Public Notice: Planning for Better Plans

In the neighborhood with your city auditor

Public Notice

Austin's Office of the City Auditor on Monday issued an Audit of Neighborhood Planning – all in all, a pretty scathing review of the neighborhood planning process as it has been managed over the past 20 years by the Planning and Zoning Department and its predecessors at the city.

When the city inaugurated the Neighbor­hood Plan program in 1996, advocates complained about the lack of guidance and assistance for their volunteer efforts, but in the time since then, the plans themselves have become an article of faith for many neighborhood advocates, and a bone of contention for others who see such efforts as obstructionist. (It's the schism that's at the core of the District 7 and 10 City Council races in the current election cycle, for example.)

The audit is the result of a push by D3 Council Member Pio Renteria, born from longtime dissatisfaction with planning efforts on the Eastside, where overlapping, and sometimes competing neighborhood groups have clashed over both content and strategy. Initially, the intent was to study the plan contact teams, the groups charged with vetting proposed changes to the plans, but along the way, the auditor's scope was broadened to include the neighborhood planning process overall.

The 13-page audit document contains four major "Findings," and makes a number of recommendations for actions by the Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guern­sey. It does not speak to the merits of any specific plans – no doubt, they vary widely in depth, rigor, and implementation, and that in itself is part of the issue. But interestingly, the recommendations that Guernsey did not concur with are the ones regarding the plans themselves, addressing findings that the plans are not updated, fully implemented, or fully consistent with Imagine Austin – specifically, that the department should:

• "identify where existing neighborhood plans do not reflect the goals of Imagine Austin and work with community stakeholders to improve alignment;" and

• "establish and communicate a regular review, update, and expiration cycle for small area plans, such as neighborhood plans."

In his response, Guernsey indicates that these efforts would conflict with another recommendation, to "initiate a policy discussion that holistically re-evaluates small-area plans ... as they relate to an up-to-date comprehensive plan." But if we don't know where these plans either support, or conflict with, Imagine Austin, yet Imagine Austin specifies that it is to be driven by, and in concert with, small area plans such as these, where do we go from here? Back to Coun­cil, one presumes, for further direction. See the full report at www.austintexas.gov/page/audit-reports.

The inaugural Austin Green Awards were presented Nov. 9 to "specifically highlight outstanding accomplishments in the broad arena of sustainable design and innovation." The judges' unanimous choice for Project of the Year was SOL Austin, a 40-unit single-family small-lot subdivision in an existing East Austin neighborhood, with all units Au­s­tin Energy Green Building 4- or 5-Star Rated. The judges noted: "It has the whole package: net zero energy, affordability, and green with a small footprint. This is the future of single family residential housing for Austin." Awards went as well to five other new projects, each of which earned at least a Green Building 4-Star Rating and/or LEED Gold certification: 2400 Nueces, a student-oriented multifamily high-rise in West Cam­pus; AISD Per­form­ing Arts Center, located in the Mueller Development; Capital Stu­dios, built by Foundation Communities, the first affordable housing complex in Downtown Austin in 45 years; City of Austin African American Cultural and Heritage Facility, which coupled historic rescue of an existing bungalow with construction of a new community facility; and LifeWorks Sooch Founda­tion Youth & Family Resource Center, a social services resource center in East Austin. See full info at www.austingreenawards.org.

This Thursday, from 6-8:30pm, the Travis County Democratic Party is hosting a Stronger Together Community Gathering at their Coordinated Office at 1500 E. Fourth. "While Travis County has a lot to be proud of," they note in a release, "we have two more races to win. City Council candidate Alison Alter and ACC Trustee candidate Sean Hassan reached a run-off, and we need your help. We still need to raise more money to fund an effective run-off campaign for these two Democrats."

The High Road on Dawson has launched the first branch in Austin to support Dolly Parton's Imagina­tion Library, which mails books for free to preschool children every month for five years. See more info at www.imaginationlibrary.com. To contact members and volunteers at the High Road on Dawson to become involved locally, call 512/442-8535 or see www.nicolettemallow.com/2016/09/24/imaginationlibrary.


Audit findings:

• "Finding 1: The City's neighborhood planning efforts are inequitable and have lacked robust and representative participation" – primarily because neighborhood plans have been complete for only about a third of the city.

• "Finding 2: Neighborhood plan contact teams create barriers to public engagement and representative decision-making." Many of them are inaccessible, have poor bylaws, are inconsistently defined, and are not transparent, or representative of their neighborhoods.

• "Finding 3: Neighborhood plans are not regularly updated, implementation of plan recommendations is incomplete, and plans are not consistent with some elements of Imagine Austin."

• "Finding 4: Fair housing choice has not been specifically considered in most neighborhood planning efforts."

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Audit of Neighborhood Planning, Planning and Zoning Department, Pio Renteria, Greg Guernsey, Imagine Austin, Austin Green Awards, Capital Studios, Sean Hassan, Alison Alter

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