Austin At Large: Say Farewell to Greg Guernsey
An exit interview with Austin’s longtime planning chief
"I know there will be people who are happy – for me! – that I'm leaving," says Greg Guernsey, director of Austin's Planning and Zoning Department since 2006 and a city-staff fixture for 20 years before that, who on Wednesday, July 10, announced his retirement at the end of July (his actual last day in the office is next week). "I feel good about where I am right now. ... It's been a good run and I've enjoyed it."
He wasn't enjoying it as much around this time last year, as the CodeNEXT land development code rewrite ran aground on the shoals of local politics after years of work, millions of dollars spent, and many opinions shared. "I'm always amazed when people say there wasn't enough input. There was a lot! But I had conversations with people on both sides who, it turned out, didn't want to compromise."
Guernsey had made no secret of his intention to retire after CodeNEXT was done – which it is, though not in the way he'd anticipated – and he feels that the ongoing drama of Austin's code revision is in good hands and as necessary as ever. "The code will come," he says. "I'm not sure it will come as quick as October" – the current deadline for City Manager Spencer Cronk to bring a new draft forward – "but the direction the Council provided in May really helps."
He's referring to the multi-meeting marathon during which Council painfully wordsmithed a "strategic direction" document that answered questions about compatibility, parking, heights, transitions, and other planning hot buttons. These were questions that the prior Council, upon blessing CodeNEXT nearly six years earlier, may have hoped would answer themselves.
As CodeNEXT started taking on water when the city's two land use commissions gave Guernsey diametrically opposed guidance, "There would have to be compromise at some level. But it didn't come. Then it was too close to the election, and we were in court over the ballot language" – of Proposition J, the citizen initiative to put the code itself before the voters – "and no one liked anything."
"I'm Very Optimistic"
The good news, as Guernsey sees it, is that the city had an updated comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, that made discussion of a new code more meaningful than typical bureaucratic squabbling. "I feel good about our looking at the city in its entirety, and the comp plan looks at all parts of life in Austin – health, culture, the environment – not just 'land use.' And it made an explicit link between transportation and housing. But it also recognizes that there has been growth and will be growth."
When Guernsey first started, the city had, only a few months prior, adopted the zoning ordinances – including then-novel "compatibility standards" to limit the scale of development near residential neighborhoods – that Son-of-CodeNEXT will replace. Those were written to implement the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, by then still fairly fresh. By the time Imagine Austin came around, "there had been literally hundreds of changes" to city code as Guernsey and other city planners tried to keep up with Austin's boom. "There were no Hill Country ordinances or watershed ordinances. There was no such thing as vested rights [grandfathering of looser regulations] or commercial design standards or McMansions."
All of those changes are what make the current land use code so difficult and expensive to interpret. Throughout Guernsey's tenure at the city – under 10 or so different mayors and city managers, and at least seven organizational incarnations of "the planning department" (currently two units: Planning & Zoning and Development Services) – one thing that's remained consistent is a call to adequately fund a function that Austin takes very, very seriously.
"Austin's been a very dynamic place," he says, "where planning's been on the front burner at Council every week [during my tenure]. People point to things like the Zucker reports" – the external audits that called out chronic shortcomings in Austin's land use functions – "to judge our performance, but [those] established the need for more staff and more resources." Guernsey cites as an accomplishment the reworking of the city's development fees earlier this decade to earn enough money to pay for their efforts.
Will it be enough to keep up in the future with a city and market that are eager to race ahead? "A lot will depend on upcoming budgets that we have with revenue caps," Guernsey says. "We have staff, but not enough to plan the whole city." More focused small-area planning will help, especially now that those efforts aren't all being thrown into the CodeNEXT mixmaster. "But is it enough? We'll need a process that keeps planning at the forefront, as part of a discussion. Not everyone's going to get a neighborhood plan, and it would be difficult to go back and redo the ones we have" to match up with current Council policy.
But, Guernsey says, "I'm very optimistic. Austin will still be a thriving community for many years to come, with a conscience that's mindful to the less fortunate and those with less resources and different needs. We're trying to make accommodations for folks who frankly don't have enough money to live here. And even in my own household, people have opinions about there being too many people and too much growth. But I left Michigan because there was too little, which is far worse. We have options."