Calling All Citizens
Comprehensive Plan and waterfront need engaged Austinites
"Where do we want to go? Who and what does Austin aspire to be in 10, 20, 25 years and beyond?" If those questions fire your imagination, it's time to step up and speak out.
Collaboratively defining the big vision for Austin is the first challenge in crafting the city's new Comprehensive Plan. At its July 23 meeting, City Council authorized a contract with comprehensive plan consultant Wallace Roberts & Todd, allowing work to finally begin on the initial "Plan for a Plan" phase. By the end of September, the WRT team and locals should have defined a citizen participation plan – so you can help shape it. Also decided will be the number and nature of community meetings, surveys, and other Austin-specific outreach to gather broad-based input. (Maybe comment cards at mosh pits, barbecue cook-offs, soccer games, and wiki sites?)
Already on a fast track: selection of a Citizens Advisory Committee. Some council offices are compiling short lists of potential nominees, even though the committee's role, responsibilities, and makeup are yet to be clearly defined. Council, planning commissioners, city staff, and WRT principals (graciously assisting, despite lack of a confirmed contract) have been considering various approaches; there's no standard template from other cities. On Aug. 6, staff will brief council on the Citizens Advisory Committee – presenting recommendations for its role, makeup for broad-based representation, and size (probably 14 to 25 members). Committee appointments could follow at council as soon as Aug. 20 or in September. Interested in serving? Find a nominating council member soon.
I talked to WRT principal David Rouse, from Philadelphia, about what makes a successful community advisory group. "This is a big issue for Austin," he said. Coming from out of town, Rouse and WRT will rely on local advisory groups because "they know the community – we don't. ... They provide continuity throughout the process, as a group of people we can get to know, and they can get to know us. We use them as a sounding board to test ideas and to advise us on direction at key points in the process," said Rouse. Diverse representation is important, but rather than appoint spokespersons of narrow interest groups, he suggested, it's most helpful to have advisory group members who know and understand the community as a whole. "It's effective to have people who are engaged, but you don't want to have just insiders," he added. "It does help to have some fresh faces on it; for that reason, some cities go outside the usual stakeholders."
A brisk pace is needed to finalize the Citizen Advisory Committee, the citizen participation plan, and a two-year schedule of work – with specific milestone deadlines. Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey emphasized at a recent Liveable City forum the critical importance of completing the plan within two years. (And since Austin's public processes inevitably drag, a compressed 18-month work plan, allowing a six-month buffer, would be smart.) Among other good reasons, he pointed out the political advantages of getting the job done on the watch of a single, unified council and mayor – which lasts until July 1, 2011. That time frame also is ideal to set up an expected 2012 bond referendum. If Austinites know they'll vote on funding the community priorities identified, suddenly comprehensive planning isn't just a theoretical exercise – it's serious business. That's the best preventive medicine to ward off comprehensive-plan apathy and cynicism.
Council appointments to the city's all-new Waterfront Planning Advisory Board will serve as yet another litmus test of the council's planning sophistication. Back in May, the revised Waterfront Overlay Ordinance established that Waterfront Planning Advisory Board members should be "drawn from the fields of urban design, environmental protection, architecture, landscape architecture, historic preservation, shoreline ecology, neighborhood conservation, civic art, and real property development." That wisely defined a professional board on the model of the Design Commission. Its members will plan for the shoreline of Lady Bird Lake and its tributary creeks within the protective waterfront overlay, including new amenities, parkland acquisitions, and public access to "better realize the potential of the City's waterfront."
But as of last week, no council quarterback had emerged to assemble a balanced seven-member board with expertise in the nine fields named. The makeup of this board is critical, for it's tasked with "promoting excellence in design, development and protection of the City's waterfront." Read that triple-barreled charge again: 1) design, 2) development, and 3) protection. Council has a rare opportunity to appoint a board of professionals adept at supporting and advancing all three. (Sadly, professional associations in architecture, landscape architecture, and so forth haven't used the intervening months to forward qualified candidates. Other than the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said Council Member Sheryl Cole, "I haven't heard from anyone.")
The board succeeds the Waterfront Overlay Task Force, which worked only on revising the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance. Makeup of that group followed the usual Austin formula: Put in one room a bunch of neighborhood advocates and representatives of opposing positions, and hope they somehow beat out a sensible compromise. On the task force, the dominant voice was reportedly that of no-growth advocate Jeff Jack, representing SaveTownLake.org; the resulting recommendations globally reinstated all the old height limits from 1986, as well as the original 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study goals. Now under council discussion is whether the advisory board should start fresh, by excluding task force members.
That makes sense, as the new advisory board has an entirely different charge. Immediately, it needs to craft and recommend a density-bonus system, specifying which community benefits developers must provide to earn additional height and entitlements. Council has already voted to allow planned-unit development zoning to trump Waterfront Overlay restrictions, so a well-designed and enforceable system to ensure "superior" PUDs will be critical. The board also will consider the over-water boardwalk project to complete the hike-and-bike trail; it might also push the city to get more of the trail completed on land. Another big waterfront planning opportunity: a master plan for cohesive, proactive redevelopment of privately owned tracts along the urban south shore, the likeliest site for new lakeside amenities such as waterfront cafes.
Each council member nominates one board member. If members pack the board with positional advocates, we can expect the same old Austin fights and stasis. But if instead council assembles a truly unbiased professional board, Austin might just realize a 25-year dream – creating a great urban waterfront.