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Commission fails to endorse South Austin plan

Thursday, July 24, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

South Austin residents for and against a new neighborhood plan jammed Tuesday night’s Planning Commission meeting. After several hours of discussion, the South Austin Neighborhood Plan failed to win a recommendation from the commission, where deeper concerns about the current state of the neighborhood planning process were revealed.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission voted unanimously, 5-0, to forward the plan along without a recommendation for City Council. Chair Danette Chimenti and Commissioners Brian Roark, James Hatfield and Alfonso Hernandez were absent.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver said that he was not in favor of the plan moving forward at this point, despite his support of the infill options in the plan. Oliver said that, for him, opposing the plan was a “worst case scenario,” but he couldn’t support its approval at this point in the Land Development Code rewrite process.

“We are running the wrong plays in the wrong bounds with respect to how we implement Imagine Austin,” said Oliver. “The fact that, again, South Lamar is mentioned as a reason not to do density tells us that we’ve got the process backwards.”

“I have to, unfortunately, be against a plan that I think is probably rich with many good things,” said Oliver. He pointed out that in two years, CodeNEXT could have changes that could, potentially, change the entire plan.

“It seems very disingenuous to make that step forward only to pull the rug out,” said Oliver. “If we don’t get the process right, we are just going to make people angry.”

Neighborhood representatives  said they have been actively seeking the plan for the past five years. The plan was initiated in June 2012, and work started in January 13. Fourteen public meetings later, the draft plan is headed to City Council.

The plan will combine the Westgate Neighborhood Plan, the Garrison Park Neighborhood Plan and the South Manchaca Neighborhood Plan under the tenets of the Imagine Austin Plan. The South Austin Neighborhood Plan covers an area bordered by Ben White Boulevard north, South First Street east, William Cannon Drive on the south and Westgate Boulevard on the west.

Both sides acknowledge that things came to a head on April 3, when the neighborhood realized that they might not have understood exactly what they were agreeing to all along. Specifically, some of the neighbors were alarmed by the prospect of a sweeping acceptance of infill tools for the entirety of the neighborhoods covered by the combined plan.

At the Planning Commission, it became clear that some neighborhoods wanted these tools. Other neighborhoods remained vehemently opposed to their adoption. Some of that opposition faded with the most recent incarnation of the plan drawn up by the city.

The most recent draft created subdistricts that would allow the small lot amnesty, secondary apartment, cottage lot, urban home and corner store infill tools in the areas covered by the plan that received neighborhood support.

While those divisions may have belied the idea of a “combined” plan, they mollified a fair number of critics. Others remained concerned about the increased density that infill tools would bring to nearby neighborhoods, and argued that it would be the same inadequate infrastructure that would support that increase.

“I think the essence of SANCP is density. I think it’s an attempt to make some kind of sense out of the growth that is occurring in Austin right now…The problem with that type of density is that our area doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it,” said Wayne Shipley. “There’s probably 160 pages of really good things in the plan. At the end of the day, though, we hit the zoning stuff…. We have a situation where residents are asked to give up their rights – a 500 foot notification zone, for example. For that, in return, we get nothing.”

Others spoke in support of the plan in its most current incarnation, saying that it was a good compromise between those who wanted things to stay the same and those that welcome density in South Austin.

“There’s always going to be a few naysayers. What the city was asking everyone to do was to look beyond their front yard and imagine a bigger landscape that’s changing daily, and provide some guidance for those changes so that they benefit the greater good. Change is always traumatic… but we need to face the change that is coming by addressing how we want that change to look. Creating scary scenarios to make people fearful is not a good strategy for developing a strong, strategic plan for the future,” said Wanda Mills, who is co-president of the Cherry Creek SW Neighborhood Association.


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