The Austin Chronicle

Pitching the Comprehensive Plan

By Katherine Gregor, February 20, 2009, News

"Inclusiveness," "engagement," "ownership," "implementation." Those buzzwords were reiterated by each of the three finalist teams vying to lead Austin's comprehensive planning process, as they presented their qualifications to council last Thursday. Represent­ing the ACP Visioning+Planning team, principal Gianni Longo defined a successful plan: "It's yours; it's real; it reflects the values and aspirations of your community." Or as he commented to activist Jeff Jack during an open house in the City Hall atrium, "If it's not your plan, we've failed."

All presenters reiterated the salient point: When the national consultants deliver their final reports and go home after two years, Aus­tinites need to be deeply invested in implementing the long-term plan for shaping the city's growth, development, and quality of life. They urged council to heavily weight each firm's track record in successfully inspiring follow-on results. ACP cited the example of Columbus, Ohio, which in November 2008 voted to approve Dream It, Do It, a $1.66 billion bond package to fund projects and capital initiatives developed through community visioning.

Liveable City board member Robin Rather questioned whether adequate implementation by Austin is possible, due to the recession; the group is considering urging a delay of the $1.3 million plan as the city faces $20 million in budget cuts. (The allocation was split equally between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 city budgets.) But conventional wisdom holds that economic downturns are an ideal time to invest in thoughtful planning, in part because it's less likely to be outrun by booming development.

So similar were the 15-minute pitches from the national team leaders – ACP, HNTB, and WRT – that only subtle differences emerged. (See the teams' slide shows at All firms have led impressive efforts in other cities, from Omaha, Neb., to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. But ACP and WRT conveyed the best readiness for Austin-style demands of inclusiveness. (While waiting, the teams were treated to citizens yelling at coun­cil over its postponement of the Wild­flower PUD without a public hearing; several consultants couldn't resist commenting that the evening had provided an education in Austin's "participatory tradition.")

WRT in particular had clearly done its homework on Austin; Mayor Will Wynn commented from the dais that its presentation was "very impressive." ACP stood out as a firm 100% dedicated to comprehensive planning and community visioning.

The staff recommendation and final council decision will be influenced by the makeup of the overall teams. Primarily to meet local minority-owned and women-owned business enterprise participation and equal opportunity requirements, teams include up to 50% local firms in supporting roles such as transportation, community outreach, and economic analysis. Jack noted that the locals' familiarity with local issues and politics could prove a double-edged sword; firms may bring agendas colored by their work for private clients and local organizations.

City staff is ranking the finalists using the city's standard scoring matrix. Council will receive the staff recommendation prior to its Feb. 26 meeting, at which time it may award the job. But for this uniquely influential assignment, elected officials need to carefully make their own choice of the best team to mold Austin's future – not just rely on a point matrix.

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