Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Tweaking the Widget: Is "neighborhood planning" the tool for the job Austin needs done?

Austin At Large
The usual disclosure: I can't write "objectively" about neighborhood planning, because I chaired the Central East Austin Neighborhood Planning Team and have been involved in a nonjournalistic sense for years in neighborhood politics. On the other hand, I speak from experience. Judge the following accordingly.

Last week we noted the discontent brewing over the neighborhood-planning proposals for the next budget year -- which, like the plans done this year, cover much larger parts of town, in less detail than previous plans had assayed, on a narrower range of issues, with less citizen participation, than was originally true of neighborhood planning. Naturally, this year's process went a lot faster and easier, which City Hall considers a victory.

Next year will be different. The sectors -- selected for their proximity to the light rail corridor, if such there ever is -- include West Campus, North University, Hancock, Crestview, Wooten, and the Arboretum/ Great Hills area. These neighborhoods are organized, active, demanding, and already thin of patience with City Hall. They know the code, know how to lobby, expect to get what they want, and will take any frustrations with staff straight to the City Council. It will be hard to sell them on a "neighborhood planning" process that falls short of the vision they attach to that term. I predict trouble.

A Modest Proposal

I hope I'm wrong, because the last thing Austin needs is more unproductive trouble. But that's what happens when "neighborhood planning" is envisioned by all sides as a sort of universal civic widget that can be inserted into any problem. Were I City Manager Toby Futrell, I would declare a two-year moratorium on "neighborhood planning," and instead call the current process what it is -- rewriting Austin's 25-year-old comprehensive plan, Austin Tomorrow, piece by piece. As I've argued here before, this is a job that really needs to be done. While it has to be done in pieces, lest it collapse under its own weight -- as happened to Austinplan, our last attempt (15 years ago now) to rewrite Austin Tomorrow all at once -- it nonetheless has to outline, or spring from, citywide goals defined in public view.

How much growth will we absorb within the existing city limits? Where do we want the students, the yuppies, the poor people, the large employers, the small employers? What kinds of development should we require, not just encourage, to make those goals possible? How do we want our streets to function -- not just as thoroughfares for cars, but as places where people (including the people in the cars) actually live their lives? These are questions the whole community needs to answer in a comprehensive plan. The details of how to meet those goals can vary between the neighborhood plans. But right now there are no goals to meet; there are only wishes, dreamed up by staff, or by council, or by neighbors, in their respective vacuums.

Right now, for example, neighborhoods can include Smart Growth infill tools (garage apartments, small-lot homes, et cetera) in their plans. This decision would be a lot easier if neighbors knew -- because the comp plan told them -- how many people, and what kinds of people, they need to accommodate in the future. Obviously, that's a controversial political issue, but hiding it under a bushel does not make it go away. Right now, we sublimate that hot topic with euphemistic staff-driven discussions of "affordability" and "sustainability," and allow the battle to be fought over and over, in the dark, by each neighborhood as it plans.

So that's one thing. Meanwhile, were I Toby, I would pull from the trash one of the single-member district maps and decree (you mean Toby can't "decree"?) that each of the eight districts will henceforth have a district council of nine members. Ideally, these people would be elected, but from a slate of candidates nominated by neighborhoods. Each district council would have its own budget, city staff support, freedom to devise projects and offer services in and for that district, and a mandate to advise the City Council on any issue that affects that part of town.

Governing in Action

How to fund this? How about a $2-a-month fee on each utility bill? We're already paying for all manner of city services via our utility bill, both directly and indirectly; two bucks is less than you pay each month for street repair, and "neighborhoods" are supposed to be what makes Austin great. That could give each district an annual budget of more than $1 million, which is a lot more than the $20,000 of play money attached to each neighborhood plan, and adds up to twice the annual budget of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Dept.

Lest you think I'm a commie, I have heard the district-council idea (though not my funding scheme) touted by none other than Futrell's predecessor, Jesus Garza. District councils could replace existing boards and commissions, with all their inefficiencies and overlap. More importantly, they would allow neighbors to govern -- with obvious benefits to an overburdened, cash-strapped City Hall, as well as to the citizenry -- instead of lobbying to get someone else to govern, or planning how someone else should govern.

Right now, giving neighbors actual governing power requires absurd gymnastics, as with the no-parking-on-the-lawn ordinance (see "Naked City"). That new law allows neighborhood associations to opt in or not, which would be fine except that anyone can form a neighborhood association and define its boundaries and membership however they choose, without the consent of those the NA is supposed to "represent." Regardless of how I feel about parking on the lawn, I object to this on principle. Requiring notarized documents and copies of an NA's bylaws will only prove what we already know -- some NAs are legit, others are not, and some neighborhoods have competing NAs. The status quo -- NAs and neighborhood planning and city boards -- already involves layers of burdensome pseudo-government without the compensations of real power. Wouldn't elected district councils be cleaner and simpler?

Okay, sure, I'm not Toby. But it's about time we started thinking about alternatives to the current neighborhood planning system, which for all its merits, and for all the dedication brought to it by both staff and citizens, seems destined to fail to deliver what Austin really wants and needs.

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neighborhood planning, Central East Austin Neighborhood Planning Team, City Hall, West Campus, North University, Hancock, Crestview, Wooten, Arboretum / Great Hills, Toby Futrell, Austin Tomorrow, Austinplan, Smart Growth, single-member districts, Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, Jesus Garza

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