When it Comes to City Planning, Nothing's Constant but Change
This started as a story about changing the makeup of the Planning Commission. Then it became a story about changing the Planning Commission itself. Then it became a story about changing the whole planning and development system. Should we stop the city of Austin before it kills -- er, changes -- again?
And so it goes in the House that Growth Built, as elected and appointed officials, city staff and managers, and citizens and activists try again to translate Austin's visions of Smart Growth, social equity, and neighborhood vitality into a system that actually works. This has proven exceedingly difficult, and one can hardly blame the City Council and City Manager Jesus Garza for throwing another set of ideas at the wall to see which ones stick.
This year's model would feature not one but two Planning Commissions, and another "realignment" of city staff to (again) create a new department to join the process. We christened last year's model the "Neighborhood-Based Solution," a magic elixir the city aimed to apply to all its problem areas. But that proved too abstract to get beyond Garza's whiteboard.
This time around, city leaders are shuffling around specific people to better match their strengths to these work. Which, if it were happening in Solid Waste Services, would never be discussed in these pages. But the growth front is different, being the only place where officials, staffers, and citizens are roughly equal partners. So it's hard to throw someone off the Planning Commission, or tap a new department head to oversee development review, or substantially change the review process, without everyone noticing, caring, and having an opinion.
For nine months, there have officially been two vacancies on the nine-member Planning Commission -- the two consensus seats that supposedly represent the will of the whole City Council. (As on most other city boards, the other seven PC'ers are appointed by individual council members.) There haven't been empty chairs, because city commissioners serve until they're replaced, but Susana Almanza and Ben Heimsath -- arguably the most important citizen players on the planning front for a decade -- have been living on borrowed time, with markedly different results.
Heimsath, who in the mid-Nineties chaired the Citizens Planning Committee from which most of the city's current tenets sprang, was supposed to be a shoo-in for reappointment. Almanza, leader of the Eastside environmental movement, saw her appeal at City Hall diminish as her opposition to things like the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan and the Triangle Square project -- two beloved examples of the city's growth policies in action -- grew more strident. So out Almanza went.
But if Almanza gets tossed, does the City Council have to likewise toss Heimsath -- her foil on the commission? And without Almanza, the commission only has two women: Jean Mather and Betty Baker, both doyennes of the planning scene who cannot serve on the PC forever. (Mather and Baker were appointed by the two women on the City Council, Beverly Griffith and Jackie Goodman, respectively.)
Should Heimsath be replaced by a woman who shares his politics, such as former planning commissioner Maggie Armstrong, a leader in the Austin Neighborhoods Council and close associate of Griffith? Or should efforts be redoubled to find a Hispanic woman, or at least a woman of color, to replace Almanza? Council Member Danny Thomas replaced the PC's other woman of color, Gwen Webb, with the Rev. Sterling Lands. And since Dr. Lands, though he's the pastor of a church on the Eastside, lives in North Austin, how about finding an Eastside resident to balance the commission's distinct 78703/04/05 tilt?
Got a headache yet? This went on for months, during which every Austin politico save Mark McKinnon and Leslie seems to have been considered. (To which many responded, as reportedly did former council member Bill Spelman, "I'd rather fry in hell.") "I think we're trying to cover too many bases with two appointments -- geographic, ethnic, neighborhood-oriented," says Council Member Daryl Slusher, the only behind-the-scenes opponent to Almanza's appointment two years ago. "I thought it had been worked out -- not unanimously, but when you get to four or five votes, that's what becomes consensus."
The solution Slusher referred to was to appoint Lydia Torres Ortiz to Almanza's seat. Ortiz is a former Environmental Protection Agency staffer and wife of 1999 City Council candidate Hector Ortiz. With that appointment made at the Sept. 12 budget meeting, the Council could keep Heimsath, declare victory, and go home. Enter Thomas and his go-go aide Linda Dailey, who without advance notice decided that former Capital Metro board member and county-commish candidate Stacy Dukes-Rhone, sister of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, would make a fine addition to the commission.
She probably would, but now is not the time, Thomas was told -- especially since five commissioners' terms will expire next January. According to observers, Dukes-Rhone was content to wait for a future opening on the commission (in part because she was eight months pregnant). But when Slusher moved to appoint Ortiz and Heimsath, Thomas made a substitute motion to appoint Dukes-Rhone.
