Public Notice: Death of a Planner

John Fregonese tried to get us all to a better place

Public Notice: Death of a Planner

"John Fregonese passed away on June 16, surrounded by his beloved family," said the first brief message. Fregonese had recently turned 68, and though he lived and worked in Portland, Ore., his demise leaves a big hole in this city's current planning effort. He was known in Austin's CodeNEXT process primarily as the main affordable housing consultant, but his influence goes a lot deeper than that, and his knowledge of the city, and his understanding of the trade-offs implicit in making various planning choices, will be sorely missed. More often than not, for example, he was the only guy reminding commissioners and council members of the gaps between planning and real life – that what you want to see get built in a space may not be what developers want to build, or tenants want to move into, and that in the end, the free market will do what makes the best economic sense.

Fregonese's first major project in Austin was during Fregonese Calthorpe Associates' work on the 2004 Envision Central Texas project, a planning process which later informed the Imagine Austin master plan developed between 2009 and 2012. By then his own company, Fregonese Associates, had developed the Envision Tomorrow GIS-based planning and mapping tool, building on the earlier work, and was working with UT, the city, and the federal housing department, on the Sustainable Places Project – "to help policy leaders examine growth scenarios for activity centers across Central Texas." (Does that sound familiar, almost a decade later?) That same ET software is still being used in the scenario testing that was intended to inform the CodeNEXT mapping (but has not been run on any of the mapping recommendations that currently sit on Council's desks).

Zoning and Platting Commissioner Jim Duncan, who has become a harsh critic of the current code draft, was a longtime friend of Fregonese's, and he sent out a brief email at the news of his death, which I excerpt here: "John Fregonese was a special planner and a special person. ...

"In my opinion, some of John's best contributions were related to his 'areas of growth/areas of stability' growth concepts and his ideas about ... community engagement. My former firm drafted the zoning ordinance for Tulsa to implement the comprehensive plan that John prepared. Using his plan as a guide, we largely avoided the controversies we are now having here in Austin about where to concentrate new growth and where to preserve established neighborhoods. His concepts were easily implementable and enabled the city to draft, vet and adopt the code in reasonable time (three years).

"I've always felt that part of John's extraordinary success was that he spent quality time in both the public (Portland planning director) and private sectors and knew how to successfully negotiate both. John Fregonese was one of a kind! Rest in peace, old friend!"


Meanwhile, facing "both critical city business on Thursday and an emerging national crisis in our backyard," as Mayor Steve Adler put it on the Council message board; much of City Council has decamped to a Conference of Mayors event protesting the horrors going on down at the Mexican border, and has canceled today's special-called meeting on CodeNEXT. With only one more meeting before the monthlong July break (and CodeNEXT not even on that 115-Item agenda at this point), it appears the land use rewrite is quietly off the front burner for now. Fair enough: Everyone agrees this is not something we should rush. But then, why did it have to rush through the Zoning and Platting and Planning commissions so quickly?

More specifically, if Council now has to shelve their consideration for a month or two (or longer, as Mayor Adler has already hinted) why don't they kick it back to the land use commissions for further review in the meantime – for ZAP to refine or reconsider their "repeal and replace" stance, and PC to mediate some of their bitter 7-6 votes on various issues, to find compromises that they admittedly didn't have time to explore, before they have to become the bitter 6-5 Council votes that Adler has pledged to avoid?


The City of Austin Community Job Fair is an event supporting the City's Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance, which works to help qualified job applicants with criminal histories. It'll be held this Thursday, June 21, from 3-7pm at the Asian American Resource Center, 8401 Cameron, where 38 local employers will present local job opportunities. For more info, see www.austintexas.gov/job-resource-fair, or more generally, www.austintexas.gov/fairchancehiring.

Here's a worthwhile fundraiser for U.S. Rep. District 10 candidate Mike Siegel, who will discuss the legal fight to end gerrymandering in Texas with attorney Renea Hicks, who sued the state of Texas on the issue all the way to the Supreme Court. It's at Stiles Switch BBQ on Sunday, June 24, 4-5:30pm, co-hosted by City Council Member Greg Casar, County Commissioner Brigid Shea, Dr. Harry Thomas, and Lesley Varghese.


Our friends at Rainforest Partnership here in Austin remind us that this Friday, June 22, is World Rainforest Day, so if you like breathing, and all the other things that follow from that, see a list of things you can do for the forests at www.worldrainforestday.com and www.rainforestpartnership.org.


Friday, June 22, is also the 20th annual Take Your Dog to Work Day so, you know ... See more info at www.petsit.com.

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

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