Mapping the Future
Seven Austinites Discuss the City's Unwieldy Planning Process
"The whole point of this conversation is to have fun," says Planning Commissioner Ben Heimsath. "The Chronicle thinks that if we all get together, we'll say something of value." He laughs. "We" are a group of eight Austinites with, between us, far more than eight perspectives on the city, gathered at Austin Java Company on a Friday afternoon just before Halloween to talk about growth, Smart and otherwise, and how to keep the central city alive and afloat. You may not think this a fun way to spend a Friday afternoon, but that's what makes Central Austin different: People here do.
We started out talking about the bad old days. "I'm too heavily invested to be really objective," Ben Heimsath says, "but 10 years ago we were having a real estate meltdown, Austinplan was coming unraveled, we saw the City Council pendulum swinging wildly back and forth. We've gone from that to prosperity, and we're actually starting to look at collaborative solutions. Neighborhood planning has gone from a weird idea to one that's actually bearing fruit, and "density' isn't the bad word it was five years ago."
We now obsess on the downside of our growth -- the traffic, the price of housing, the widening gap between rich and poor. But even in East Austin, which the Boom has supposedly passed by, there is optimism. "Ten years ago on East 10th Street, buildings were burning down and being torn down, and crime was out of control," says Mark Rogers, director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC) in East Austin.
"People thought the neighborhood would be a moonscape by now," Rogers continues, "and so it made sense to build a giant mall right on top of it [the ill-fated early-Nineties East Side Mall project on the Bennett tract, across I-35 from the Marriott]. But instead, houses are getting fixed up and new ones are being built, and the sons and daughters of the neighborhood are coming back to live in East Austin."
One of those daughters is then-current, now-former Austin Revitalization Authority director Bernice Butler, who returned to town last year after 20 years of being gone, only to run smack into the housing shortage. "I knew things had picked up a bit," she says, "but it's a little disappointing for people who want to put down roots. On the Eastside, a lot of the property that is available is going to speculators and carpetbaggers, not people who want to homestead and be a part of the fabric of that community."
As was the case on the Eastside, in Brentwood -- between Lamar and Burnet, 45th and Koenig -- "it never used to be a problem to find a place to live," says neighborhood leader Clare Barry, who's lived there since 1975. "In my neighborhood, people are getting older, and in what used to be a working-class neighborhood, property values and taxes are going way, way, up -- too far up."
Charles Heimsath, Ben's cousin and economic development chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance, takes the macro view. "We have three big issues. One is that we're quickly becoming a city where the average person can't afford the average house. Another is that, even with all the plans for roads and rail and HOV lanes, we'll still only be able to stand still -- we'll strangle ourselves on the traffic we're generating. And the third is that, with a 2.6% unemployment rate, every new job that's created means someone has to move here to take it. Ten years go, we didn't have any of those problems."
A Changing Climate "When I came here to study conflict management and community consensus building," says UT planning professor Bob Paterson, "I was told I wouldn't find a better laboratory. And it's true; this was one of the most polarized communities in the U.S. But now we've added 300,000 people with different expectations who came here from places where people plan. Silicon Valley realized too late that their quality of life was shot, and now they're trying to retrofit. We still have time to change market action here."
According to Tere O'Connell, an Old West Austin neighborhood leader and a member of the city's Historic Landmark Commission, today's climate "is more positive because of the more unified approach from the City Council. The voting public decided that we should be able to work together and reach our goals for quality of life. And neighborhood planning is an outgrowth of that; these decisions need to be made by the people, and the city is allowing that to happen."
But weren't we doing the same thing 10 years ago with Austinplan? "Austinplan was a static, frozen vision," Ben Heimsath notes. "By the time we got around to planning the entire city, we realized we needed a more flexible approach. [After nearly four years of work, Austinplan ended up being rejected by the City Council.] The current neighborhood plans should give us better guides for what to do with each unique neighborhood over the long haul."