The Watson Council does not drag appointees through the mud in such a manner, and a seething Slusher and Goodman pulled the plug. Thereafter, City Hall sources report, Dailey made clear that if the council "rammed Ben Heimsath down our throats," Thomas' people would be very open in their opposition.
That wasn't exactly what happened on September 28. After the motion was once again made to appoint Heimsath and Ortiz, Thomas made a substitute motion, this time to appoint Darwin McKee, chair of the Water and Wastewater Commission and also a former candidate for county commissioner. Thomas would have also reappointed Almanza and dumped Heimsath. This was all supposedly to ensure that Eastside issues were not ignored. The motion died for lack of a second.
As interesting as such sagas are, this would all be Backstairs at Eighth and Colorado if Jackie Goodman had not sold -- at the Sept. 12 meeting where the Planning Commission appointments first ran aground -- a plan to create a second commission. Under Goodman's plan, a new commission will deal with planning, while the existing commission serves as zoning commission that directs development traffic through the city pipeline. This gives the council nine more high-profile positions to fill in a politically sensitive manner, especially since some current commissioners would jump to the new board.
Then There Were Two
Serving on an actual planning commission -- if that is what Goodman and the city staff manage to create -- is a damn sight better than frying in hell. "I think the key to making this transition is to rethink the functions that are currently performed by the Planning Commission, as well as addressing needs that aren't being addressed," says Heimsath. "If that were true, I'd be interested in being on the planning side. I wouldn't be interested in being on an independent advisory board with no clearly defined role, with the Planning Commission remaining the same."
"We know from the late, late hours and the stress the commission's been under that some kind of structure needs to change," says Griffith of the overworked and oft-criticized commission. "I know the ANC [Austin Neighborhoods Council] has for a long time wanted a group to do long-range planning that would put neighborhood plans together to be community plans. The new zoning commission can look to the new planning commission for guidelines, and for long-range thinking that many community leaders and groups have wanted for a long time."
The city charter specifically calls for "a Planning Commission" of nine members to do the work the existing commission and any new body that would be created. Those requirements include reviewing and recommending on the city's comprehensive plan and the ordinances and regulations (and capital investments) necessary to implement that plan. The charter also asks the PC to do a lot of things -- like reporting annually to the council on how the comprehensive plan, which is older than Britney Spears, should be updated.
So a bona fide planning commission, a blue-ribbon panel of citizen experts, could maintain and upgrade the city's laughably inadequate comprehensive plan -- from which the entire enormous Land Development Code is supposed to follow -- and create the innovative policy tools to make the Smart Growth vision a reality. All that work would still have to be reviewed by the newly created "zoning commission," so the PC's workload would be shared, but its high political temperatures could well be doubled.
Since Jackie Goodman is the queen of this scene and gets her way almost all of the time, you can bet on the city staff trying to ensure that the new commission would not be a hostage to the existing one.
"I think just having the name Planning Commission and being part of its charge is where the continuum of prestige ... lies," says Goodman. "But [other commissions] were laying out the issues that need to be codified. Someone still needs to turn those issues into an ordinance, and a new PC could do that. They could spend time brainstorming about the things that planners learn in school and dream about doing in the real world."
The easiest way to ensure that the new planning commission gets respect is to stock it with folks worthy of respect. According to Goodman, "we have an enormous pool of talent who are chomping at the bit; there are just tons and tons of people who are interested."
Much of that tonnage can be found within the large and frankly pretty exhausted pool of joiners and activists that make up the political scene. "I understand the intent, but more meetings don't fix things because people don't actually have more time," says Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition leader Jim Walker.
Heimsath -- who's been doing the city's work in one or another high-intensity appointment for about seven years -- is more sanguine and believes the activist community should be empowered: "We need to make hay while the sun is up, because the alternative is worse."
Walker has a different view. "It isn't that we need more people -- more citizens devoting time out of their own pockets -- to these issues," he says. Instead, the city staff needs to uphold its end of its Smart Growth bargain with the neighborhoods, its commitment to listen and respond to more than just developers. "We need institutional change in how DRID relates to people out here. Without that, DRID will keep up not keeping up."
