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Imagine Austin, Neighborhood leaders begin melding differing plans

Friday, January 7, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Now that the Imagine Austin plan has landed on a potential “preferred scenario” for future land use patterns, the time has come to reconcile that idealized map with the 50+ neighborhood plans already created by city stakeholders.


Last night’s city meeting at One Texas Center, which was fairly well attended, catered to neighborhood association leaders, with a smattering of commissioners and developers in the mix. Planner Gregory Claxton, who led the discussion, walked the group through the Imagine Austin’s preferred choice of future land use development (a linear north-south pattern, with the addition of some town centers that clustered around the State Highway 130 corridor) and set neighborhood leaders about the task of noting differences to be reconciled between existing neighborhood plans and future land use options.


This is not a simple process. In fact, it can be quite tedious, as civic leaders, many of them neighborhood plan contact team members, tried to point out where neighborhood plans and this overarching comprehensive plan’s land use map tended to disagree. Some civic leaders, in fact, were a bit cranky with the population and business limits set by the city in these plans, which Claxton insisted were simply a starting point for discussion.


As part of the reconciliation process, Claxton asked neighborhood leaders to perform a small-group exercise that used various colored “chips” on a table-sized land use map to denote areas that should be considered higher density, such as mixed-use corridors, town centers or regional centers.


Early on, various neighborhood leaders got hung up on these proposed numbers. Could an existing local neighborhood, for instance, actually support a proposed increase of 7,500 residents that would come with a mixed-use corridor? Claxton urged the groups not to get hung up on the specific numbers; each neighborhood scenario would be considered on a case-by-case basis.


For purposes of discussion, Claxton described sections along Burnet Road as mixed-use corridors; Mueller as a town center once proper density was achieved; and Highland Mall/Capital Plaza as what could be described as a regional center.


“We look at Highland Mall, when it was at its height of popularity, as a regional center, in terms of transportation and in terms of the size of parcels of land,” Claxton told the audience at last night’s meeting. “Just touching on the transportation aspects of the mall, even as it is now, you have access to Interstate 35, Highway 290 and the Cap Metro Red Line.”


The reconciliation process is one that is both forwards and backwards directed, Greg Guernsey, Director of the Planning and Development Review Department, told the group in his comments. The new comprehensive plan will be reconciled with existing neighborhood plans, but it also is likely to drive a rewrite of the city’s existing land use code. Changes will turn into city code, and those code changes would be applied to neighborhood plans.


The Austin Tomorrow comprehensive plan, drafted in 1979, was instrumental in the creation of the items such as the city watershed ordinance, Guernsey noted. He added that an effective plan also would drive where the city eventually decides how to coordinate and use its ongoing capital improvement budgets. The plan would finally create a comprehensive approach to planning efforts.


Imagine Austin, intended to be a 30,000-foot view of Austin’s future, was not going to take into consideration the city’s ongoing zoning capacity analysis, which was intended to show the maximum density for various parcels under future land use map conditions. Pressed for a timeline for that information by Jeff Jack of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, Guernsey could only say the information was being adjusted due to input from the Austin Neighborhoods Council and would be available “soon” for neighborhoods to be reviewed.


City staff already has highlighted some discrepancies between the preferred land use scenario and the existing neighborhood plans. Among the exceptions cited:


·       In Montopolis, a proposed industrial “chip” along US 183 has been replaced with an office “chip” and shifted slightly to the east;

·       In Upper Boggy Creek, a mixed-use corridor was removed from Airport Boulevard in an area that remains primarily single-family in future plans;

·       In University Hills, a proposal for medium density residential development at the intersection of US 183 and Springdale Road was shifted slightly to the east, where more undeveloped land existed; and

·       In the area of St. Edwards University/East Congress, high density was considered too burdensome in the South Congress/Interstate 35 areas. A proposed regional center was considered too intense, given current land patterns. So the intense regional center was replaced with a less intense neighborhood center.

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