But do they work? Rogers notes that, long before "neighborhood planning" was a line item in the city budget, "in 1981, the Guadalupe Community Redevelopment Plan led to infill projects, rehabilitation of existing homes, zoning changes, alley paving, and the creation of the GNDC -- all in five years, guided by a neighborhood-based steering committee."
Butler notes that, in other cities where she's worked as a redevelopment specialist -- most notably Miami -- "I've been accustomed to seeing plans that are actually linked to budget items and implementation schedules."
"Nobody has made that connection here," says Barry.
"I'm making it," says O'Connell: Old West Austin's neighborhood plan is nearing completion. "I expect mutual accountability between the neighborhood planning team and the city. I'm making a checklist and timeline of action items, some of which the city will have to do and pay for, and we expect them to be done."
Paterson notes that "the real test will be when we get a neighborhood plan with a land-use component -- one that calls for rezoning -- because that will require a super-majority vote." By state law, it takes super-majorities -- seven votes on the Planning Commission and six votes on the council -- to vote to rezone a property over its owner's objections.
And a land use plan without the power to change current land use is a pretty wasteful use of time and trees. Much of what's in Austin's famously arcane Land Development Code aims to manage land use without biting the bullet and actually rezoning, without much success and often with unintended consequences. (To cite two examples often in today's news, the East Austin Overlay and the Waterfront Overlay on Town Lake.) "In previous years, both developers and neighborhoods could simply count to four" council votes, Ben Heimsath notes. "That's how we ended up with so much garbage and scar tissue in the code."
So now, to use an example from the table, East 11th and 12th streets "are subject to three or four different layers of code," Butler notes, each the legacy of a successive wave of East Austin political power. "And from the developer's perspective, money flows away from perceived constraints."
"So how do we preserve what we as a city want," Ben Heimsath asks, "without a process that ends up chasing projects to the suburbs?" He points out a few ways that the city has "relieved some of the red tape. You can now use the Web to find out about zoning and the code."
Too often, though, it takes a lot of trial and error to find the information you're looking for. Rogers pulls out a slim, stapled pamphlet: a handbook guiding small builders and developers -- whether nonprofit like GNDC or private-sector -- through the vagaries of the development process, from zoning to building inspection, in about 20 pages. It's a city document. "And even the inspectors don't know that this exists. The city should be handing these out, but it doesn't. I found it in a box at City Hall."
"How much time do you spend at City Hall?" Heimsath asks, laughing.
"Unfortunately, way too much," Rogers replies. "It's torture. The process really, really needs to be made easier." The code and process are already difficult enough for developers building subdivisions and strip malls on the fringe, but it's even worse in the central city. "It takes an incredible amount of knowledge to make sense of the rules and apply them to old, old inner-city neighborhoods," says Rogers. "That's an expertise that's not out there."
"But that's how we can make citizen planning work," says O'Connell. "It's a matter of educating people both in the neighborhoods and at the city -- that when a neighborhood is ready to do a plan, to tell the neighbors what the options are, what their vision could be, so they can produce a plan that creates the rules governing that neighborhood."
Charles Heimsath notes that, even downtown, where rules have been bent hither and yon by the political will of Mayor Kirk Watson, "I've been involved in all the residential projects and the stories I've heard are nightmares. The code is written for suburban development, and those rules don't apply to inner-city infill and rehabs. Even if both the City Council and the planners want a project, the people in the field say sorry, this doesn't match the code. Other cities have suspended their traditional codes or drafted new codes in inner-city neighborhoods where redevelopment is desired."
"To go the easy route through the city code and process," says Ben Heimsath, "it has to be a dumb project."
"But they've done so much rehab and redevelopment on Sixth Street," notes Butler. "Why can't they figure out how they made those buildings work and codify it for everyone else?"
