Where Are They Now?

The current shift away from Smart Growth rhetoric may just be a reaction to how promiscuously we tossed the label around in 1998. Here's what happened to some of the key Smart Growth initiatives:

Land Development Code Revision

Dead as we knew it. We have a rewritten and "simplified" LDC, and a flurry of new LDC amendments, mostly dealing with either niche issues (telecom towers, billboards, downtown parking requirements), or specific parts of town (the East Austin Overlay, the new City Hall and Town Lake Park subdistricts, the new zoning overlay in the Chestnut neighborhood plan). But the grand dream of fixing the whole megillah, and with it the city's famously tortured development process, took "a whole year, 21 people on a task force, four council members and legions of staff, and nobody [in the community] wanted any of it," says Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell. And, of course, the un-repeal of SB 1704 has eliminated a major impetus for an LDC overhaul -- closing loopholes that allow grandfathered projects to slip through. Instead, Futrell has focused"on the internal process -- were the right people sitting together? Did the automated systems work?" Making basic in-house changes, she says, has cut turnaround times in half for site plans and subdivision plats.

Smart Growth Matrix Development Incentives

This process, culminating with council action a few weeks back to reduce development fees in the Desired Development Zone, is working well, Futrell says. "The basic message of Smart Growth -- we want you here and not there -- has been a big success, and the incentives have helped us move primary employers into the DDZ and out of the Drinking Water Protection Zone." These big-boy businesses -- CSC, Dell, Motorola, and (rumor has it, just around the corner) Tivoli Systems -- "do more to redirect growth than anything the city can do."

Transit Corridors

What was really at issue here were not the corridors themselves, identified on the Smart Growth map -- those were pinched from the regional transportation plan in effect for five years now -- but the development standards, allowing for mixed use and other transit-friendly density, along their length. "We envisioned those standards as applying one lot deep from the arterials," says Futrell. "Then we said that was '300 feet deep,' and then RECA (the Real Estate Council of Austin) came out with proposals for standards that applied '1,000 feet deep,' and suddenly citizens came to us with maps that show their whole neighborhoods obliterated. We've spent six months resolving this issue." At this point, any design schemes to support transit depend on transit being there, which puts this ball in Capital Metro's court as the transit authority goes through its own public planning process.

Traditional Neighborhood Districts

This was the first product to come out of the Citizens Planning Committee recommendations,even before the neighborhood-planning program, and no, we still don't have a TND in the city of Austin. The effort to require all new subdivisions to adhere to TND guidelines -- narrower streets, smaller lots, mixed uses, and architectural review being some of those -- was recently pulled back off the table due to developer reservations about the cost of meeting them, though that's not a definite "no" from the real-estate community. The dream of city-leveraged TNDs in East Austin remains alive, but the details are still daunting.

Infill and Redevelopment Guidelines

At one time, we heard talk of an entirely different Land Development Code for infill and redevelopment, but that now appears unlikely, considering the very long and difficult path it's taken simply to get the guidelines off the ground. As a product of the planner's art, these are a beautiful achievement, but the political calculus that made infill the no-brainer number-one priority of the CPC has shifted, and for now, the neighborhoods who don't want more density are speaking with the loudest voices. Expect some neighborhoods to incorporate these guidelines into their plans, and others to ignore them completely. In 10 years, you'll be able to tell very quickly which neighborhoods did what.

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