It's not that hard to find local leaders who don't have particularly high expectations for whatever comes out of Envision Central Texas' regional vision project. You can find them on the 74-member ECT board itself -- though, understandably, they try not to sound too pessimistic on the record. "How much change is having a regional vision going to create? Not much," says one. "Is it still important to have one? Absolutely."
That's not quite as ringing an endorsement as Mayor Will Wynn's declaration, at the ECT kickoff earlier this month, that "the next three weeks will shape life in Central Texas for the next three decades." He meant the three weeks of the elaborate public survey process that Envision Central Texas -- an independent nonprofit organization, featuring leaders (elected and otherwise) from throughout the five-county Austin metro area but no official authority -- has staged to get public feedback on its four alternative long-term growth scenarios, all premised on Central Texas doubling its population to 2.5 million people in 20 to 40 years. Those three weeks end Oct. 26, and they have been busy ones.
Nearly half a million copies of the ECT survey were distributed in local newspapers, including this one. Advocacy groups interested in growth and development, from the Travis Co. Green Party on the left to the Real Estate Council of Austin on the right, have urged and helped their members and friends to take the survey. ECT and others have even held community "survey parties" for people who don't like thinking about the future alone. And, of course, you can still (until Sunday) fill the survey out online (at www.envisioncentraltexas.org). It will take ECT and its consultants six months or so to synthesize the feedback into a single consensus vision for Austin's future growth.
It's a big deal, the culmination of a lot of work and time -- more than two years, with slowdowns and interruptions for economic downturn (and a corresponding decline in the region's growth rate), global warfare, regime change at the Capitol, everything but pestilence. Even before the survey, ECT has gotten input from thousands of Central Texans to create the scenarios. So it may be a little disconcerting, and tiring, for ECT players and partisans to hear questions like "Why?" and "So what?" Particularly when they're hearing them from each other -- and from local leaders who actually have some power to influence whether any ECT vision truly becomes "regional," let alone real.
Yet it is still important to have a vision -- on that, there is already agreement, from left, right, and center, and ECT has been roundly applauded for taking on (or taking over) "regionalism" -- even by people who turn right around and say that any regional growth-management plan is futile. This proves, most of all, how thoroughly the Austin metro area has lacked a vision, or even an identity, throughout our modern-day transition from a frontier outpost to a landmark on the world stage. Not only do the region's jurisdictions and stakeholders not play well with others, they don't even know how it's done. (It's no accident that "Central Texas" -- a geographic locale that extends far, far beyond the five counties -- has been appropriated as a moniker for a region that holds its major city and raison d'être, Austin, at arm's length.) So any news is good news. "The best thing that ECT can do," says Texas Monthly Publisher Mike Levy, "is get on everyone's radar screen that the issues we face are not just about one town or one neighborhood. The five-county area is our neighborhood."
The ECT board is so large, partly, in order to include most of the important stakeholders throughout the region: all five county judges, present or former mayors of the major cities, reps from quasi-regional government agencies like Capital Metro and the LCRA, business-group leaders, neighborhood leaders, African-American and Hispanic leaders -- most everyone, really (except Mike Levy) -- steered by an executive committee that itself has 23 members, under the chairmanship of St. David's Health Care System CEO and longtime community leader Neal Kocurek, and with ACC trustee Beverly Silas as ECT's executive director. "Their passions and interests are as diverse as their ZIP codes," Kocurek announced at ECT's kickoff. "Yet they share a common desire -- to make sure Central Texas remains a place all of us want to call home."
Lest you think this inclusivity is purely ceremonial, these people -- many of them, anyway -- have in fact been meeting, as often as weekly, and doing real work on the ECT project. Though metro Austin is well supplied with entities with regional aspirations, ECT really is, by design, about as broad-based an enterprise, both politically and geographically, as has ever existed to shape policy in the region. The message was reinforced when, to build support and maintain momentum during the year ECT and its consultants have been shaping the five-county growth scenarios, the organization sponsored community planning workshops for specific sites in Pflugerville, Bastrop, Lockhart, and Dripping Springs, as well as in East Austin (for the Featherlite tract) and in McNeil Junction -- a 200-acre site between Austin, Round Rock, and Cedar Park, straddling the Travis/Williamson Co. line and partly owned by Capital Metro. In other words, a perfect place to put aside parochial jurisdictional interests and -- like the other sites -- not a place we normally think of when we think about "growth management." (No aquifers, no Central Austin historic neighborhoods.)
