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Planners OK update of Austin Tomorrow Plan

Thursday, May 29, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Austin Tomorrow Plan, developed four decades ago at a time when Austin was a much different city, is being dusted off, cleaned up and brought up to date by city staff to include changes in the development code made since it was approved in 1979.

The plan was intended to provide a long-range view for Austin’s development process. And while it is often mentioned – typically when someone wants to shoot down some aspect of a new development – no one has dusted off the plan and revised it in 30 years.

Chair David Sullivan called the Planning Commission’s vote Tuesday night on the updated Austin Tomorrow Plan “one of the most important motions the Planning Commission has taken in a long time.”

In general, the plan has held up fairly well, even though the city’s population and size was wildly underestimated in the pre-tech boom days of Austin. For instance, here is some of the language the original report used in defense of sprawl as an important issue for the city:

“The decentralization of Austin, although slow at the outset, has gained momentum in recent years. Rising land costs, the search for environmental amenities and access to the country side and industrial and commercial locations on the city’s fringe are a few factors which have propelled the suburbs further and further away from the central city.”’

That talk is just about as appropriate now as it was then. Estimates for the size of Austin, however, were off by about 30 percent. The plan predicted 500,000 people in 2000; there are now in excess of 650,000. It spoke of a city contained in 175 square miles; it is now 230.

However, while the goal was to avoid sprawl – and frequently people have spoken of it – Austin’s gross population density is less now than it was in 1960. Planner Mark Walters, who presented a portion of the plan, noted that Austin was 55 square miles in 1960. It had a population of 186,545, or 3,343 persons per square mile. Today, the figures are 297 square miles and a population of 735,088, giving the city a density of 2,470 persons per square mile.

The goal of the first phase – which is currently being completed – is to incorporate the ordinances of the last 30 years into the ATP document. That was to be followed with new additions to the document to provide a future ATP horizon.

Walters was hesitant to ascribe all of Austin’s planning efforts to the Austin Tomorrow Plan. Certainly city leaders were more sensitive to environmental issues because of the ATP planning process. On the other hand, the impact of the ATP on more recent ordinances on the built environment is difficult to trace, Walters said.

While it would be impossible to detail every ordinance in one article, the majority of ordinances dealing with Austin growth management fall into four areas: the environment (preserve lands and the drinking water protection zones); downtown; neighborhoods (neighborhood planning areas); and, in later years, the compact city (Mueller, plus various neighborhood tweaks, the University Neighborhood Overlay, core transit corridors and airport noise overlay zone).

Those areas are broken down even further into a timeline map. For instance, work on the environment began as early as 1979 with water quality and scenic preservation. Preserve land and SMART growth were launched in the mid-90s, followed by climate protection in 2005.

If you look at the timeline under downtown, the progression and addition of ordinances began with two plans for Rainey Street, followed by the Convention Center, Downtown Public Improvement District, East Sixth Street, Great Streets and the CURE ordinance. Around 2000, Seaholm and the Downtown Design Guidelines were unveiled, followed by the East Sixth Street Neighborhood Conservation Combining District and the third incarnation for Rainey Street.

Neighborhood planning became active in the 1980s with area studies. Those studies led to the inner city neighborhoods ordinance, historic structure survey and passage of the law preserving Capital view corridors. It would be another decade before this area was active again, with issues such as the East Austin Overlay, Neighborhood Planning Process and, in 1999, the East 11th and 12th Streets Urban Renewal Plan, Walters explained. The last decade has included Neighborhood Planning Design Tools and the revision of two-family regulations in 2004.

In the mid-1990s, the Council approved the Traditional Neighborhood Development ordinance. In 2001, the Council adopted the Neighborhood Planning Special Infill Tool ordinance.

More recently, the city enacted three more: the University Neighborhood Overlay in 2004; Transit-Oriented Development in 2005; and the Vertical Mixed-Use Development in 2007.

Testimony at last night’s hearing focused on how the constraints of the plan made it difficult to offer new options for places in environmentally sensitive areas, like Oak Hill. Planning Commission also had an extended discussion about the plan’s distinct lack of emphasis on some of the newer city goals, such as affordable housing.

Commissioners agreed that elements such as affordable housing and transportation would play a much higher-profile role in the next version of the ATP. The commissioners also wanted to emphasize their support for integrated mixed-income housing.

The Planning Commission’s vote to approve the preliminary report was 8-0, with Commissioner Saundra Kirk absent from the meeting.

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