Austinites begin a new comprehensive plan for the city's future
"If we do our jobs right, we'll create a plan that has a profound influence on our generation and the next."
Do those words make your heart leap? John Fernsler, a principal with consultants Wallace Roberts & Todd, offered them up to inspire a dozen tables of engaged Austinites who attended a comprehensive planning kickoff community workshop at Scholz Garten last August. If you're like the folks in that room, planning and community activism already quicken your pulse. You're likely a planning or policy wonk or involved with a nonprofit or neighborhood association or task force – and probably a habitué of City Hall. But for many, talk of a comprehensive plan can be a real eye-glazer: What is it, and why should I care if the city of Austin is doing one?
The short answer: Cities create comprehensive plans to holistically address all community needs. Citizens come together to express common values, visions, and aspirations for the future; those will get translated into a comprehensive plan, according to the city of Austin, that "will drive the way the city grows, spends, and conserves its resources." The City Charter says the new adopted plan "shall contain the council's policies for growth, development and beautification of the land."
It's more than a land-use plan, though: All "quality of life" issues are considered – affordability, the environment, children living in poverty, parks and green space, public services, a healthy economy, and more. As a guiding document intended to underlie all city of Austin projects, programs, and initiatives, the adopted plan will drive hundreds of millions in spending decisions and public improvements in the following five years. It could result in new sidewalks or a pocket park – or a sewage treatment plant – being built next to your home.
Indeed, the less you currently know about comprehensive planning, the more the city of Austin and already involved citizens want to hear your concerns. They hope you'll stay involved and help create a road map for Austin's future – and become sufficiently engaged to help implement it. By mid-February, the comp plan team will begin drafting a vision statement for Austin's future – a lofty expression of our guiding aspirations. Before that starts, the city and a citizens advisory task force for the plan want to hear from thousands of Austinites; the outcry for outreach – especially to Not the Usual Suspects – is reaching a fever pitch exceptional even for Austin. (So far, more than 1,000 responses have come in.) A comprehensive plan can only be truly all-inclusive on the issues and finding cross-city solutions if it's first inclusive of all Austinites.
What's at stake? Perhaps the future of Austin. Without a comprehensive plan that proactively charts a future course, said Fensler, "we're rolling down the highway, at an ever-increasing pace of growth and change, with no hand on the wheel."
Believe in Me
Of course, it requires an act of faith to believe that any plan, however visionary, will shift the city's course. To do so, it has to be the right plan, backed by a deep level of community support and commitment – and it needs a muscular implementation strategy. With that in mind, City Council established three overarching comp plan goals: community engagement, sustainability (for the economy, environment, and future use of resources), and implementation. The Vision and Plan Framework (see www.imagineaustin.net) says a focus on implementation will guide the entire process, "culminating in formulation of a realistic action agenda and benchmarks to measure progress in achieving the Vision."
Garner Stoll, an assistant director in the Neighborhood Planning and Development Review Department, is the lead city staffer working alongside Wallace Roberts & Todd. He concedes that Austinites are understandably skeptical about city planning. The city has a history of doing a series of unfunded aspirational plans, such as its pedestrian plan and bicycle plan. Completed plans have tended to sit on the shelf – lacking the needed funding or political will (or both) to transform vision into reality. Austin's decadelong exercise in neighborhood planning has glaringly lacked a fund-and-build-it commitment; annual capital improvement project budgets were never tightly linked to priorities set forth in neighborhood plans. (That's finally begun happening in the past year.) When adequate financing, staffing, and other resources have failed to materialize – and when neighborhood plans have been ignored in granting zoning-change requests – it has created cynicism and anger. Mark Yznaga, a community task force member and a passionate citizen comprehensive-planner, said that cynicism about city planning and the lack of follow-up implementation is now "the 900-pound elephant in the room."
Council Member Laura Morrison, a former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, helped craft an ANC resolution calling for a comprehensive plan in 2007 (see "Call for Action to Manage Austin's Growth," at www.ancweb.org). The recognition that one was needed, she said, "came out of the neighborhood planning process. People had put in a tremendous amount of energy and time, and in the end, they oftentimes felt they got ignored."
Why should we believe this time will be different? What's to say a new comprehensive plan really will be implemented – that future zoning decisions, council policies, and major infrastructure projects will support the grand vision? Stoll and others point to the City Charter. In that legally binding document (in effect, the city's constitution), "the intent is that the new comprehensive plan will coordinate all city policies – this is the organizing vision, document, and framework that makes sense of them all," explained Stoll. "The charter says it's designed to drive all of the city's regulating powers."
