The Austin Chronicle

Imagining Austin

'The Austin we love is ...'

By Katherine Gregor, April 23, 2010, News

It's 2040 in Austin: Where should the city have absorbed new population growth over the last 30 years, and how? Which development patterns should be encouraged today, in 2010, to maintain the city's special character?

Austinites can "vote" on those issues at next week's Imagine Austin community forums, April 27-May 1. At the workshops – expanded to include both the city's Comprehensive Plan and its Strategic Mobility Plan – participants will work together to place people and employment around the region. Planning and Development Review Department Assistant Director Garner Stoll said participants will receive background information and support from trained facilitators and professional planners; the resources include regional alternative growth scenarios already developed by Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and Envision Central Texas. On huge maps of the city and its outlying jurisdiction, "You'll be able to see an aerial photo of virtually the entire built environment," said Stoll. Participants should plan to arrive punctually for the complex exercise, Stoll said; the forums will begin with a 30-minute introductory presentation and instructions.

Why devote four to six hours to a forum shaping the Comprehensive Plan? "Austin's new plan will drive our entire land-use process," Stoll explained. "We're talking about a plan to inform the city's entire Capital Improve­ments Program and our entire regulatory program. It will become the driving force for a new land use code or revised regulations, such as watershed regulations, in the future."

At a March 9 workshop, the Comprehensive Plan Citizen Advisory Task Force engaged in a Big Ideas for a Vision for Austin's Future exercise (see results at At its April 13 meeting, the citizen group learned that the first round of public outreach yielded a strong participant count of 5,637. That included nearly 550 people at public forums, more than 3,800 respondents to a kick-off survey, and nearly 1,000 Meeting in a Box participants. (Some people provided more than one response, so the actual number of people involved is somewhat smaller.) Those public responses were crystallized into a first draft of components for an Imagine Austin Vision Statement. Reviewed by task force members (some of whom criticized its lack of cohesion), it now will be shared at the community forums. The final vision statement will guide another year of plan development. It's organized as a series of "The Austin we love is ..." statements, on six themes: liveable, prosperous, natural and sustainable, functional and accessible, caring and committed, stimulat­ing and creative.

What forum participants won't hear are the impacts of their choices – for example, the costs of providing city services, travel times, and air pollution. Those get discussed at the next forum series in July on alternative future scenarios.

Compatible Mobility

The forums will also provide a chance to design "complete streets" and to help prioritize funding for upcoming transportation bond referendums. The Transportation Department had initially planned separate phase II forums for the Strategic Mobility Plan – but the lack of coordination drew community criticism, and the staff merged the two outreach efforts. "The process the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan is using supports the vision statement that's coalescing for the comprehensive plan," said Transportation Depart­ment Director Rob Spillar. Although the SMP will be completed first, he said, "In the end, when the comprehensive plan is published, our transportation plan will be completely compatible with it."

Input from a first round of SMP forums also shaped a gap analysis of transportation needs that require solutions and funding. Spillar said that regardless of the comprehensive plan for Austin's future, some glaring problems on the ground today obviously need solutions, so there's no point delaying them to finish the comp plan. For example, he said, MoPac congestion could be eased by managed lanes, so the city can start crafting funding partnerships to get that done. Projects providing immediate relief will be prioritized for bond funding, Spillar indicated. But so will projects that advance strategic, long-term priorities, he said – such as redeveloping core transit corridors and addressing missing pieces (e.g., a bike bridge across Barton Creek for MoPac) that "connect a much larger network."

In addition, forum participants can do a separate "complete streets" exercise. A rising movement nationally in roadway and urban planning, complete streets are those that provide safe and inviting routes for all travel modes – by car, mass transit, foot, wheelchair, and bicycle. Trees, landscaping, lighting, and street furniture create attractive places while improving adjacent property values (e.g., Austin's Great Streets Program).

Following this second round of community forums, Imagine Austin will launch a new survey and a new Meeting in a Box initiative. City Council is expected to endorse a final vision state­ment in August and a framework for the comprehensive plan in November.

Community Forums

Imagine Austin & Mobility Plan

Tuesday, April 27: ACC Eastview Campus, 3:30–9:30pm

Wednesday, April 28: St. David's Episcopal Church, 7:45am–1:30pm

Wednesday, April 28: Anderson High School, 6–8:30pm

Saturday, May 1: Fulmore Middle School, 9am–11:30am

Refreshments will be provided at all forums.

Speak Week: Imagine Austin will take to the streets to gather public input at Barton Springs, libraries, malls, college campuses, and other popular locations throughout the city, April 20-29. Teams of city staff, planning commissioners, task force members, and other volunteers will man booths. Passersby can engage in brief activities – keep an eye out for one of the 36 booths.

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