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Planning Commission wants more diversity for comp plan

Friday, October 2, 2009 by Austin Monitor

How many people should be involved in shaping Austin‘s Comprehensive Plan? What level of involvement should the city expect from the public? How can the city ensure that it’s getting input from a sufficiently diverse group that truly represents all of Austin?


These are the questions the City Planning Commission is grappling with as it prepares to begin the Comprehensive Plan process with an open house on Oct. 12 at the Austin Convention Center that will serve to introduce the idea of a Comprehensive Plan to the general public.


But with less than two weeks to go, the extent to which the public will be involved, and exactly how many people will be involved, is still unclear. At a working session Tuesday evening, Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan said he wanted “an equitable distribution of types of people to be involved. And then, I want it to be a large number.”


Sullivan was particularly concerned that a diverse group of Austinites participate — not just residents of a certain area and a certain level of education. He shared with the other commissioners a report from Austin Tomorrow, the city’s comprehensive plan from 1979, that showed a disproportionate level of involvement from a group described as “professional.”


“It’s a continuing trend, that it’s much easier to get professional people,” Sullivan said. “About half the people that participated were professional, versus 18 percent citywide.”


Recent data from city staff reflected this trend. A handout at the work session showed that the majority of those present at an August 5 participation workshop were white and between the ages of 30 and 64  and that they were better-educated and had a higher income than average Austinites.


The other major question addressed at the working session Tuesday evening was how many people the city should expect to participate in the planning process.


Back in 1979, Austin Tomorrow reported that about 3,500 people participated in ongoing meetings. A major difference, Sullivan pointed out, was that the Austin Tomorrow plan went on for most of the 1970s; the process was initiated in 1973 and final adoption of the plan didn’t come until 1979. By contrast, the city is hoping to complete its current Comprehensive Plan in only two years.


“We’re hopeful of getting maybe three times this number of people,” Sullivan said, adding that they are going to set goals. “We talked about 10,000 or more.”


But exact numbers are still unclear, partly because no official participation goals have been set. Commissioner Dave Anderson said he wanted to know “from the professionals in our community, what is reasonable to expect. I don’t feel comfortable just throwing out a number. … There are professionals who should be able to guide us.”


To that end, several commissioners suggested meeting with local experts like Dr. Patricia Wilson at the University of Texas and the contract consultant for the Comprehensive Plan, Philadelphia-based urban design firm WRT, to set specific participation goals. According to city staff, WRT had expressed concern that if specific goals were not met, the plan might be seen as invalid. Sullivan replied that the way to address that concern would be to state, in print, that not meeting the participation goals would not invalidate the results of the Comprehensive Plan.


In addition to this discussion of participation, the Planning Commission added three new elements to the list of ten elements that the Comprehensive Plan should include, which were defined earlier this month and include things like a land-use element, a traffic and mass-transit element, and a housing element.


The three additional elements, suggested by Sullivan, are children and education, cultural/arts preservation, and historic preservation. The commission voted to approve the addition of all three to the list of elements, which remains subject to change as the plan moves forward.

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