"It's a decision-making tool," he added, "and the charter says it must be used, once adopted." At the same time, he said, council members and city management must consistently reference and cleave to it.
Morrison agreed. "If Austinites are going to spend time on this, they need to be sure leaders are going to use it as the voice of the community that's going to guide our decisions. It will have the force of law, yes, but its power is always going to be about our expectations and commitment to it."
Outreach or Else!
On the one hand, it's discouraging that of Austin's 750,000 or so residents, only about 220 showed up for the first round of community forum meetings. (According to Planning Commissioner Dave Anderson, little Pflugerville had 300 people show up for its comprehensive plan meetings.) A number of close observers are critical and concerned, including Jeb Boyt and Glenn Gadbois of the Austin Urban Coalition. That group is advancing a New Urbanist, or "town centers," model for sustainable growth; its participants include the Alliance for Public Transportation, Congress for the New Urbanism – Central Texas, the Downtown Austin Alliance, League of Bicycling Voters, and others. But Fernsler thinks things are going well; he and others expect greater involvement as the process moves beyond the warm-and-fuzzy visioning phase and delves into the meat of serious issues. "The degree of civic engagement is unique in Austin," commented Fernsler, who has worked with communities all over the country. "there is a true sense of citizen ownership, and people feel they're entitled to speak up and be heard on anything."
Where we've fallen down, he suggested, is that we tend to have a lot of single-issue, even myopic activists, rather than broad discussions about how to synthesize numerous "livability" and "quality of life" issues into big-picture solutions. He observed that in Austin, "There tend to be silos of issues – people are very passionate about one, but they may or may not see the connections to other issues." He said we need a comprehensive planning process to "give people the opportunity to sit next to people, at community forums, that are not from their own club or neighborhood or interest groups. They'll hear different perceptions, and when they do, they begin to rethink their own – or become more tolerant of other attitudes." Indeed, shifting community dialogue could be the single best outcome of this planning exercise – especially if it gets us past simplistic dialectics like "environment vs. developer." Yet it's worrisome that Fernsler couldn't say precisely how Wallace Roberts & Todd is going to make that happen.
Thanks to all the work done since that early meeting at Scholz Garten, the city now has a public participation plan that runs to more than 20 pages. It outlines a long list of tools – surveys, meetings and events, media coverage, a website, social networking, a speakers bureau, e-mail blasts and newsletters, and even a book club. The Imagine Austin campaign could use more strategic finesse and help with messaging – ideally from a local firm with expertise in social marketing – and some celebrity spokespeople. But clearly, city staff and the consultant team are truly committed to outreach.
Despite bumps, hiccups, and a slow start, a diverse 38-member Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Task Force is on board as well. But at its Jan. 12 meeting, the volunteer task force – whose members represent diverse segments of the community – was still struggling to find its voice and its role. The group is handicapped by being formed after the consulting firm began work, and it's trying to catch up to the process and sort out organizational issues. The group has also been prevented from brainstorming by Open Meetings Act restrictions – in fact, it has accomplished virtually nothing in four months.
A larger problem is that no organizational chart delineates how communication and responsibility is supposed to flow among all the involved parties – the citizens group, the consultant team, city staff, the planning commission, and council members. There's been no clear leader. Several participants say they're not sure who to talk to about resolving problems – which has left them confused and frustrated.
City Manager Marc Ott recently tasked Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards with righting the ship and providing the missing management structure. Edwards is frank about the problems and open to suggestions, and she said confidently: "It's going to go well! We've got enough people who really care about this, within and outside the organization, and we're devoting enough resources, that we're going to get it done."
City Council is monitoring progress through the Comprehensive Planning and Trans-portation Committee: Sheryl Cole (chair), Laura Morrison, and Chris Riley. The Planning Commission has its own comprehensive plan committee, chaired by Dave Anderson. For the rest of us, there's an initial survey online, with more to come in later phases (a statistically valid survey will be done as well by a national firm). An innovative Meeting in a Box tool is proving popular and fun for small groups. (Both are online at www.imagineaustin.net.) So those who never lift a finger on the comprehensive plan in 2010 and then complain about Austin's direction will have no one to blame but themselves.
We're all invited to this party.
Powers of the Charter
According to the City Charter, any comprehensive plan "shall contain the council's policies for growth, development and beautification of the land." Those policies apply not just within city limits but also in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction – which currently has acreage equal to that of the city itself. A plan must incorporate the following 10 elements:
1) future land use;
2) traffic circulation and mass transit;
3) wastewater, solid waste, drainage, and potable water;
4) conservation and environmental resources;
5) recreation and open space;
7) public services and facilities, including a capital improvement program;
8) public buildings and related facilities;
9) economic development and redevelopment;
10) health and human services.