"Because very little in the code is actually prescriptive," Charles replies. "It doesn't say that a project has to do this and look like that. It's all descriptive of what a project should do and look like, and it's up to the whim of the planner of the day whether your project meets those descriptions. We need a more prescriptive code with easy-to-follow, predictable rules."
"But that would require a dialogue about what a neighborhood wants," says Paterson. "The market can give us product types that meet neighborhood goals, but that we've never seen before in Austin and which the codes don't deal with. We're going to need to define multi-family project standards, including design principles, so that developers know what the neighborhoods are willing to live with." In Portland, the Mecca of planning, each neighborhood plan contains descriptions and drawings of the kinds of projects each district wants in its midst, and those standards are part of the zoning.
The closest example we have to that is the ARA's urban renewal plan for 11th and 12th streets, which defines dozens of "project areas" within the 16 blocks it covers, each with "project controls" that require a townhouse here, an office there, apartments on that side. Even though the ARA plan will be enforceable by eminent domain if necessary, it's too specific for the current Land Development Code, complicated as it is, to accommodate. "So we're wrestling," Butler says. "What is a "townhouse'? What is a "rental flat'? These things are specified in our plan, but they're not defined anywhere in the code. So we're having trouble figuring out what the zoning should be, or what the present zoning allows."
"That's why I'm not very optimistic about this stuff," says Barry. "I don't see how a neighborhood plan will have the power to set these sorts of guidelines. And I don't think we'll ever have citywide guidelines for them." So what do Central Austin neighborhoods get out of infill? "One key fact right now is that people's taxes are going up," says Butler. "I told my mom that more density, with well-designed but still compatible projects, and more housing will help keep her taxes and property values in line, because the supply in Central Austin would start to meet the demand."
But generally, the group echoed Charles Heimsath's assessment that "people need to have a broader, citywide perspective to accept densification in their neighborhoods. We'll kill ourselves as a city unless we deal with traffic congestion and our lack of affordability. Right now, the hottest housing market in the region is northern Hays County -- it's got good schools, and the land and housing are still affordable. But unless jobs move out there, which may happen but isn't happening now, all those people will be on the roads in Austin."
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to Austin's tortured development climate. "We have to realize," notes Ben Heimsath, "that we could not build Central Austin again today. The code wouldn't allow it, and the market's not capable of producing it. Texas used to have grand urban apartment blocks just like "real cities' on the East Coast, but you can't build them now in most of Central Austin. Whenever somebody does try to build an innovative "urban' project, they barely live to tell about it and it never happens again. But that's what will need to happen if we're going to have choices about where we live and how we get around."
From the East Austin perspective, notes Rogers, "there's a lot of stigma attached to multi-family housing, because so many apartment projects have become drags on their neighborhoods. -- But ultimately, zoning is zoning, and neighborhood plans don't change zoning all by themselves. Right now, a developer has an option on the Bennett tract based on the zoning for the mall -- 1.3 million square feet of commercial -- and not on the ARA plan," which suggests mixed-use retail/residential on the site. "Bruce Todd put it well: The City Council needs to remember that it has control over zoning."
"The issue on the real estate community's mind," notes Charles Heimsath, "is that the city once again speaks with a forked tongue. It's mouthing the gospel of Smart Growth, but it's pushing any kind of density out of the Drinking Water Protection Zone, and only putting in weak incentives for the Desired Development Zone, and maybe in five years we'll have inner-city redevelopment guidelines and incentives as part of the neighborhood plans. The city position is bass-ackwards. Why can't we begin with central-city incentives, instead of with disincentives out in the suburbs?"
"Well," says Barry, "why not tell developers that Dawson, East Cesar Chavez, and Chestnut" -- the first three neighborhoods with adopted plans -- "want infill? What's the disincentive?"
"For inner-city redevelopment," replies Charles, "land assembly is extraordinarily difficult, and to put enough housing on the property to make it viable, you'd need 200 or so units, which most neighborhoods can't or won't accommodate."
