Naked City

City urban planning update (what there is of one, anyway)

There's a whole lot of planning going on at the City Council's Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee. That is, if planning to plan and planning to hire people to plan counts as "planning."

The subcommittee is charged with finding consultants for three major urban planning efforts: rewriting the land use and development code, planning the station areas along the future commuter rail line as "transit-oriented" (i.e., dense and walkable) developments, and coming up with a big, honkin' master plan for the State Highway 130 corridor in eastern Travis County. The basic goal of all these efforts is to make Austin's commercial areas denser and its soon-to-be eastern suburbs smarter (low-density sprawl tends to eat up more revenue in infrastructure than it creates in taxes). Strip-mall fanatics, consider yourselves warned.

Neighborhood groups have a keen interest in the rewrite of the code, which is 10,000 pages governing how tall you can build, how many coeds you can fit in a duplex, how many square feet of McMansion you can fit on a lot, and so on. The code hasn't been rewritten since the 1980s, but it has been tweaked and amended so much it has become what in urban-planning circles is known as "a big, confusing mess." This drives neighborhood code-watchers batty because when the rules are confusing, they're more easily broken.

Progress on the rewrite, however, has been slow. The city initially requested bids on the code job last fall; city staff evaluated them and picked local firm Duncan Associates as the top-ranked team for the $300,000 job. ("Top-ranked" is a relative term, however, seeing as the three top teams all scored within six points of one another on a 125-point scale.) Council was set to consider its recommendation in March, but then the whole thing came to a screeching halt and re-emerged only last week in the spanking-new subcommittee, where further delay ensued. Is this simply a case of bureaucracy in action?

According to subcommittee Chair Brewster McCracken, it all boils down to one of the members of the Duncan Associates team: San Francisco-based Peter Calthorpe, who is something of a rock star of the urban planning world. Remember, there are three big planning processes going on. If Calthorpe digs into the code rewrite, that pretty much knocks him out of the running for other work.

McCracken makes no bones about his desire to delay the code rewrite decision for a few months while the city collects bids on the SH 130 master plan to, essentially, allow Calthorpe his choice of jobs. He points out, however, that a surplus of qualified applicants is a pretty nice problem to have. "It's kind of like having to choose whether to have the Beatles or the Stones play at your 16th birthday party," he said. "We can't lose."

Because this is Austin, there are also neighborhood politics to consider, particularly regarding Duncan Associates. The firm has tackled major rewrite jobs all over the country, including a recent overhaul for Chicago. It's worth noting, however, that the firm's head, Jim Duncan, was on the wrong side of a developer vs. neighborhood fight in West Campus (development geeks will recall this as the University Neighborhood Overlay tiff). As a result, some neighborhood activists don't trust Duncan to write a code that's friendly to single-family neighborhoods.

Without criticizing any particular team, perennial neighborhood activist Jeff Jacks asked the subcommittee to formally consider different teams' histories of playing nicely with neighborhood groups in their assessments. "What we want is a consultant that really knows how to work with the community," Jacks said.

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City governmenturban planning, Jeff Jacks, Brewster McCracken, Duncan Associates, code rewrite, SH 130, transit-oriented development, Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee, Peter Calthorpe

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