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West Austin grapples with Enfield-Exposition development

Friday, August 29, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The struggle to figure out what to do with development along Exposition and Enfield in the Central West Austin Neighborhood Plan highlights how difficult it is to make the neighborhood planning process work.

Wednesday night, neighbors gathered in four groups at a formal meeting to decide what they thought was best for development along the two roadways. No matter how hard the facilitators tried to open the discussion to new possibilities – in low-key ways with questions such as “where do you see this in the future?” – the assessment was that most neighbors preferred to see the neighborhood remain just as it was.

It is hard for homeowners to picture what a neighborhood could be 20 or 40 years from now. For one thing, they picked their neighborhood for what they liked: In the case of Central West Austin, they prefer the canopy of trees and single-family lots with plenty of frontage and traffic that is still limited.

Even after a small group outlined a list of things they wanted – like local retail and affordable housing – they still were resistant to the idea of changing the neighborhood. And, in a group led by facilitator Mike Hockmuller, they had difficulty conceptualizing the difference between the current potential on the property and what the future land use might be if a particular property changed hands.

The Future Land Use Map is a difficult concept. Too often, as city staff admits, the neighborhood wants to use the FLUM to hammer a future developer into submission, or, in the case of Oak Hill, circumvent current land use regulations such as the Save Our Springs ordinance in the name of future development.

As Carol Haywood of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department admits, it is all complicated. In the case of the Central West Austin Neighborhood group, neighbors already had gone through lengthy sessions to determine their preferences, which led to painfully tedious sessions where neighbors would go block by block, lot by lot, to discuss what to do with particular properties. Neighbors ended up spending hours discussing the pros and cons of a single tract.

The Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department continues to work through options to try to elicit the best feedback on neighborhood plans. Wednesday night’s session used facilitators. The department also has brainstormed that it might make more sense to start with broad goals from the neighborhood plan and then apply those goals to particular decisions made by neighbors on various tracts.

Haywood said the decisions on the Austin Tomorrow Plan – the city’s updated comprehensive plan – could also guide decisions. The plan could provide a loose top-down guidance on decisions regarding various neighborhood goals and determine where density is best served in the city’s overall plan.

As for the feedback from the four groups, it will be compiled by facilitators and presented at a future neighborhood plan meeting for comment.

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