"Why couldn't the city help make those projects viable?" Barry asks.
"Right now," says Charles, "the Smart Growth matrix" -- the rubric used by the city to grant those weak incentives for central city infill -- "is not good enough for residential development. Reducing the cost of a deal by 2% is not enough. The city needs to waive all the fees."
Rogers amplifies Charles' argument with an example. "Out of the 80 to 100 vacant lots there are in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, GNDC has been able to acquire only 11." (The area served by GNDC is larger than the Guadalupe neighborhood itself.) "There are title problems, there are zoning problems -- some of the land is zoned CS (commercial services), and the owners think they can get $40 a square foot. -- and now, with the boom, the cost of all the land in the neighborhood has doubled."
In many neighborhoods, notes Ben Heimsath, "sometimes you'll get to a part that's not-so-good, and often that's because somebody sat on their property for 20 years." Often, and especially on the Eastside, those properties are in arrears on their taxes, and a few years back the City Council, under the leadership of Brigid Shea, embarked on a strategy to form a land bank by acquiring as many of those parcels as possible through foreclosure.
This turned out not to be the silver bullet required, since filing a foreclosure or setting a tax auction is like ringing the dinner bell at the Golden Corral -- speculators stampede in, pay off the back taxes, and end up with cheap lots that they sit on for decades, outmaneuvering small nonprofits like GNDC. "We got one lot that way," Rogers notes.
This story also works in reverse. Charles Heimsath shakes his head and cites "the Chili's at 45th and Lamar. That land was acquired by a developer who intended to build a mixed-use project with a residential component. The property was painstakingly assembled, the neighborhood said no way, and now you have a Chili's. It should not have been that way. But because of the lack of a neighborhood plan that accepted an appropriate level of density, it was. My fear is that this will happen all over the city."
"That's why the old politics don't work," Ben responds. "The neighborhoods react to having been burned before."
"Without naming names, I could tell you exactly who in Rosedale said no way to that project," Barry says. "But there are others in Rosedale who would have said yes to it, because they didn't have that experience before."
"I think what we need is demonstration projects," Paterson says, "that show what can be done and done well, and that the city needs to be the entrepreneur that makes them happen."
Barry agrees. "I think that too much energy is going to planning and not enough to actual projects."
"There are some good examples out there," Ben Heimsath notes. "But they were so difficult that the developers now use them as reasons not to do anything like them again."
Because we started with a flashback to 10 years ago, we ended by talking about what we'll be living in 10 years from now.
"I think it probably will all have worked itself out," says Butler. "The affordable housing crisis is real, but when it becomes acute I imagine we'll be ready and able to put in some solutions."
"Downtown will look extraordinarily different," says Charles Heimsath, "contrary to all the pessimistic things I said. -- The will to create change exists in downtown. The infrastructure is there, the development community is there, and the difference will blow your socks off. But downtown will be surrounded by suburban strips and single-family neighborhoods that look exactly the same, except that they'll be extremely expensive. The key to downtown's renewal is the zoning -- CBD (Central Business District) and DMU (Downtown Mixed Use). Without the proper zoning on the arterials outside of downtown, you won't have density."
"And I think the city will become more competent at evaluating these options," O'Connell says. "The Eastern U.S. still has a traditional urban core, but Texas never really had it. We're now learning how to do what people in the previous century understood intuitively. It's just a matter of getting the word out and educating people on the possibilities."
"Sometimes, I think the East Coast cities were the parents, and we were the teenager who rebelled," says Ben Heimsath. "And now we want to be like them. But that's not really what Austin is either. Eventually, we'll reach our maturity, and we'll come up with sophisticated solutions that are also more democratic than they might be elsewhere. So I'm more confident that we'll have neighborhoods that are more like small towns, each with its unique character."
"I think a lot of people on the top level in Austin are truly visionary," Butler says. "We just need to take the intermediate steps toward making things happen. That's where a lot of good ideas end up gathering dust."