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Neighborhood activists upset over direction of Imagine Austin project

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 by Michael Kanin

A broad discussion has opened up over how Austin’s various neighborhood plans should be accounted for in its forthcoming Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. On one side, some area residents feel as though they’ve been somewhat left out of the process. On the other, city planners and the consultant hired to assist in the effort find themselves in the difficult spot of having to explain why those plans can’t dictate their work.


A subcommittee of the Austin City Council became the latest forum for the debate as Council Members Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, and Chris Riley voted unanimously to move forward with the city’s plan. In so doing, they approved a series of staff recommendations that will guide the process into its next phases. On a motion from Morrison, they beefed up the formal role that the plans will take in the process.


During their hearing, the subcommittee received formal letters expressing concerns from both the Bouldin Creek and Allandale Neighborhood Associations. That was coupled with testimony from various neighborhood activists who shared in the worries.


Though he wrote that his group “supports the creation of a Comprehensive Plan,” Bouldin Creek President Tim Rotunda expressed three concerns in his letter.  “(Our association) believes strongly that more attention and adherence should be paid to the fully documented, long-term development planning insights and citizen deliberations that created the Neighborhood Plans,” it reads.


He then suggested that “the process, as it has been presented, seems to be constructed to overtly promote development scenarios biased towards intensive infill development in the downtown and central city neighborhoods.” He also called for “the process…(to) engage citizens in an open planning process allowing for in-depth analysis and feedback and the opportunity to suggest scenarios that have not been considered thus far.”


Donna Beth McCormick, a former Allandale president, and three current neighborhood officials offered 10 specific criticisms of the plan and the process to date. “Participants in the process are being treated as if, by participating, they agree with the process and its results – even though it is far from complete,” it reads in part. “Observers of the process are not welcome at the sessions and are treated as troublemakers if they only wish to ask questions and learn.”


It also questions whether the Imagine Austin’s architects are using enough correct data as they design the plan. “The one piece of data that was consistently presented as an inevitable fact was the expected population growth rate and the assumption that Austin can and should absorb it,” it continues.


“The scenarios (produced by the plan) did not consider the preservation and protection of Austin’s natural resources…and historical assets.”


A member of a group of East Austin neighborhood associations called ANC East expressed concerns about the rising property taxes that could accompany some of the plan’s tenets. “About three months ago, after looking at this process, we began to become very worried that we were going to repeat the 1928 master plan, which basically displaced people of color in West Austin (to) the east of I-35,” said Bo McCarver.


“The reason that we have these fears is because, while we’re looking at a lot of density in these scenarios…(they) do not include any affordability considerations. We have passed a resolution with 13 East Austin neighborhoods present that asks that this plan be suspended.” he added.


Garner Stoll, an assistant director at the city’s Planning and Development Review department, quoted Imagine Austin consultant Wallace Roberts & Todd about the relationship between neighborhood plans and the larger picture comprehensive plan. “While we understand the importance of the neighborhood planning that has occurred in Austin, a visionary, forward-looking citywide plan cannot be produced by knitting together the present array of neighborhood plans,” he read. “Rather, the citywide comprehensive plan will establish overarching principles and strategies for long range growth and development throughout the City and its fringe.”


Still, it seemed that the firm wasn’t suggesting that the city should write off the neighborhood plans altogether. “While the comprehensive plan may not supersede the neighborhood plans, it may be appropriate to revisit and adjust (or revalidate) them for consistency with the directions set in the comprehensive plan following adoption,” Stoll continued.


After the hearing, Stoll told In Fact Daily that he “totally agree(s) with those comments.”


Staff’s recommendations called for the city to set a range of appropriate densities for given areas, develop a “Growth Concept Map” that would include “small area plans”–such as neighborhood plans, corridor plans, and station area plans, and “consider neighborhood plans in development of (the) preferred (planning) scenario.” In addition, Stoll said that his group felt that the city should include a Future Land Use Map in the Imagine Austin plan.


Morrison said that her motion would “augment” staff’s recommendations. She called for the information that comes from the neighborhood plan Future Land Use Map to be “integrated into the process.”


“I think that we’re at a critical juncture in terms of making sure that we get it right,” she said. “Integrating or having appropriate consideration of the neighborhood plans and all the other small plans is one of those pieces. Part of it is to get the answer right. The other part is the bottom line is that if the community is not part of this process, and doesn’t have confidence in this process, we’re not going to be successful.”


Cole said, “I think the neighborhoods have a valid concern about how their plans will be considered and I think that staff made it very clear that they will be considered. I feel very strongly about that—that they will be considered—but they will not trump the plan, or overrule the plan, or veto the plan. They will be considered as part of the plan and that’s the best we can do from a 30,000-foot level.”


She added that she felt it was important for staff to get “the direction to continue forward.”

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