Attorney Chad Shaw, from the city's legal department, said the plan's powers originate in the "surprisingly short" Chapter 213 of the Texas Local Government Code, which allows city comprehensive plans to cover land use, transportation, and other topics desired. It explicitly leaves it up to cities to define "the relationship between a comprehensive plan and development regulations" and the consistency required between them. In other words, we can decide if the plan is merely advisory or mandatory. (Stoll seemed to strongly counsel the latter – a comp plan with teeth.)
A previous generation of comprehensive-planning Austinites voted for mandatory. The language that will give the new comprehensive plan teeth is in the City Charter's Article X, "Planning." Voters placed it into the charter in a January 1985 election, in anticipation of council adopting a new comprehensive plan (which never happened). The charter spells out the legal effect: "Upon adoption of a comprehensive plan ... all land development regulations [e.g., the Land Development Code] ... and all city regulatory actions relating to land use, subdivision and development approval shall be consistent with the comprehensive plan [emphasis added]." That's what makes it the core document from which all other regulations must flow.
Unfortunately, the same language also created a loophole: It applies to that new plan ... that never happened. Although Article X begins, "It is the purpose and intent of this article that the city council establish comprehensive planning as a continuous and ongoing governmental function," Austin hasn't done a lick of comprehensive planning since the charter was amended in 1985 (see "The Comp Plan Schedule," below), instead embarking on unfunded advisory neighborhood planning. The last section of Article X says that any prior comprehensive plan – e.g., the still-on-the-books Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, which dates from 1979 – "shall continue to have such force and effect as it had at the date of its adoption" until a new comp plan is adopted. That section has been interpreted over the years to mean that the Land Development Code (and all zoning decisions) don't have to be consistent with Austin Tomorrow. Only once a new comprehensive plan is adopted would consistency become mandatory.
Since all neighborhood plans are amendments to the existing Austin Tomorrow Plan, this reading – and three decades of failing to adopt a new comp plan – in effect weakened the legal standing of neighborhood plans. Council felt it had a free hand, over the years, in granting zoning variances that were not in accordance with neighborhood plans. The current council has shown greater commitment to consulting neighborhood plans; still, many neighborhood advocates worry that the comprehensive plan will further undo their work. Yet there's a potential silver lining to adopting a new comprehensive plan: Neighborhood plans, if amended to this one, will finally gain clear and strong legal standing.
No Development Permitted
"I can certainly understand if people approach this process with a degree of skepticism," said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. "The neighborhood plans have been difficult and very disappointing for some people. But I know that the council members on the subcommittee and the staff are determined to do everything they can to make this work. I'm out there every day telling people how important it is for them to participate."
The most powerful way for council to spur motivation would be to vocally abide by the comp plan we have, of course, and the neighborhood plans amended to it. Though it's a bit murky, it could be argued that the provisions of Article X kicked in last year – when council adopted the interim update of the Austin Tomorrow Plan. So council and the planning commission really don't need to wait for a new comprehensive plan; they can start behaving like the one we have is the bible right now. For the good of this comprehensive planning process, they should. The more Austinites hear and see council members and planning commissioners reference the comprehensive plan's power this year – emphasizing that all of their land-use and development approval decisions must follow it – the more motivated folks will feel to work on the new comp plan. Seeing is believing.
Once a new plan is adopted, following the charter's process, "no public or private development shall be permitted, except in conformity with such adopted comprehensive plan or element or portion thereof." If City Council truly adheres to that language at every Thursday zoning hearing, the new comp plan will be powerful indeed. It also becomes the job of the Planning Commission – not council – to "submit annually to the city manager ... a list of recommended capital improvements ... necessary or desirable" to implement the plan. Article X also says "the council shall provide for financing of all elements contained in the comprehensive plan." That's a strong directive. If council fails to fund the plan's implementation, could citizens sue them for violating the charter?
Follow the Money
Assistant City Manager Robert Goode pointed out that city staff has long lacked clear, definitive direction on how Austinites want resources allocated. "We are implementers, not policy setters," said Goode. "But we need the big vision – it makes our lives and jobs so much easier." Once council adopts a community-created comprehensive plan, said Goode, the City Charter requires the city to fund its implementation.