Too often, such efforts to bring everyone from everywhere to the table and keep them there -- and to keep an organization like ECT above the fray, rather than a new venue for the same old clashes of the same old agendas -- end up producing consensus on the color of the sky and of the grass, but on very little else. Yet despite taking diplomatic care to, for example, downplay the notion that any of the four scenarios -- even Scenario A, which extrapolates present trends into a sprawl-filled future -- is better than another, ECT's work and output make clear that not only do we need a vision that we currently don't have, but that such a vision needs to be significantly different from the status quo.
ECT has embraced core concepts of livability and sustainability -- like mixed-use development, mixed-income (and affordable) housing, genuine transportation choices, real social equity, and environmental protection -- as the standards by which it (and we) should judge the scenarios and the subsequent vision. This doesn't seem like such a big deal for active Austinites, but it's still somewhat novel talk out in the counties, and if ECT -- with its repeated outreach to the grassroots -- can't convince die-hards that such "progressive" values actually represent the regional mainstream, then nothing will. "Right now, the power we have is the power of persuasion," says ECT board member and Williamson Co. Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein. "We can march out to all the different communities and show them that there are differences between the scenarios, and you can put those differences together into a regional vision, and talk to them about the possibilities. Many people have never given these options any thought before or realized they were possible."
Having said that, ECT really does need, and want, to stay above the fray if it intends to stick around for 20 to 40 years to see the vision become real -- and, since ECT already includes so many of the decision-makers who will influence that process, we're probably all better off if it does. "ECT has to develop an approach to brokering regionalism that is independent of what the actual survey results are," says Jim Walker, ECT board member, director of the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project, and former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. "Certainly, the next steps will depend on what the survey says -- how different communities can develop best practices to achieve the things they say they want. But we need to be independent of Scenario A or B or C or D. We need to be able to work through all the factional conflicts that we all know so well in Austin, to be the connection between the sides instead of picking a side. We have enough of that already."
When the project first began in 2001, this wasn't such a hard thing to believe; as Wynn notes, "For more than a century, the population of the Austin metropolitan area has doubled every two decades," and with the torrid pace of growth in the late 1990s it seemed chancy to expect it to take 20 years to top 2.5 million. In the beginning, the most vocal detractors of ECT were on the Austin left -- from constituencies, if not individuals, who have now been won over to the project -- who argued that presuming such growth would guarantee and legitimize it, and that a responsible visioning project would include the option of not growing, or at least not so much.
That was then, this is now -- the region's declining economy has extended the project's horizon to "20 to 40 years," and the downside of negative growth has become apparent, and the fact that ECT may help promote growth instead of just manage it has, in the view of at least some stakeholders, become a virtue. The project's planners acknowledge that the amount of raw land consumed by low-density sprawl in Scenario A may be greater than may actually happen, given our basically flat current growth rate -- but that even in modest circumstances, the current model of basically unmanaged and unconstrained land use will cover more land with concrete than any of the three alternative scenarios. Scenario B focuses growth (especially new commercial development) on new and existing transportation corridors; it still includes plenty of single-family housing, but in more clustered projects than typically get built now, with more space between them. Scenario C condenses the pattern further, into both existing and brand-new towns, and Scenario D turns the existing towns into cities, with extensive infill and densities currently only found in the Austin urban core.
The survey itself asks respondents to do more than just choose between A, B, C, and D -- although it does do that, and that result will doubtless be closely watched and widely reported. Early handicapping says A and D have no chance, even though several local real estate and business leaders, both on and off the ECT board, have argued that A is the only scenario that reflects the market forces they feel produced the status quo and can't be changed, and thus is the only option worth considering. But considering that the region is already struggling badly to accommodate the people we have now with this supposedly inevitable pattern -- a struggle you can see every day on the highways, in the schools and hospitals, and too often even in the air we breathe -- even moderate Republican suburbanites are willing to think outside that box. "Given the amount of money that's been spent on infrastructure already, people are waking up to the idea that there are limited resources," says Heiligenstein, who also currently chairs the Clean Air Force of Central Texas. "Can you provide all the infrastructure that goes with the ever-expanding concentric circles of growth?"
