Urban Planning: A Roundup
How Austin is working toward getting better by design
Conventional wisdom: An economic downcycle is the ideal time to invest in urban-planning efforts. Without the pressures of fast-paced development activity created by a go-go market, a city can make thoughtful, measured decisions and develop policies that will positively shape the next development cycle. As we bear up for this recession, the city of Austin happens to be on the cusp of starting a new comprehensive plan. Seems it couldn't come at a better time.
The Downtown Austin Plan, a number of other city master-planning and urban-design efforts, and the final push to complete neighborhood planning also all are in progress. But without development activity (and battles), Austin has sunk into planning inertia in past downcycles. Historically, it's taken a crisis to motivate us to "let's never do that again" action. Are we now a "big" enough city to stay the course and calmly sustain – even step up – our planning investment during this recession for a more livable tomorrow?
With that question in mind, it's timely to jog through a year-end review of the many urban-design and -planning efforts in play at the city of Austin.
New Comprehensive Plan
Perhaps by February, an expert consultant will be in place to begin crafting a process for our new comprehensive plan. As the city's Request for Statements of Qualifications stated: "The new plan is needed to chart Austin's near, intermediate, and long-term future to preserve and enhance the community's cherished quality of life. The plan will need to address key themes currently at the center of civic debate such as growth and development, sustainability and climate change, environmental protection, neighborhood preservation, affordable housing, economic development, and local and regional mobility."
A tall order! City staffers currently are reviewing proposals from six firms seeking to lead the challenging 2009-2011 process. They'll use standard selection criteria in ranking applicants for the $1.3 million assignment. Look for a council briefing and consultant presentations to council (with a community open house and Q&A session) around the end of January. Garner Stoll, assistant director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, noted: "The team must demonstrate experience and talentin engaging the community – in both visioning and creating implementable plans and projects. Both skills are required tocreatea successful comprehensive plan."
Our albatross: the negativity and mistrust toward the city that's became entrenched over 10 years of neighborhood planning. For more than a decade, the city has completed neighborhood plans yet had no formal follow-up implementation program to address the needs, priorities, projects, and visions they contain. A pattern of council-granted development variances that ignore plan provisions has soured involved citizens. Here's hoping the comprehensive-plan consultant brings a stellar community-engaging skill set, indeed.
Wonder of wonders, the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department this year finally began a program of Neighborhood Plan Implementation. Reports staff leader Melissa Laursen: "We now have several planners working to track plan implementation and coordinate with other city departments to get plan recommendations into the [capital improvement projects] and bond programs. We have 10 years of neighborhood plans to catch up on and are just beginning to get fully operational with this new process." Laursen said neighborhood contact teams are being contacted and reinvigorated to help identify unaddressed projects and current priorities. If City Council so chose, a future bond referendum could fund priority projects identified in neighborhood plans throughout the city – as occurred successfully in Seattle.
To complete all neighborhood planning – thus tying up loose ends before a comprehensive plan – NPZD has been cracking the whip on its laggards. Each neighborhood planning process typically takes 18 months; those with major issues drag out. The North Burnet/GatewayMaster Plan was done in 2007; a new zoning district for the larger area master plan was provisionally adopted by council in October and should get final approval next year. The Oak Hill Combined Neighborhood Plan was adopted by council Dec. 11; in 2009, the fate of a few specific properties in the future land-use map will be resolved. South Lamar – which includes Barton Creek, Galindo, and Zilker NPAs – has its neighborhood plan on semipermanent hold. (The 78704s refused to play by the same process used in other neighborhoods, citing concerns relating to notification, capacity analysis, the evolution of the planning team, and staff's stronger power to make recommendations.)
In various stages of progress are four large-scale "combined" neighborhood plans. The Central West Austin plan is targeted for completion in August 2009; it's about 80% complete but still lacks land-use and zoning sections. That neighborhood is also tracking the University of Texas master-planning process for the Brackenridge Tract, which is supposed to be done in midsummer. The North Lamar plan began in November 2007 but isn't scheduled to conclude until next fall; a set of initial meetings was completed earlier this month, and work on land use and zoning will start in February. The contentious Heritage Hills/Windsor Hills planning process won't be done until January 2010; it's only about 20% complete. The nascent St. Johns/Coronado Hills planning process kicks off in late February; it won't be done until late in 2010.
