, and in doing so remove vital territory from the Smart Growth war zone. So, in last year's budget, the city aimed to grease the pipeline by producing a handbook and offering technical assistance for self-directed plans. This did not work. "Self-directed planning failed in even fairly sophisticated and organized neighborhoods," notes Futrell.

So now, "while a neighborhood probably could do a plan on its own, the city won't ask it to," says planner Robert Heil, who facilitated the very first neighborhood plan -- for the Dawson neighborhood in South Austin -- to be adopted. "It makes more sense for the city to help in some ways, no matter how well-organized and committed the neighborhood is. It's easier, for example, for us to identify all of a neighborhood's property owners. It works better as a partnership."

In this year's budget, the neighborhood planning program is slated to double its staff as it takes aim at an ambitious goal -- to plan every neighborhood in Central Austin over the next five years. To make this possible, even with extra resources (especially since the team will also be handling the "special projects," such as a Rainey Street plan, that make public-sector life interesting) two things need to happen. For one, we need to decide how many neighborhoods there are in Central Austin, and where they're located. For the other, we need to decide what issues can or should be part of everybody's neighborhood plan.

On the first point: Right now, any old sod can go down to City Hall and proclaim a neighborhood association, with whatever boundaries he or she fancies -- which is why there are 400-plus entries in the city's Community Registry database. (Many citizens and groups want to be on the city's mailing list and thus receive notification on pending land-use cases; the city of Rollingwood is one of Austin's "neighborhoods" for this purpose.) By any conventional definition, though, Austin has fewer than half that many neighborhoods, and the city is currently devising a common-sense map that divides the urban core -- defined by Smart Growth as the city's urban watersheds, which range roughly from Ben White to Braker Lane and from Ed Bluestein to MoPac -- into 50 planning areas of more-or-less standard size. (That's not including downtown, the University of Texas, Mueller, or the Triangle/Central Park zone, all of which have plans of their own, as you may have heard.)

This would not change the NA system, dysfunctional as it is; members of the CPC had argued for a rational, one-person/one-NA system with accreditation standards and fixed neighborhood boundaries. But as with many dysfunctional systems, the current one has its fans and virtuosos, and boy, were they unhappy with the idea of changing it. So the revised plan was that within each of these planning areas, however many NAs as wished to exist would be invited to the table (as happened with the politically fragmented East Cesar Chavez pilot), along with all the other community voices necessary for inclusion 'n' consensus.

Under the 50-neighborhood scenario, each area would have its designated place in line, and the application process that had identified the first nine planning areas would be discarded. "The question we kept hearing from the neighborhoods is 'When do I get mine?'" Barrett notes. "They hated the application process, because it felt like competition." Certainly the first year was competitive; last year, the council initiated plans for all neighborhoods who applied. Under a so-organized system, the program will likely move faster than it would by waiting until neighborhoods were "ready" -- which, as Chestnut shows, they may never be without city help -- and by relying on them to define their own boundaries, with all the potential for gap and overlap.

New and Improved

The 10-plans-a-year goal will only be possible, though, if the neighborhood-planning process is "streamlined" (the preferred label at City Hall) back to a traditional planning effort, focusing on land use, urban design, and transportation, instead of a community-development free-for-all. But having shown with Chestnut, and to a lesser extent with other plans, that the Neighborhood-Based Solution works politically on a much broader plane, the city is now exploring options for handling the non-"planning" concerns through a still-speculative neighborhood-services system.

I say "speculative," even though the city officially already has, within the Health and Human Services Department, a Neighborhood Services program run by a Neighborhood Officer (her name is Cora Wright, and she was HHS's lead staffer on the Chestnut project). The fact that maybe 1% of you readers knew that, and maybe 1% of that number could describe the HHS program's services, helps explain why the widely touted neighborhood plans have become such capacious vessels. That shouldn't be read too harshly -- after all, "neighborhood-based policing" is a thriving concern within APD, and "neighborhood housing" is a department unto itself, but both public safety and housing played heavily in all three adopted neighborhood plans.