DRIDlock "DRID" is the city's Development Review and Inspection Department, which does all the heavy lifting on the growth front: zoning, building permits, subdivisions, code enforcement, writing and adopting ordinances. Consensus inside and outside city government is that DRID has a problem. The staff is overworked, turnover is rampant, morale is low, the automated systems don't work well, turnaround times are long, and the city's new policy initiatives are falling through the cracks.
Meanwhile, another component of the planning machine, the Planning, Environmental, and Conservation Services Department (PECS), has added staff -- both in the popular neighborhood planning program and in other long-range planning areas. But the policy this department creates has to be translated into ordinances. And those ordinances often fall into a hole in the city's bureaucratic process. It is this hole that Goodman aims to fill.
"The structure we've been working in, and the underlying organizational aspects and memory, come from when we were a small city," says Ben Heimsath. "Trying to superimpose the number of cases we have to deal with on this old small-city structure was sheer madness."
When she took her first pass at tweaking this year's budget, Goodman intended to put more money into DRID. "But apparently, staff from within is also working on some of the same things ... so I didn't need to ask for all the money out of their measly $5 million" -- the leftover funds city management gave council to spend at the end of the budget cycle. Goodman expects a midyear budget amendment to fund salary adjustments and systems upgrades for DRID and PECS staff. "Unless they start looking for more resources," she says, "I don't see how anything is really going to improve."
Goodman also discovered that Assistant City Managers Toby Futrell and Marcia Conner were working their own reorganization plan, aimed at solving some of the same problems Goodman has focused on at DRID. "They were trying to match staffers with their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes," Goodman said, "and put them where they would be most productive."
At the center of this shuffle is DRID Director Alice Glasco. Glasco is well-liked by her staff and by the City Council, who deal with her mostly on zoning cases, an area where all agree she is well-suited. Insiders differ as to whether she's getting a bum rap for the problems within DRID. But there is a problem, and Futrell and Conner seem determined to find a better place for Glasco -- probably as head of a new department that oversees zoning, neighborhood planning, and neighborhood services. Having all the neighborhood functions in one department seems a no-brainer to most observers, but Glasco has no track record with neighborhood planning or with the Office of Neighborhood Services.
That sets up a conflict between the Dept. of Neighborhood Planning Manager Carol Barrett and ONS director Cora Wright. Neighborhood planning is the council's baby and Barrett is its governess. Her program -- first envisioned by the Citizens Planning Committee chaired by Heimsath -- has a deep and loyal constituency among the community activists.
Neighborhood Services, on the other hand, is the city manager's baby, and Wright's model has less to do with planning than with social work: helping people organize, putting them in touch with the services they need, leading educational programs like the well-received Neighborhood Academy, and other efforts at "capacity building." This gives Wright an entirely different constituency, and the neighborhood elite did not at first take kindly to her approach, which they felt ignored or devalued the existing neighborhood structure that undergirds so much of the city's politics. Nor have council members been entirely sure that Wright's ONS is a response to what they saw as a problem.
So if Barrett is Wright's boss, or Wright is Barrett's boss, someone gets bruised and Glasco will find much of her time taken up with peace-making among rival constituencies. Meanwhile, who takes Glasco's place at DRID? The city's utility infielder, Mike Heitz -- who turned around Parks and Recreation Dept. and then Watershed Protection -- would add DRID to his portfolio and become a super-department head.
And what happens to what's left of PECS, which without neighborhood planning would be a loose collection of expert talent unable to do much more than give advice? There are several possibilities, including separating out the environmental staff and turning the rest of PECS' functions back over to DRID, as it was when Austin had but one Department of Planning and Development. (Goodman is firm about not wanting the city's environmental staff working for the development department, although if Heitz directs both DRID and Watershed that will be the case.)
And after all this reorganization, who works with the Planning Commission?
These are all details to be worked out later. And as Garza exercises his prerogative as city manager and restructures Austin government on what seems to be monthly schedule, there's always room to try again. But the city manager will be working under the watchful eyes of citizens and the City Council. "Every single process in these different areas needs very intense and guaranteed community input and involvement," says Goodman. "We don't just want to make plans and pass initiatives that have no chance in hell of working, because there's no system in place to make them work. So yes, the City Council is very interested in the city manager's plans."