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Neighborhoods Council asks for halt to Imagine Austin planning process

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Austin Neighborhoods Council has called on the city to halt its Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. The group made their wishes known in a letter to Mayor Lee Leffingwell and members of the City Council.


According to the letter, the group approved “overwhelmingly” a resolution asking the city to stop the process at their October 27 meeting. There is word from City Hall that Council Members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison are working on a dialogue that aims to address some of the organization’s concerns.


The resolution is a brief document that both nods to the $1.3 million price tag for the Imagine Austin project and the information that plan authors are relying on for their work. It closes with a simple request: “The Austin Neighborhoods Council calls for suspension or re-start of the Austin Comprehensive Planning Project.”


Plan data and the some of the early conclusions reached by city staff seem to be the Neighborhoods Council’s chief concerns. “The supportive data for the city’s planning effort is incomplete and should await the publishing of the 2010 Census and other essential data,” it reads.


“The initial orientation of the planning effort has narrowly focused on a questionable growth scenario which has alienated many citizens and reduced participation to represent only a self-selected group, not representative of the broad spectrum of Austin’s geography and cultures.”


The growth scenario in question is known as Scenario D. According to the Imagine Austin web site, “this future concentrates development along the north-south axis of I-35, mostly between MoPac and I-35 and southeast U.S. 183. It is the most compact and it has the most mixed-use development overall.”


Here, planners have proposed a dense pattern of population growth. The web site notes that this growth option includes “five denser activity centers within the linear corridor; linked by transit and by roads that develop as mixed-use corridors.” It also says that new development will happen “by encouraging infill within existing residential areas between MoPac and SH-130.”


Former ANC President Jeff Jack was deeply critical of the residential participation component before the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee on Nov. 1.


“Have y’all taken the survey?” he asked. “Its complex, it’s difficult…We have a chance now, before we go further, to stop and ask ourselves ‘Is the million dollars that we’re investing well spent so far?’ I suggest to you that we need to take the process that we have and run it by a third party professional who is objective (and) impartial.”


According to the website, Imagine Austin will provide “broad-level guidance on how Austin will grow and develop into the future.” It has frequently been referred to as a view of the city’s future from 30,000 feet.


ANC’s Cory Walton – who was president when the Oct. 27 resolution passed – told In Fact Daily that the group “talked ourselves down from (passing the resolution) for three months.”


“We were trying to get some more (in the way of) response…from staff,” he added.


Walton suggested that the fact that the Imagine Austin plan is supposed to offer a wider view of things to come shouldn’t mean that existing neighborhood plans shouldn’t be included in the process. “(They should) incorporate what’s down there now and lift it forward into (their)…analysis,” he said.


He also accused city staff of not being forthright in regard to Council instruction to include the city’s neighborhood plans in the Imagine Austin effort. “(They) took (Council) directions…and said we understand the directions to be to examine them and to look at them,” Walton said.


At the October 18 meeting of the Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee, Morrison motioned for the development of a “specific pragmatic means for considering neighborhood plans.” Cole seconded that motion and with Council Member Chris Riley’s vote, it passed unanimously.


Garner Stoll, assistant director of the City’s Planning and Development Review Department denied Walton’s accusation. He told In Fact Daily that he had read Council’s instructions on the matter to the Austin Neighborhoods Council.


Cole told In Fact Daily that the Neighborhoods Council “is a critical player in making the comprehensive plan successful.”


“We have been in the process of taking their input and trying to reconcile that with the comprehensive plan,” Cole said. “We recognize that the neighborhood plan is a much more detailed approach of what the neighborhoods would like to see in the area and the comprehensive plan is about 30,000 feet above that. But there is concern that there may be conflict and I think we have to do some more in-depth word-smithing to get it right.”


She added that Council would work with the neighbors to get them on board. “But at the same time,” she said, “we’re moving forward.”


The Austin Neighborhoods Council is an organization that is made up of residents and activists from over 90 of the city’s neighborhoods. Many of those regions have an existing Neighborhood Plan in place. Despite assurances to the contrary from the City Council, concern lingers that those plans may be ignored in the final draft of Imagine Austin.

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