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Commission holds first of three hearings on Comprehensive Plan

Thursday, March 29, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Zoning and Platting Commission had its chance to weigh in on the city’s Comprehensive Plan Tuesday night, and will send their written suggestions to the Planning Commission by the end of this month.


While the commission thanked staff for their effort, they did have concerns with the plan, which has been in development since 2009, and has cost the city in the neighborhood of $2.5 million so far.


And this week, the president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Steve Aleman, came out against the plan at a Planning Commission hearing. That panel will hold another public hearing before the item heads to City Council.


Though the Zoning and Platting Commission previously heard public input on the plan, the most recent meeting gave commissioners the time to raise questions and voice their opinions.


“In reading the plan, it’s very uplifting, it’s interesting how it just has the right words. It’s kind of a feel-good novel, thinking that in 30 years this place is going to be that shining city on the hill. But my criticism is: I’m reading through it and you’ve got all these feel-good things, but there’s no meat behind the feel-good. I didn’t feel as though there was a real plan. It was more of a framework of what would be a plan,” said Vice Chair Patricia Seeger.


Seeger went on to ask how the plan itself could be implemented concurrent with the overhaul of the Land Development Code that it calls for, calling them “monumental tasks.”


Paul DiGiuseppe, from the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, explained that changes to the code would be part of an ongoing, two-pronged process that would take years, with the plan establishing the framework for changes by identifying community values, and actual code changes going through a separate public process.


“It just seems so ambiguous… I know it’s conceptual, and it’s a framework. But if this is to happen over the years, there needs to be something, I would think, specific that gives guidelines, and I felt like that was missing,” said Seeger.


“I agree with Commissioner Seeger that what is missing is a transition from today’s reality to the 30-year growth map… In my mind, there’s a lot of math that’s missing,” said Commissioner Sandra Baldridge, who gave transportation counts at busy intersections as an example.


“Where’s the meat and potatoes data to the plan?” asked Baldridge.


Baldridge went on to ask that clarification for the role that neighborhood contact teams will play post-comprehensive plan. She noted that the commission had heard concern from the community about whether the Imagine Austin Plan would take priority over existing neighborhood plans.


Mark Walters of the Planning and Development Review Department clarified that the Comprehensive Plan and existing neighborhood plans were not in competition with each other.


“There’s been a lot of talk about trump and supersede in this, but really the plans work in two very different levels…It’s not a one versus the other, it’s looking through different lenses for different purposes,” said Walters.


The commission also addressed one of the more consistently controversial aspects of the plan, the inclusion or exclusion or SH-45. The proposed highway has appeared and disappeared from drafts thus far, and is currently not in the plan. Baldridge, who lives in Oak Hill, commented that she would like it placed back into the plan, in order to address transportation issues. Seeger, and Commissioner Gabriel Rojas asked that the highway remain off the plan, citing environmental concerns.


Commissioner Jason Meeker criticized the level of public participation and awareness of the plan, and suggested that the city might want to hire a public relations firm in order to market it to a wider audience.


“There is no real magic number of engagement,” said Meeker, who said that he felt there should be more public input now that a plan had been crafted. “You had 2,215 Facebook likes, you had 1,112 Twitter followers – the  Facebooks alone, Amy’s Ice Cream has that many. And this plan is going to impact every resident and business in the city of Austin.”


Commissioner Gregory Bourgeois disagreed, saying he measured the success of public participation by whether or not everyone who wished to participate. Seeger seemed to agree.


“It seems to be a certain type of personality is involved with the planning process, and I think you hit those people,” said Seeger. “It would be great to have more people, but at what expense? Do you hold up the plan while you are getting more input, or do you go on and say, ‘we tried’?”

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