The Austin Chronicle

The Envision Thing: Clearing the First Hurdle

By Mike Clark-Madison, May 14, 2004, News

Will Envision Central Texas succeed, where so many past planning efforts have failed, in moving from vision to reality? After years of work, the all-star regional collaboration last week released its upbeat "vision" for the Austin metro area over the next 20 to 40 years – or however long it takes for the region's population to double. Said vision, reflecting the input of tens of thousands of citizens in the five-county region, is unabashedly progressive, even utopian – increased urban and suburban density; protected open space; multimodal transportation; a vital, regionally integrated economy; affordable housing for all; increased attention to social and economic equity; and local leaders who know how to play nice with one another.

All very good, and long overdue. But as ECT takes pains to point out in its own mission statement, "The organization has no regulatory powers and does not seek to forcibly impose a plan on the region or its local governments." And though the ECT process produced a clarion call for a substantial shift from the growth-management status quo, that guarantees very little. The ECT vision "is a very positive, hopeful way of throwing down the gauntlet," says LiveableCity board Chair Robin Rather, one of the 73 members of ECT's board. "It's a beautiful dream. But people are still really cynical about planning, and we're still hearing from the development community that the ECT vision will never happen and the market won't go there. So I still feel some realism about the mood of the community and about Austin's track record with planning in the past."

From the beginning, ECT was designed to avoid the pitfalls that have snared past attempts to both manage Central Texas growth and build regionalism. "We had a tendency around here to fragment discussion of single issues, and not take into account the ways those issues interact," says ECT board member Mark Hazelwood, former president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and now an executive at Seton Healthcare Network. He adds that past planning efforts also avoided looking at the entire geographic region or at the long term, and "we didn't get enough people involved or have a mechanism for continuity of leadership during the implementation of past plans. We tried to structure ECT to address all of those issues."

By bringing a vast number of constituencies to the table and keeping them there, Hazelwood adds, "I think ECT's already produced a positive result. One of the things it's already done, for example, is build collaborations between people who before seemingly had irreconcilable differences – for example, bringing people on both the 'transit side' and the 'road side' together to support commuter rail. There's really people reaching out in both directions."

That's because things have gotten so bad, some ECT-ers suggest, that traditionally contentious sets of Central Texas interests can all agree on the need for, if not the specifics of, change. "Everyone wants the way we manage growth to change," says ECT board member Jim Walker, director of the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project and chair of the city's Mueller Commission. "And people want more choices, in transportation – and that specifically means alternatives to cars – and in housing and in economic opportunity. But they want to retain their sense of what Austin and Central Texas are as places. So how do we deliver more choices and change the way we manage growth while still protecting Austin neighborhoods and the outlying rural communities? That's the big question."

The ECT board has already identified, and begun forming subcommittees to address, specific issues that are embedded between the lines of its glowing vision (see box), and the group is committed (or resigned) to being part of the process for the long haul. "People like the fact that ECT spent so much time and energy coming to them, and we need to keep doing that," says Walker. "But people need to remember we have a 20-to-40-year horizon. It's not like this time next year we'll be able to assess how well the ECT vision is being implemented. It's going to take longer, and it's emotional stuff. Passions run high on these issues – which is good."

Nonetheless, the stars may have aligned to give ECT a running start on clearing the first big implementation hurdles. By year's end, local policy-makers will have taken big steps toward redeveloping Mueller, increasing densities in West Campus (see p.28), setting into motion both commuter rail and toll roads, and bringing ECT-style urbanism to the suburbs from Leander to Buda to the Robinson Ranch. These and other projects "will start to put meat on the bones of the vision, and we need to start celebrating every step toward that vision, right now," says Robin Rather. "It will take projects like these to help people believe that they can shape the region's destiny. Very specific challenges are being thrown down, and it's about time for the community to pick them up. It's a historic opportunity."

As ECT figures out its next steps, it does so with a leadership void at the top – the group's executive director Beverly Silas is stepping down to attend the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and the untimely passing in March of ECT board Chair Neal Kocurek leaves massive shoes to fill. "Neal was the glue that held it together," says Walker. "We can't replace him – even four or five of us working together couldn't replace him. But there are lots of leaders on the board and in Central Texas; the challenge is to get some of them to devote their energies to this effort."

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