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Comprehensive plan, CAMPO 2035 to chart Austin’s future growth

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Consider the question: Where do we go from here?

Last night, two meetings held miles apart asked the same question. One was the city’s introduction to the comprehensive planning process. The other was a Transportation Policy Board workshop on the CAMPO 2035 plan.

For the city’s comprehensive plan, it’s a beginning of a two-year process to rewrite the Austin Tomorrow Plan. It’s intended to be a vision of Austin evolved, or even the launching pad for Austin 2.0.  Austin citizens, guided by a task force, will take all the initiatives passed in the last three decades and put them together in a way that leads back to overarching principles intended to guide Council and commission decisions.

For the CAMPO 2035 plan, on the other hand, the leap from CAMPO 2030 to CAMPO 2035 is much shorter. Still, it could be a major departure from prior planning efforts. In an effort to stimulate discussion, CAMPO staff is building three models that would combine current trends, planning priorities and transition options.

One option would be no build. Another would be business as usual. And a third potential option would be to attempt to use road improvements to encourage density around anticipated high-growth nodes. Those nodes might be based on current residential trends or business hubs or even transit activity.

The City of Austin hosted a four-hour open house to discuss the comprehensive plan process. In two ballrooms at the Austin Convention Center, attendees moved from chart to chart, noting the steps and questions noted by the plan. According to dots placed on the initial chart, this was a college-educated crowd, from a variety of incomes, mostly white and almost evenly split between men and woman.

Attendees, entertained by musicians including Sara Hickman, moved from chart station to chart station, offering the city advice on who should participate in the process (neighborhoods associations, Austin Area Interfaith Ministries, Salvation Army, etc.) to a chart of important locations in town (too many to mention). Charts also asked participants to name the perceived strengths of the city (diverse and tolerant, highly educated, value culture) and those things that were considered weaknesses (little affordable housing, a lack of open space, need for pedestrian connections, too much developer and/or neighborhood influence over Council).

These early days in the comprehensive plan sound very touchy feely, but planner Garner Stoll, who led the planning process in Oklahoma City and has become the de facto spokesman of the effort, is confident an overarching document can give a city direction. In Oklahoma City, the document forced city leaders to address directly where the city’s actual 600-square-mile urban boundaries and what levels of city services should be available to residents in the rural and urban areas.

“It gave us a way to address a very controversial issue,” Stoll said.

So what is the unanswered question in Austin? It will be driven by the participants, but “integrated” appears to be one key word needed in the comprehensive plan.

Council is known for spinning off one initiative after another in succession, without much thought as to how all these initiatives mesh together.

Stoll mentions some of the trends – they’ve spent a year reviewing the existing initiatives and updating the plan – but he makes no guesses as to where the process might go. Neighborhood associations, however, frequently complain about how neighborhood plans often are too two-dimensional, failing to integrate all of the initiatives and departments of the city.

Over at the Thompson Conference Center on the University of Texas campus, an audience was on hand for a workshop on CAMPO’s new blueprint.

Although the CAMPO 2035 plan also is forward thinking, it will be approached in a very different way. The comprehensive plan is expected to percolate up from the grassroots level. CAMPO Executive Director Joe Cantalupo has a different approach. He intends to propose three options for consideration in town hall meetings. One of those options, a concept CAMPO has tinkered with for a couple of years, would be to propose community nodes where population, and sometimes transit, concentrates.

This concept is familiar to CAMPO members, so the questions were far more specific. For instance, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt wanted to know if expenditures would be used to both connect and develop these nodes.

Leander Mayor John Cowman compared these nodes to the planned transit-oriented development in Leander, which has been the result of public-private partnerships. Cowman expressed sympathy to other likely nodes – in Sunset Valley and Oak Hill – where residents supported the concept of development nodes, but where the political will was not present to move forward with the actual planning.

Council Member Sheryl Cole, who also serves on the Austin-San Antonio Rail Corridor District, was interested in consideration of transit and rail. Cantalupo noted that rail stops would be one consideration for a community node, although it would not be the only factor that would be considered for population centers.

A Transportation Policy Board vote on CAMPO 2035 is not expected until next June. In the meantime, Watson expected to call another workshop session on Oct. 21 to further define the principles the board would use in CAMPO 2035 votes.

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