The remaining neighborhood planning areas are "pended" until the city's new comprehensive plan is finished, according to NPZD Director Greg Guernsey. Those include: Allandale, Garrison Park, South Manchaca, Westgate, Rosedale, and North Shoal Creek.
Downtown Austin Plan
Slowly but surely, the plan is making progress – although all portions won't be completed until 2010. The ROMA Austin team delivered its "Phase One: Issues and Opportunities" report to council in February. Then council asked the consultants to focus on producing a July "Downtown Urban Rail Connections" report, which provided recommendations for a streetcar/light-rail route and approach.
That work fed into a draft "Transportation Framework Plan" completed in November and now available at www.cityofaustin.org/downtown. That report presents nuanced and carefully integrated recommendations for improved pedestrian, bike, transit, and vehicular mobility. Noting that streets aren't merely a way to get around, ROMA states: "Streets set up and condition the way we actually see and understand the city, how it is organized, where we find places, how we participate in city life." As Downtown evolves into a true live-work-play district, the report recommends significant improvements to sidewalks, bike boulevards, and expanded transit – while also addressing driving and parking issues. In Phase Two, ROMA will build on the plan to recommend specific projects, phasing, and a financing program.
The ROMA team now is tackling affordable housing and density bonus programs. That component will take about six months. The intent is to create true parity of value between what the city gives developers – in the form of additional building height, density, and other entitlements – and what developers give back in the form of affordable housing and other public benefits. ROMA will recommend zoning provisions to be codified by ordinance; those should put meat on the bones of earlier proposals from the Design Commission and Affordable Housing Incentives Task Force.
Phase Two of the plan officially begins in early 2009. Its other components are projected to include an overarching Downtown Framework Plan, a Parks and Open Space Framework Plan, and tailored plans for individual districts. The city's consulting budget was $600,000 for Phase One and is set at $825,000 for Phase Two.
Urban Design Projects
Within NPZD, the Urban Design division is tasked with maintaining and enhancing the aesthetics, livability, walkability, human scale, design quality, and visualization and planning of tomorrow's Austin. Led by Assistant Director George Adams, its nineprofessional staff members include three architects, one landscape architect, and four planners, plus an administrative assistant. The division's 2008-2009 budget is less than $850,000. Given the scope of what Austin tries and needs to accomplish, the division is thin on staff and resources. (By contrast, the city of Portland, Ore., has the Portland Development Commission, with some 190 staffers, working on that city's urban redos.) For major projects, the city hires a national urban-design or master-planning firm to provide the firepower – but a stretched-thin in-house staff still must coordinate with them, which inevitably slows team progress.
Among current projects being handled by Urban Design (as well as other NPZD and Public Works staff) is the Great Streets Development Program for Downtown (modestly funded by about $400,000 in parking-meter revenues, as well as private developers), and individual streetscape improvements. Recently completed is the Cesar Chavez Conversion and Promenade. In progress are improvements to the Second Street District, 23rd Street, Brazos Street, and the East Seventh Street Corridor. The I-35 makeover – a newly attractive pedestrian gateway between the Eastside and Downtown under I-35 between Sixth and Eighth streets – is scheduled to complete design next August and start construction by December. Look for more inviting sidewalks, landscaping, and sculptural lighting fixtures.
Urban Design spent much of 2008 coordinating three major projects led by outside firms: 1) the Downtown Austin Plan (and transit planning), 2) station area plans for transit-oriented development (two out of three received final council approval this month), and 3) the East Riverside Drive Master Plan Development. (The Waller Creek District Master Plan never began; the contract remains stuck at the city.) All of these projects seem to creep along at bureaucratic-iceberg pace. More staff and funding would certainly help. But so long as the planning work is well-done – and eventually gets done – all of these projects will help ensure that urban Austin remains a place where we all want to live.