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For Ben Heimsath, chair of the Planning Commission, architecture, planning, community and family are all parts of an integrated whole. He is general manager of Heimsath Architects, a firm that his father, Clovis, founded 41 years ago. The church projects in which the firm specializes often feature stained glass designed by his mother, Maryann. His firm designed the new Metz Elementary School, where his wife teaches school. His older sisters inspired him toward community involvement at a young age.

Monday, January 7, 2002 by

As a teenager, Heimsath’s family moved from Houston, where the firm was well established, to Fayetteville. There, says Heimsath, his father “rediscovered what he loved about architecture. He learned a lot about these small towns and how they work and what makes them strong, traditional ways of understanding architecture.” Coming from Houston, the family also settled into a scaled-down existence. “In many ways, as he [Clovis] was discovering this, it became important to his family,” his son said. Later, Heimsath and his wife, Sandy, would seek out a similar life in Austin, where they purchased a historic home in Hyde Park to raise their family. Heimsath quickly became involved in the community, becoming president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. He hopes that his three children “will have in Austin, at a city level, the kind of base I had coming from a small town. Fayetteville was a place where people cared. In Austin, we have that dynamic in an urban environment and that’s incredibly unique.”

Heimsath’s interest in politics also comes from his time in Fayetteville. Frustrated that there were few opportunities to affect any sizable community impact after leaving Houston, he began a correspondence with Rep. Jake Pickle, who urged him to become a Congressional page, which he did in his senior year of high school. His next political involvement came during his years in graduate school at Harvard, when he returned to Texas to organize the Texas primary campaign for Michael Dukakis. After settling in Austin and taking over the family firm, his involvement in the neighborhood association led to a position on the Historic Landmark Commission . There again, he felt limited and needed to expand his responsibilities. “It’s all well and good to consider individual properties, but we have to think more district-wide and broaden our understanding of what preservation is . . . I became convinced that there was an opportunity to do more, with Austin at that point going into a more prosperous period.” At (now Mayor Pro Tem) Jackie Goodman’s suggestion, Heimsath became chair of the Citizens Planning Commission (CPC).

Heimsath’s architectural projects are infused with the same sort of community collaboration that he envisions as the future of Austin’s planning efforts. He secures community involvement in the design phase by leading Design Retreat Workshops, where community members can find agreement on their design requirements and help create a master plan for the space. Heimsath thus designs by considering the people in the space. His philosophy of urban design is similar: “How does somebody arriving at a place understand themselves as part of the bigger group, then breaking into a smaller group, then having individual space? I think community planning is not much different.”

Speaking of the CPC, Heimsath says, “What we were able to do is what I do a lot with my clients, the approach that I instinctively understand about coalition building, and we were able to look back at Austin Plan and other efforts that had not been successful.” After he finished his tenure on the CPC, Heimsath submitted his application to the Planning Commission, which last year was split into the Zoning and Platting Commission and the new Planning Commission. “I think the Planning Commission had become an incredible bottleneck. The cases that were the most emotional, the people who were the most aggrieved, got all the attention, and long range planning went by the wayside.” Foremost among new Planning Commission’s goals is developing a neighborhood plan approval process that will help bring a more vertical structure to community involvement, alleviating the bottleneck. “Also, our goals are expanding the planning window so that we’ll have much more ability to coordinate transportation issues with the way the city grows. We also need to have more effective liaison relationships with different boards and commissions and other jurisdictions.”

Heimsath amplifies his ideas about the Planning Commission’s role by saying, “The biggest thing that Austin’s missing is that we’ve pretty much punted on any long term plan at all . . . We get some semblance of an area or a district that can get itself together for land use, and transportation is catch-up. We do not have a way of figuring out how to get people from point A to point B, or how that fits into a network, so we punt to CAMPO, and when we don’t like what CAMPO recommends, then we put our heads into the ground and let TxDOT solve all the big problems. That mode is not helping Austin.”

“I think part of the frustration I have with this is about light rail. Light rail is not about a bunch of electric trains. Light rail is about how we’re going to use the resources that we have . . . It defies logic, in my mind, when you look at the pricetag for light rail and say that it would never pay back, then in the very same breath look at intersection infrastructure, for example the 10 or 15 million dollars that we’re about to spend to make 290 work better with Ben White, not even planning it to coordinate with the existing neighborhood. Do we ever ask how those projects are getting paid back?”

