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Morrison raises concerns over direction of Imagine Austin plan process

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Council Member Laura Morrison is raising concerns about the city’s Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. Those worries, which center around the city’s ability to accurately quantify both the projected density for future mixed use zoning and the difference between the comprehensive plan and existing neighborhood-constructed future land use maps, could ultimately delay the project.


Morrison questioned city staff at the year’s first meeting of the Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Council subcommittee. There, she eventually engaged in a back-and-forth with Garner Stoll, the assistant director of Austin’s Planning and Development Review department, about the nature of the plan itself, and how rigorous its comparison between the land use maps and the comprehensive plan should be.


Though subcommittee chair, Council Member Sheryl Cole, seemed eager to push the process along, she ultimately instructed Stoll and his team to return to her group with answers to Morrison’s questions. They are scheduled to be back for the subcommittee’s next meeting on Feb. 8.


As part of the public outreach portion of its effort, the city’s planning department scheduled exercises designed to allow Austinites to offer their input about the comprehensive plan. This included a portion of the game that allowed them to reassign zoning uses around the city.


City officials refer to this effort as a chip exercise. According to the web site for the project, “participants in the chip exercise were allowed to exchange different land use types, so long as the total level of population and jobs stayed the same.”


Morrison wondered about the solidity of the population density numbers associated with mixed use in the chip exercise. “I’m a little confused about all this then,” she said. “We have hardcore numbers in the chips. And so you’re saying that in some places, the chip—which you’re counting on being 3,750 (people)–means 3,750. In other places it means less and other places it means more? It is an arithmetic exercise.”


“The concern I have and the disconnect I see is that…I don’t know why we had to go through the chip exercise to look at the various potential patterns,” she later added.


Stoll told her that the staff stood behind the effort. “There would be other ways of doing it,” he said. “But if you want numbers associated with the alternatives, numbers that might be predicted on the roadways, or acres of land used, or open space, then you have to assign it to some real estate.”


Morrison responded with a note of frustration. “What’s difficult for me is that sometimes we say the numbers mean something and then we say they don’t mean something and so I appreciate people getting confused,” she said.


She also questioned staff about the relationship between existing neighborhood plans and the would-be comprehensive plan. “My fundamental question is, are you going to be able to answer the question of how is the draft preferred scenario consistent or where is it inconsistent with neighborhood plans,” she said.


Stoll said that he hoped so. He detailed work that his staff had engaged in with the community in an effort to reconcile some differences between the future land use maps and the comprehensive plan. Still, his answer—and that of one of his colleagues—didn’t seem to satisfy Morrison.


“I wonder how all the timeline of that is going to work, because, I think, as a council member—and I would assume some of my colleagues would want to know when we’re endorsing the preferred scenario in March—where is it consistent or inconsistent,” she said. “It takes me back to this disconnect we have…sometimes we have numbers and sometimes we don’t,” she said.


Ultimately, Morrison seemed to settle on the idea that staff needed to include a quantitative review of how the land use maps relate to the comprehensive plan. “My feeling is it’s very important to do this because in many, many places we’re going to show that what show’s up on the (comprehensive plan) scenario is very, very close to what’s on the (future land use maps)–and if things are different, we need to know that before going forward.”


Cole said that she would like to keep the plan moving forward. She compared the planning process to the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, and suggested that the plan’s architects return to fill in some of their gaps after the scenario had been approved. “I don’t want to slow down the comprehensive plan, and I certainly understand that a much more (rigorous) analysis would cost much more money,” she said.

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