Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Gus has Gone and Come Again, But Neighborhood Battles Rage On
In what we hope is not an omen, just about the first thing Mayor Gus Garcia got to do in office was declare Austin a disaster area. That act, of course, pertained to the recent storms and floods, but the 600 homes and businesses damaged on Nov. 15 aren't the only things that might be broken around here.
As Garcia sits down for his first City Council meeting Nov. 29, he'll get to wade through a not unduly long ("only" 82 items) but fully packed agenda that offers a pretty good microcosm of what his next 18 months may be like -- parsing a passel of neighborhood quandaries.
For example, maybe, just maybe, Garcia will get to resolve the quagmire in Hyde Park, where neighbors' efforts to put their approved plan into effect -- with a Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD), basically a custom zoning code -- have been stymied by their bete noire, Hyde Park Baptist Church, which has its own plans (and its own NCCD) for expanding against the neighbors' wishes. Heretofore, the Baptists have held the neighbors at bay thanks to the vote of Mayor Kirk Watson, but Garcia would stun observers if he followed his predecessor's lead.
While approving the Hyde Park NCCD is one thing, writing it is another. According to neighborhood leaders, the ordinance remains unwritten at press time -- even though it's already been approved on first and second readings by the City Council, and is on the agenda for third and final reading this week. Without going too deeply into the byzantine history here, Hyde Parkers already feel they were ill served once before, a decade ago when the Baptists wrote their NCCD, with details-to-be-worked-out-later.
Meanwhile, the Baptists are also suing the city, claiming Austin is violating federal legislation sparing churches the trouble of complying with local law. (The council will get a briefing on the case in executive session on Nov. 29.)
If Garcia manages to bring lasting peace to Hyde Park before he leaves office, he will likely have benefited from divine intervention.
Hyde Park predates the city's star-crossed neighborhood planning program, but there are other cans of worms to close. On Nov. 29, the council will consider rezonings called for in the Rosewood and North Austin Civic Association neighborhood plans. Compared to Hyde Park, these are uncontroversial, but it only takes one or two aggrieved neighbors to gum up the works of a plan that took months to create. Since the Rosewood plan -- covering an irregular chunk of East Austin, roughly between Chicon and Airport, MLK and Seventh Street -- was vexed along the way by low citizen participation, who knows what may happen?
Good Plans Make Good Neighbors?
Consider poor Dawson in South Austin, the first neighborhood plan, whose rezonings have dragged on and on and on, as the city seeks to mollify strident objections from resident and business neighbors that popped up well after the plan itself was approved nearly two years ago. Dawson comes back on Dec. 6, along with the rezonings for the Central East Austin plan. (This reporter chaired the CEA neighborhood planning team.) After that comes the Holly plan, whose key players -- from the El Concilio coalition of Mexican-American neighborhood associations -- are all signed up for citizen communication on Nov. 29 to discuss, calmly we are sure, closing the neighborhood's most unloved landmark: the Holly Power Plant.
Also on the Nov. 29 agenda is an oft-postponed item to give the current Planning Commission jurisdiction over zoning cases in a neighborhood plan area -- as opposed to the current Zoning and Platting Commission ("ZAP!"), which was spun off from the old PC specifically to hear zoning cases, but not neighborhood plans. And Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez, the council's designated planners, have an item directing staff to amend the neighborhood planning rules to allow teams to divide their areas into sub-districts.
Right now, Smart Growth infill tools, like garage apartments and small-lot homes -- among the sorest points in Dawson -- have to be allowed throughout a planning area or not at all. This has brought grief to teams in Central East Austin and Upper Boggy Creek -- which between them stretch from I-35 and Airport to Seventh and Webberville, a mighty diverse area with much difference of opinion about Smart Growth. Hence subdistricts.
City staff -- which drew these planning area boundaries in the first place -- does not support such a change, though the reason they most often cite is that too much customization would make their jobs harder. You can imagine how this plays with Goodman and the neighbors.
Meanwhile, the Nov. 29 meeting also has some good old-fashioned spats to deal with, the kind that neighborhood planning may yet (some day) make obsolete. Neighbors in Allandale are fighting a proposed blood plasma center on Burnet Road, and a valid petition has been filed over rezoning the historic Moore House in West Campus for commercial mixed-use. Plus, in several of the cases on the council's post-Thanksgiving platter, the ZAP has recommended zoning that's substantially more restrictive than what the applicant asked for -- which means people will get up and speak at the public hearing, as Garcia's evening drags on.
The More Things Change --
None of this is new to Gus. In fact, he may be thinking about how little has changed since he left office in 1997. And therein is a story. If you had bet, back then, that Kirk Watson would have come and gone, and the first City Council meeting after his departure would be dominated by squadrons of angry neighbors pleading cases from all corners of the city, even skeptical sorts might have taken your wager. But the neighborhood lobby was always less smitten with Watson than were the other players in the political game. Garcia's pro-neighbor credentials are much more robust -- but Gus also don't take no mess, and he will be just as impatient as Watson with either developers or neighbors (or even city staff) who play games. And right off the bat, he will let the citizens know if he wants to be their neighbor until June 2003.