The Planning Commission’s work with CIP (Capitol Improvement Program) dollars is also of vital importance, according to Heimsath: “Instead of just reporting out what every party feels like they want and winding up with a grab-bag of God-knows-what, we’re going to go through this process for the first time where we actually look at our menu ahead of time and then fill up our plate with a balanced meal what we have is not a situation where you take your tray through the line and everyone ends up with dessert. That’s the way we’ve done CIP and transportation issues in the past. Or it’s a matter of folks disagreeing with a portion of a plan, and instead of finding a solution it becomes, ‘No, you won’t put that on my plate. We won’t let you put vegetables on our plate because we don’t like vegetables.’ Well, maybe this person could try a different vegetable, or if the person tasted the vegetable, they just might like it.” Here, Heimsath was applying family eating habits to matters of planning.

“I’m afraid that for a generation, what we reflected in our building programs was pretty much an every-man-for-himself atmosphere. It’s a wasteful luxury we can’t afford anymore, where someone can say, ‘I don’t like this place but it doesn’t matter because I can go buy the next strip of land 30 miles down the road and ditch the old place. That sort of free-for-all of no accountability is over.”

Heimsath views community involvement as the path to improvement. “When I’m working in Dallas or Houston, they ask whether it [community involvement] is just a holdover from the sixties. No, I don’t think it’s a holdover at all. I think we’re living your future. More and more of your neighborhoods are going to want to have a say in what happens, and they aren’t going to buy this trust-me-we-know-better bull.”

operators that they would file no paperwork for expansion of their facilities while the ordinance was being drafted.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Downtown success for Armadillo . . . The Armadillo Christmas Bazaar attracted 39,000 paying shoppers in just 12 days this year, according to producer Bruce Willenzik. A happy but tired Willenzik explained that the number represents an increase of nearly 1,000 customers per day over last year, with fewer days. “Sales were wonderful and the artists (who performed) felt good,” he said. Willenzik, who serves on the city’s Downtown Commission, believes the Armadillo experience proves that “downtown retail can work brilliantly. You just have to have something people will react to . . . (that is) genuine and real,” he said . . . Headed to court? . . . Since the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) Board denied its request for a permit to pump 617 million gallons of water from the aquifer annually, the Creedmoor Maha Water Supply Corp . has about 2 weeks to request a rehearing. The request is a prerequisite to filing suit against the district, which seems the likely next step in this saga. Creedmoor Maha’s attorney, Mark Zeppa, told district directors at last week’s hearing his client was hoping to serve “the Texas A&M tract.” In response to a question from the board, Zeppa acknowledged that developer Gary Bradley is “associated with” the group planning to build on that tract. Bradley has been planning for some time to create a major commercial and residential development on the Buda area property. Because Director Jack Goodman was absent from the meeting, and two board members refused to agree to postpone the vote, the board deadlocked 2-2 on the issue. If the directors had agreed to postpone the vote, they could have had an additional 35 days to ponder its answer. However, Goodman had already expressed severe reservations about the water request—especially since Creedmoor Maha representatives said they would not need most of the requested increase next year—so the outcome simply was reached faster by the refusal of Directors Bill Welch and Don Turner to postpone. They voted in favor of the request and Directors Craig Smith and Jim Camp voted against it. Goodman was at work at Jeffrey’s Restaurant, where he recently began an internship on his way to becoming a chef. Goodman has expressed an interest in bringing up the matter once more in order to attempt to reach a compromise. . . Bear Lake meeting . . . Steve Drenner, attorney for Stratus Properties, will meet Monday with members of the 1826 Coalition, to talk about plans for Bear Lake PUD. The case, which is scheduled for a Zoning and Platting Commission hearing Tuesday evening, has been postponed four times. Robin Cravey, who stepped down from the commission last year, is representing the coalition. Area residents have expressed opposition to adding traffic to FM 1826 and to multi-family housing on the part of the property that faces the rural road. Cravey said Stratus has agreed to drop one of three entrances onto FM 1826 and limit density in Hays County to that allowed for rural residences. A planned private school would comply with the SOS ordinance, he said. Drenner could not be reached for comment Friday, but Michele Haussman, who also represents Stratus, pointed out that the PUD complies with SOS and should not be lumped with other Stratus properties . . . Charter Revision Committee meets tonight . . . Those brave folks trying to figure out how to improve Austin’s City Charter will take another look at it again at 6pm this evening in Room 304 of City Hall. . . Slusher party draws small crowd . . . Attendance was fairly light at last night’s fundraiser for Council Member Daryl Slusher, marking the end of the many people’s holiday vacations. Slusher and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman have hired veteran campaign manager Pat Crow to oversee gathering the 20,000 signatures each need to get on the ballot again this spring. Joining Crow in the effort is former Pct. 3 Constable Kevin Miskell . Council Member Beverly Griffith, also seeking signatures, hired Linda Curtis earlier. Griffith told In Fact Daily she thought the race for names would go down to the wire.

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