Conversely, while progressive land-use advocates have long talked about the virtues of infill and redevelopment, Scenario D -- under which less than half the new housing built would be single-family -- would require hitherto-unknown cooperation from neighborhoods both in Austin and in the surrounding towns. The Austin Neighborhoods Council has already made clear that it sees an ECT regional vision as subordinate to the city's neighborhood plans, and City Manager Toby Futrell raised some eyebrows last week with surprisingly skeptical -- though hardly uninformed -- opinions about the likelihood of neighborhoods ever accepting greater density.
Equally important variables to a sustainable future are harder to put on a map and thus remain on ECT's to-do list. Nothing is said, for example, about the need to match projected growth with an available water supply, or with the existing social service infrastructure -- turning Liberty Hill into a city, for example, and directing growth there that would otherwise go to an established larger jurisdiction (whether in Williamson Co. or elsewhere) has implications for the local schools, for the delivery of health care, and other things that get done with tax money. "I'm unsure you can even have a 'regional vision' that means anything unless it addresses those human-side issues," says Robin Rather. "It's very difficult to integrate all these issues, and all the statistics and plans that go with them, into one dialogue about sustainability. But we have to do it. I don't think we can, and hope we don't, move on to developing an implementation strategy before we weave those elements in and make sure they're covered."
Even within the framework of "land-use planning," ECT's vision will still have to incorporate more details to be helpful to the jurisdictions that may choose to use it as the basis for actual policy. Perhaps the most obvious issue is that of a jobs-housing balance, or more broadly the desired split between commercial and residential development -- both within each jurisdiction and in the region as a whole. This ties into tax equity -- the bugbear that forces Austin and surrounding jurisdictions to fight over who gets the Wal-Mart -- as well as into transportation, air quality, and most everything else. Ideally, once you factor out one-of-a-kind regional employers like UT, each community would be able to supply enough employment for its own residents, and maybe even a diverse enough employment base to respond to its own residents' life choices. But how do you accomplish that?
At the ECT workshops last fall from which the scenarios sprang, participants were asked to allocate among the five counties not just amounts but types of development, each with a unique mix of jobs and housing -- and, at least implicitly, a specific set of potential commercial uses. But those differences aren't explicated in the scenarios or in the survey, other than the ECT planners' assertion that in scenarios B, C, and D each county's share of new housing and of job growth would be the same. (In Scenario A, Travis Co. would get the vast majority of the jobs but only about half the housing, just like now.) Saying that we should encourage "mixed-use" development is only a partial answer, since "mixed-use" typically means small office or retail. While ECT's guiding principles call for a robust and coordinated economic development strategy for the region, it's much easier to allocate housing through public policy than it is to allocate employment.
"You have to get people to realize that other governmental entities are not the enemy. They have to realize that it's serving their constituents, it's good government, to have a dialogue and to have interlocal agreements to support services like planning. You talk to the people in Voter Land; they want consolidated services and metropolitan government. Jack-on-the-street thinks politicians should be talking together about issues that don't respect political boundaries. Everyone seems to understand that but the elected officials." (Levy notes that Will Wynn is an exception: "He believes in this stuff, he has the right skill sets and the right personality, and he's a policy wonk. He thinks strategically as an elected official who understands the political environment, but he also understands policy, and we've had very few people who do.")
Even before becoming mayor, Wynn was a visible force in most of the regional policy efforts we do have -- the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Clean Air Force, the Capital Area Planning Council (CAPCO, the region's state-created, but perennially underpowered and underfunded, council of government, whose turf stretches from Llano to La Grange), and back in the day the Downtown Austin Alliance. (Downtown, of course, serves the needs, or tries to, of people far beyond the Austin city limits.) It's those existing gestures toward regionalism, says Jim Walker (whose Sustainability Indicators Project is another one), that offer ECT the best place to start.
"We don't really know yet what 'regionalism' means," says Walker. "We know to start dancing to the tune, but not how to dance. But that's fine, because you have to start somewhere. ECT can give the efforts already under way the impetus they need to make ideas happen." And ECT can also give direction and motivation to its more powerful stakeholders -- like RECA, the Save Our Springs Alliance, Liveable City, CAPCO, or the Community Action Network, which oversees social service delivery -- "to make a new commitment to regionalism, to figure out what we need to talk more about with the public, to find out what communities are really chomping at the bit to make the vision happen."
Whatever ECT's role ends up being, it's clear that the group, or something like it, must have a life after the survey results are in, Walker adds. "We have to do the follow-through in a much more sincere way than any other previous planning effort has done. That's where all the past efforts have fallen apart. Whatever the vision is -- whether we cut left or right or straight up the middle -- we have to continue to run."
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.