So how did it become, at least temporarily and experimentally, Carol Barrett's job to deal with these "neighborhood" issues for which the city already has infrastructure? "Because of the training you get in planning school," she surmises, "we have the tools to identify problems and sort through solutions and achieve consensus. Not everyone in the city has those skills, and we've been successful at sharing that expertise. It's allowed neighborhoods to raise issues that had, perhaps, been expressed before but not packaged properly."

The neighborhood services system currently under discussion -- with a price tag of between $500,000 and $750,000, currently unbudgeted -- would put three front-line staffers under Wright's direction in each of the city's six police sectors, five of which already have "neighborhood centers" operated by HHS. These would be the people you'd call to get your streetlights fixed, so you wouldn't have to make it an action item in your neighborhood plan, as did Chestnut.

"Three people, at a minimum, in each sector could give you decent customer service," says Futrell, who sees these teams as taking a load off City Council offices, who are besieged by citizens who've figured out that a call to the Hall is the best -- often the only -- way to get routine service. (Should we ever adopt single-member districts, this whole schema would likely change.) "The teams could also take initiative to solve problems they see, and be an early warning system to the rest of the city, especially if they're made up of people living in those areas, which would be ideal."

Another function of this program would be what Futrell calls "capacity building" and what Wright envisions as a "neighborhood academy" -- exactly the sort of work she did with Chestnut and that Barrett's planners are now doing with the North Austin Civic Association: teaching people how to create a civic infrastructure and understand the rudiments of city policy and procedure. "I can definitely see some grounds for a close relationship there" between her program and Wright's, Barrett says.

"But overall, the city has so far to go in terms of neighborhood-responsive services that what Cora has to do is far more important to most neighborhoods than we are," Barrett continues. "Planning per se is way, way down on their lists." This is not breaking news to the city, which has a history of talking about front-line service delivery without follow-through. "We hire a neighborhood officer, don't give them any resources, and watch as things never get off the ground," says Futrell. "We have to stop reinventing this wheel."

Fly in the Ointment

Until Wright's incarnation of neighborhood services does get off the ground, the Neighborhood-Based Solution will still emerge from the neighborhood planning laboratory, and wherever it originates, it will by definition have to be applied all over the city's organizational chart, which is hard to do from the bottom up. The fact that these two programs lie under the aegis of different ACMs -- Futrell over planning, Marcia Conner over social services -- already throws up a barrier.

If your plan or service request requires, say, a park cleanup, a streetlight-repair program, and red-curbing a fire lane, you've hit every branch of the city's organizational tree, which, as any neighborhood leader knows, makes for a lot of phone tag and voice-mail hell. "If you have a broken-window problem, it crosses five department lines," says Futrell. "The city has 26 departments, 10,000 employees, and a $1.5 billion budget. It's hard to negotiate it even at the executive level."

Since every department has its own mechanism, or lack thereof, for responding to citizen input and requests, coming up with a framework that makes sense throughout the org chart has been a challenge for neighborhood planning, and until now a solid wall for neighborhood services. "No department has told us that neighborhood planning was a bad idea, but some aren't sure what to do with it," says Heil. "That's our fault -- we need to let the departments know consistently what neighborhood plans are and bring them into the process more effectively. Our challenge is to be useful to the departments -- not to be an additional burden, but a way for them to make tough decisions."

The city has recently initiated a conclave of management topsiders to create what in the city lexicon is a "SPOC" -- "single point of contact" -- for neighborhood planning and service issues. "Our present opinion is that, with most of our neighborhood initiatives, we've delegated too far down," says Futrell. "If we want to move away from our one-size-fits-all service delivery model and work at the neighborhood level, we need the right people sitting not just on the front lines, but at the top."

Of course, forming a high-level committee is not the same as telling the neighborhoods, "Hey, this round's on us! Order whatever you want!" "We can tell departments what the neighborhoods want, and more importantly get their input as we develop plans," says Barrett. "We assume departments want to respond to the neighborhoods, but we have to help the neighborhoods take responsibility for implementation. We need to help them decide what to push for, what's realistic given fiscal constraints."

