Naked City

The Best-Laid Plans

Naked City

Three big steps forward, one giant step back for the city's neighborhood planning effort at Planning Commission on June 20. While two new districts got added to the city's roster of official plans -- now up to six -- the PC ran into a big, ugly train wreck when asked to put already-adopted plans into zoning practice.

First the good news. The nearly controversy-free Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan -- Enfield to the river, Lamar to MoPac -- outlines exactly a vision you'd expect, or hope, to see from the good citizens of Clarksville. The historic residential core is maintained, new mixed-use infill is encouraged around the edges, and the plan aims to preserve diversity, particularly in income, by any means necessary. And they want sidewalks.

Meanwhile, the North Austin Civic Association Neighborhood Plan -- covering a four-square-mile, 25,000-resident chunk between Lamar, Research, Kramer, and Metric -- showed that the planning game is not only played by central-city sophisticates. The highest priorities for the NACA neighbors were ostensibly simple: enforcing current codes, picking up trash, developing existing parkland. But the NACA action item that caught the PC's attention was the call for Lamar Blvd., a high-speed highway-strip nightmare up North, to become a "great street" where people can stroll safely and enjoyably.

Both plans passed with little cavil. "It's heartening," said Commissioner Jim Robertson, "to see plans that work to create better neighborhoods and a better city."

So much for the fun part. Neighborhood plans themselves are simply policy statements; implementing their land-use recommendations requires a zoning case, which is what the PC heard -- and heard, and heard, and heard -- for the celebrated and controversial East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan.

Starting three years ago, before the ECC plan was initiated, and continuing today, after it has been adopted, the Mexican-American activists known generically as El Concilio have been trying to shoot it down. The reasons aren't worth going into here, except to say that these East Town Lake enmities go back a lot longer than three years, and a lot deeper than land-use questions on arterials in the barrio.

But those were the flashpoints at the PC, where El Concilio leaders Gavino Fernandez, Marcos De Leon, Paul Hernandez, Frances Martinez, and their allies dragged the city, the ECC planning team, and the PC itself through a firestorm of racial invective that challenged not just the specifics of the rezoning, but the ethics and morals of the planning process itself. (Fernandez is now chairing the team for the adjoining Holly neighborhood plan, so the effort must not be as corrupt as he said it was.)

El Concilio was ably abetted by Commissioner Susana Almanza, and thank goodness, because she was the only one who put the faction's complaints into a policy context the PC could actually address. The implementation strategy for the ECC plan calls for the entire neighborhood -- I-35 to Chicon, Sixth Street to the river -- to be overlaid with an "NP" district, allowing for small-lot amnesty, garage apartments and granny flats, and other Smart Growth stuff. More controversially, all of the commercial and industrial property in the neighborhood -- and there's lots of it -- would be rezoned to allow mixed use, restrict a panoply of non-neighborhood-friendly uses through a conditional overlay, and likewise be controlled by a special "NP" district.

Got that? Well, neither did the neighbors, and it wasn't clear that the PC did either, as it was asked to lay (for example) "CS-1-MU-CO-NP" zoning on 90 separate tracts. Even though staff and the ECC team gamely argued that this was the already-expressed will of the City Council, via its adoption of the ECC plan, the room was having none of it, as it made free use of the G-word. (Well, "gentrification" was actually delicate; De Leon preferred "ethnic cleansing.")

Almanza pointed out that this zoning made it possible for owners of now-marginal industrial property to (for example) start turning dirt on luxe-condos with lake access, without any safeguards to ensure that the new housing everyone wants is truly affordable. Even though El Concilio and ECC actually agree on the goal -- preserving the area as a place where current residents can stay, thrive, and remain for generations without being priced out -- the strategy ECC and the city put forth to achieve that goal struck Almanza and her allies, with reason, as problematic.

Originally, the opponents were asking for a two-month postponement, which got whittled down to three weeks, during which the PC mandated that El Concilio come up with specific, tract-by-tract changes. (Fernandez made noise about this being an unfair burden, which is silly: El Concilio has been around forever, and its associates have held several posts on the inside, including the succession of PC seats now continued by Almanza.) Round two of this battle comes July 11.

After this ordeal, the similar implementation request for the Chestnut Neighborhood Plan (Chicon to near Airport, 12th to MLK) was painless and unopposed from the floor, but just as confusing with its soup of zoning acronyms, and likewise opposed by Almanza. She was the only nay when, at 1am, the PC put the Chestnut plan, and itself, to bed.

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