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Neighborhoods suspicious of new comprehensive plan

Friday, February 20, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Planning Commissioner Saundra Kirk is looking for a solution to one of the main objections to the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan overhaul: Neighborhoods fear the city’s new strategy for growth will supplant 10 years of neighborhood planning.

That concern was the first topic of discussion on the agenda at the Neighborhood Plan Committee of the Planning Commission this week. Kirk suggested the committee could serve as an interface between the plan consultant and neighborhood contact teams. She also suggested the committee could serve as a sounding board for general issues that had “gotten stuck” in the city’s planning process, such as where to put affordable housing.

“Neighborhood plans are organic tools. They’re not something you can download,” Kirk said. “With neighborhood plans, you have a live ‘on the ground’ feeling with neighborhoods and neighborhood issues. I think sharing neighborhood planning with the consultant is really helping them decide a direction they want to go in, and to facilitate an exchange between the neighborhoods and the teams.”

Chair Dave Sullivan added a couple of other reasons: There is a strong relationship between city efforts and regional plans, such as CAMPO’s commitment to “nodal” development, and the committee could help a consultant understand where these overlap.

And Sullivan said it would make no sense for the city to waste the time and effort that went in to neighborhood plans. “We’ve probably spent millions on neighborhood plans, and our consultant has limited resources,” Sullivan said. “It would be a shame to waste the product of our neighborhood plans. I’m not a fan of everything we’ve done, but I don’t want to waste what we’ve done. We need to make sure the work of the last 10 years is incorporated into the comprehensive plan.”

Kirk said the comprehensive plan would be an ideal time to broach the tough issues, like what criteria would determine where vital, but not desirable, functions and structures would be built in the city. Kirk also spoke of the need to make sure affordable housing was spread across the city rather than dumped on one neighborhood simply because the land prices were low.

“We talk a lot about spreading affordability over the city,” Kirk said, noting that affordable housing typically does not go into West Austin because land values are so high. “We need to come up with a set of issues that need to be addressed city wide, places where we’re really kind of stuck.”

Sullivan related a story where a developer couldn’t find a place to put non-subsidized senior housing. The neighborhood looked street by street to find a spot, Sullivan said. No one wanted the housing, even though it would have been an upscale project. Still, it was multi-family housing, and the community was opposed.

Neighborhoods often want commissions and the Council to stand tough on the suggested Future Land Use Maps, or FLUMs. They want neighborhood plans to be respected when zoning changes are proposed, Kirk said. He suggested it might be time to come up with a document that could back up zoning decisions, instead of leaving the perception that all decisions were political.

Committee member Paula Hui agreed and said it was useful for committee members to educate themselves on the issue, even if it was only to be able to discuss and share knowledge with neighborhood contact teams. The comprehensive plan could provide an ideal catalyst to broaden the reach of the Planning Commission committee, Hiu said.  Commissioner Clint Small agreed, saying it would be useful to provide a meeting, once a month, to get information out to contact teams.

Lisa Harris of the Austin Neighborhoods Council agreed, but suggested that invitations not be limited to contact teams. In an ANC survey last year, smaller neighborhoods in larger neighborhood planning areas had expressed a fear their voices would not be heard in the context of planning and zoning decisions.

Neighborhood planning manager Carol Haywood said once Council selects the consultant for the comprehensive plan on Feb. 26, contract negotiations will begin. The first task of that consultant team, once contract negotiations are done, will be to create a community outreach plan. Committee members agreed that would be an ideal time to make contact with the city planning process.

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