That means the comp plan will drive spending decisions for hundreds of millions in city projects over the next five years – a "follow the money" impact that ought to wake up the whole town. Yet to date, major employers and business groups, like the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin, haven't shown much interest in the comprehensive plan. Indeed, they're among the underrepresented groups that the city must now try to engage. The risk is that they'll sit out the public engagement process – but jump in at the end to throw their weight (and PR dollars) around to jettison what they don't like, or even the whole plan's adoption. A version of that dynamic is currently playing out with Austin Energy's Resource and Climate Protection Plan. Is anyone brave enough to ask the major employers not to do that again?
City Manager Marc Ott emphasized that sustainability is council's one overarching theme for the substance of this plan. Ott strongly recommended it to council as a tool for focusing the city's energies and resources on what matters most. A comprehensive plan forces us to set priorities, he explained, for always limited resources. "We have so many big, significant plans going on at the same time," he commented, that the city risks going off in too many different directions. Instead, it needs to tie all of its various initiatives back into one consolidated, cross-sector comprehensive plan that's officially adopted. City Council may take 100 separate actions on any given Thursday; Ott asks, "Toward what end?"
Indeed, Ott's commitment to implementing the plan appears to be the single strongest new factor in its favor. His predecessor, Toby Futrell, was no fan of comprehensive planning; infamously, she thumbed her nose at a 2006 city auditor's report (requested by council) that advised doing the plan. Commented Morrison, "It's really terrific to have a city manager who has a good, deep understanding of the plan's role; it makes for a very effective partnership between management and council."
Goode and Ott came to Austin from Fort Worth, where the city updated its comprehensive plan annually. Austin's charter requires an annual review, with a major update every five years. But even in Fort Worth, said Goode, it was challenging to translate the broad goals of the comprehensive plan directly into priorities for the annual city budget, departmental plans, and annual capital improvement plan. "The link wasn't as strong to the capital program there," as he believes Ott wants in Austin. "If city management and the departments aren't consulting it, it won't be as effective. We have to ensure that departmental business plans get checked against it.
"From staff's standpoint, it's so critical to have that plan, because it should be influencing all our decisions," said Goode – which projects get done and where and how. "A particular roadway that furthers a priority in the comp plan – that the community has told us to go do – rises to the top of the list," he explained. "You have to look at issues like: How does the solid waste services master plan link to what's expressed in the comprehensive plan? It has to, or we're working at cross-purposes.
"We as city staff, once the comprehensive plan is adopted, will need to use every resource we have to help achieve that plan," Goode emphasized. "Once the community says, 'Here's our vision,' our job is [to] say: 'Using all the tools we have available, how do we achieve that vision?'" Since City Council never officially adopted the Envision Central Texas preferred-growth scenario, staff hasn't had clear authority to use it to prioritize projects, said Goode. "We need a document that tells us what the community wants its future to look like. Everybody has to think big picture about how all this fits together."
Now is the time to speak. "There are serious challenges this community faces," said Fernsler soberly – mentioning what he's learned about the high percentage of children living in poverty, without health care, and even homeless. "We can't afford the gridlock of doing nothing, or continuing to do the same thing, just because it seems easier. The community is facing some serious problems – those have to be addressed in this comprehensive plan."
For information about all aspects of the comprehensive plan, including the team and schedule, the data on which it will be based, and opportunities for having a voice, visit www.imagineaustin.net.
Add Your Vision and Voice
Here's how to contribute to the comprehensive plan's initial vision statement. All tools remain available at www.imagineaustin.net through March 1.
• Take the initial Imagine Austin survey.
• E-mail the survey to others.
• Organize a Meeting in a Box event for a small group.
• Volunteer to assist with wider outreach, especially to underserved neighborhoods.
• Read the Community Inventory, a 400-page data book rich in statistics on Austin demographics, employment, land use and zoning, housing, neighborhoods, transportation, parks, urban design, the environment, and other topics.
• Attend (or watch) City Council's monthly Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee meetings; the next one is Monday, Feb. 1, 2pm at City Hall.
• Attend the monthly meetings of the Citizens Advisory Task Force.
Not into the vision thing? Look for other surveys and a spring community forum series that will delve into growth strategies, on the website throughout 2010. Questions? Contact city planner Matt Dugan at email@example.com or 974-7665.
The Comp Plan Schedule
Developing Vision Statement
Planning Implications: Current Data & Trends
"Status Quo" Future Scenario
Vision Statement Endorsed
Community Forums: Alternative Scenarios
Community Forums: Selecting a Preferred Future
Plan Framework Development & Review
City releases draft of plan
May: City Council election
December: Community Forums
Plan goes to City Council