This triage process is being formalized with "a set of standard performance levels for the services in the neighborhoods," says city planning director Austan Librach (the man between Futrell and Barrett in the city hierarchy). "A neighborhood will know if it's asking for something that's way too high compared to other service levels throughout the city. It's a little difficult, because it's not how we always talk about what the city does. But it's necessary to create a benchmark approach for neighborhood planning."


That's not to mention all that stuff the city does that, try as one might, cannot be implemented on a neighborhood level. "Transportation is a prime example," notes Librach (and just about everyone else). "You don't want to design a transportation corridor -- a road, a light-rail line, or whatever -- and then have one neighborhood say no. It just won't work."

Of course, that's just what many neighborhoods did to the nascent transit corridors on the Smart Growth map, but as Futrell notes, under the draft 50-neighborhood map of the urban core, "except for two or three cases, arterials don't cut through neighborhoods; they border them. And they're already commercial arterials, so this is a reality they need to deal with right now." The reluctance of many neighborhoods to embrace their commercial strips is one of the recurring headaches in neighborhood planning; when Barrett or Heil or a neighborhood planning team leader talks about "inclusion," they most often mean "listening to business owners instead of arguing with them."

A citywide strategy also needs to referee disputes between neighborhoods over the assets they share (for example, the differences over density between neighbors east and west of the Triangle), and to ensure that "neighborhoods take their fair share of things that are necessary but not desirable in the community," says Librach. "Whatever is NIMBY has to go somewhere, be it a zoning category or an industrial use. But at the same time, you don't want to be so prescriptive that you take away the bottom-up approach."

But beyond those basics, even things that were conceived as citywide initiatives -- like the long-anticipated infill and redevelopment guidelines -- will likely end up as part of the neighborhood-plan menus. "Some neighborhoods don't know what an illegal lot looks like, so amnesty is not an issue for them," notes Futrell. "Some neighborhoods don't want illegal lot amnesty because they think it will promote teardowns. Others feel it's vital to redevelopment. Some neighborhoods oppose any variance request, and others" -- she cites a recent example in Hyde Park -- "will support projects that are so in sync with what they want that they'll overlook serious code issues."

This all sounds very musical, but do we really want to live in a city where, depending on the constitution of neighborhood power at a given moment, garage apartments -- to use another hot topic -- are verboten in one area and promoted six blocks away? "Having those distinctions would require complicated zoning overlays," says Barrett, "but Austin has already made its peace with those. But there needs to be some sort of citywide logic test -- under state law, if for no other reason -- and respect to other city policies.

"For example, Jackie Goodman has expressed her great desire to see child-care issues addressed in neighborhood plans," Barrett continues. "I think it's totally appropriate for the city to say that every neighborhood plan needs to respect the welfare of children, even if some neighborhoods don't have that focus now."

Which is another way of saying that the line between planning and services, and between neighborhood and citywide issues, will be drawn wherever the council feels like drawing it. "You never want to be a manager usurping the policy role from the council," says Futrell, "but it's often hard to determine where operations end and policy begins. As a manager, I'm most comfortable when what we're working on is a no-brainer in regard to stated policy directives. When there's a gray area -- and right now, the neighborhood-services model is still probably a gray area -- we start a dialogue."

As long as Jackie Goodman -- without whom we would likely not be talking about any of this -- has a seat on the dais, you can be sure that dialogue will remain active. But at some point, Neighborhood-Based Solution will need to be brewed up without much input from the council -- that is, it will stop being an "initiative" and start being the status quo. (As Librach puts it, "I expect Smart Growth will go on forever; it's not something we do for a while and then stop, unless the council says so.")

According to Heil, that may be a good sign. "If the council is talking about your program, that means it's uncertain and controversial," he notes. "Eventually plans will be positive and exciting, but not novel. The first few neighborhoods have been pioneers that overcame hurdles other neighborhoods hopefully won't face."

But that's about as complacent as the alchemists behind the Neighborhood-Based Solution can afford to get, says Barrett. "Every single year, neighborhood planning has to re-prove itself to the neighborhoods and to the city. The death knell for any program is when it says 'Hey, we're here forever.'"

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