Austin @ Large: The Results Are In ...

Envision Central Texas lays a minefield for the local wiseguys

Austin At Large
At the press conference Monday to announce the findings of Envision Central Texas' big community survey this last fall -- findings that overwhelmingly rejected sprawl, auto-addicted land use, and environmental mismanagement -- the air was not exactly thick with insightful questions. Some of my favorites:

"Only 12,000 people responded? That doesn't sound like very many." (It is. New York City spent more than $2 million promoting its citizen survey on the proposed 9/11 memorial, and got 4,000 responses. The ECT survey was much longer, and the 6,000 who responded by mail had to buy their own stamps.)

"This just reflects the opinions of all the new people in town, right?" (Actually, quite the opposite. More than half the ECT respondents have lived in Central Texas for at least 15 years. This is the Keep Austin -- and its environs -- Weird vote.)

And, best of all: "Isn't it common sense that people wouldn't want to be stuck in traffic and breathe dirty air? Why did you need a survey to tell us that?" ECT board Chair Neal Kocurek deftly parried this one, pointing out in the nicest possible way that ECT's Scenario A -- which reflects status-quo development patterns extrapolated over 20 years -- got soundly thumped by every other option, including "none of the above." Apparently, common sense ain't so common around here, or else today's Central Texas would look a lot different.

I rehearse these dumb questions as a public service, since these are among the spin points you're sure to hear over the next six months, as the final ECT scenario for the next two decades of growth is crafted by the group's consultant elves, polished by the group's 72-member board, and presented to the leaders of the dozens of local jurisdictions whose decisions could make the ECT vision a reality. Or not. Most of those leaders have no obligation to even read what ECT gives them, let alone implement it. (I assume people like Will Wynn and Mike Heiligenstein, who actually serve on the ECT board, will feel obliged to read it.) And as it becomes clear that many Central Texas power players don't wanna do what ECT so strongly recommends, those dumb questions will become false arguments, often repeated, that people might start to believe.

What the People Want vs. --

I should apologize for being so cynical, since even I am rather shocked by how thoroughly ECT respondents stuck it to the real estate man. At the time, I reported the conventional wisdom that, while the status-quo Scenario A had no chance, neither did the most extreme alternative to it, Scenario D -- a vision built almost entirely on infill, redevelopment, and urban density. Instead, I and others thought, respondents would gravitate to Scenarios B (a "corridor plan" much like the ones we passed back in the 1970s and 1980s and then failed to follow) and C (focusing growth in new and existing towns, the way human beings used to do before they had cars).

How wrong I was. Scenario D -- the radical reversal of decades of Central Texas history -- got nearly 50% of the vote. Another 25% voted for C, which is more than A and B got combined. ("None of the above" got 10%.) Those are the results for the question asking which scenario would "provide the best overall quality of life." On other, more specific questions -- regarding transportation, land use, open space, and public investment -- Scenario D likewise reigned supreme, with two notable exceptions. Over the aquifer, ECT respondents wanted as little growth as possible, which was actually a vote for C rather than D. This was the outcome lobbied for by local greens, including the Save Our Springs Alliance, but as with most of the ECT survey findings, there's very little difference of opinion among the five counties in the metro area. So much for Austin being "out of touch" with the regional mainstream.

And as regards housing, C and D basically tied, in what ECT consultants John and Scott Fregonese call "a fairly nuanced response [that] shows a clear preference for the housing style of Scenario C with the land-use pattern of Scenario D." That means people still want single-family, owner-occupied housing, but in far more "urban" settings than they have been offered before. So much for the public voting with its wallets. (A point to consider when city leaders complain that urban neighborhoods will never accept this kind of density; what people really don't like are big, monolithic apartment complexes like, oh, the Villas on Guadalupe. Of course, any urban-core neighborhood leaders who object to density per se should likewise read the writing on the wall.)

-- What the Wiseguys Want

It's actually pretty hard to exaggerate the disconnect here between what Central Texans want and what the powers-that-sprawl say people want. Real important people, with actual influence over public policy decisions that affect your lives, announced at the outset of the ECT survey that the only scenario that was in any way realistic was A, and even discussing "alternatives" was a waste of breath. This is simply bullshit, though it may prove to be self-fulfilling bullshit.

Likewise, it's been argued by many through the entire ECT process that "regionalism" was, at best, a faraway ideal, and that any ECT vision would collapse amid the same old divisions between the urbans and rurals and suburbans and D's and R's and whites and blacks and browns and everyone else. Much of the laborious ECT process -- and the 72-member board -- has been managed and massaged to make sure everyone was duly included. It appears from the findings that fears of intra-regional rivalry, while necessary to heed, were not so scary after all -- while there are a few interesting variations, for the most part every subset (both geographic and demographic) of the total respondent pool voiced exactly the same opinions.

That's not to say that the final ECT vision could not gather a peck of dust, like so many bright ideas before. But just like other recent events on the local beat -- from Austin Energy's embrace of solar power to the eruption of opposition to big-box retail -- the ECT findings show that the mainstream, not just in the Birkenstock Belt but throughout Central Texas, ain't where it used to be. It's a lot farther left. And if, 20 years on, Central Texas doesn't look like the ECT vision, it won't be because that's the natural order of things. It will be because people in power succeeded in imposing their will on the populace. end story

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regional planning, Envision Central Texas, ECT, Scenario A, Scenario B, Scenario C, Scenario D, Neal Kocurek, John Fregonese, regionalism, sprawl, Edwards Aquifer, transportation, land use, housing

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