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Council discusses future of Imagine Austin

Friday, February 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Since its launch, Imagine Austin has inspired debates about affordability, growth, neighborhood autonomy and more. City Council continued this tradition Thursday in a special meeting with city staff and housing stakeholders about the comprehensive plan.

The discussion touched on several major issues, including the relationship between the plan and the city’s many official neighborhood plans, the balance between each of the plan’s priorities, and concerns about minority representation in the planning process.

Austin Neighborhood Council president Mary Ingle illustrated the main challenge the city has faced since Council adopted the plan in 2012 by holding up a quilt with the names of various neighborhood associations pinned to it.

“In Austin, sometimes we do things backward, and we completed many neighborhood plans before the comprehensive plan was done,” Ingle said. “This isn’t how you make a quilt, but this is the quilt we have, and we need to make it beautiful and accommodating.”

Though Ingle said she sees the potential for conflict between neighborhood plans and the comprehensive plan, Planning and Development Review Department Director Greg Guernsey said that they have a reciprocal relationship.

“Neighborhood plans — special area or small-area plans — they help inform the greater plan, but it’s a two-way street,” Guernsey said. “They talk to each other, and one doesn’t necessarily trump the other.”

Not all areas of the city have neighborhood plans, and those that do tend to be closer to the urban core.

Central Texas Chapter of the Congress of New Urbanism president Cid Galindo said that starting with neighborhood plans has created major hurdles for the city.

“All of our existing neighborhood plans were made really within the context of just, ‘What’s good for our neighborhood?’” Galindo said. “Without taking into account, ‘What are the things that we need to provide in our neighborhood to be good neighbors to the city as a whole?’”

Imagine Austin’s eight priority programs are aligning with the Land Development Code, being compact and connected and investing in sustainable water sources, workforce development, green infrastructure, household affordability, a creative economy and a healthy city.

The city is currently in the early stages of the code alignment, known as CodeNEXT. The previous Council selected an initial approach for the rewrite in November, which the current Council will have the opportunity to affirm or change.

Heidi Gerbracht, Real Estate Council of Austin vice president of public policy, said that her organization is optimistic about the plan. “I think our challenge is that some of us may have a little bit of buyer’s remorse with regard to Imagine Austin, and I don’t think that the Real Estate Council has that,” she said. “I think we’re very excited about Imagine Austin.”

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen raised concerns that some of the plan’s priorities may be outweighing others. “All of these are important, and my thought is that sometimes we get too caught up on one of them, like ‘compact and connected,’” she said. “Affordability is an important one, too.”

Gerbracht later responded to this concern in an email she sent to Council. “Compact and connected development is foundational to achieving the other priorities,” she wrote. “My members will be quick to tell you that regulation that allows compact and connected development allows them to develop housing that is more affordable for our workforce.”

Executive Director of HousingWorks Mandy DeMayo urged Council to be cautious not to overlook affordability when balancing the plan’s priorities. She cited a July report that said more than half of Austin residents are renters, and the city’s growing affordable housing and rental gap disproportionately affects persons with disabilities and some racial and ethnic minorities.

DeMayo said that, though the city reached a large number of people from every ZIP code in Austin when taking community feedback on the plan, they were disproportionately people who owned homes, had relatively high incomes or were of Anglo-Saxon descent. “We need to do a better job of reaching those folks who are part of our city,” she said.

District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman took this point even further, referring to the city’s 1928 master plan that essentially segregated the community along the I-35 corridor as “an illustration to us that we should not have this master plan and centralized planning.”

“It’s easy for us right now to look in the mirror and say, ‘Man, that was a terrible thing that they did,’” Zimmerman said. “But if we were to jump 90 years ahead and look at Imagine Austin, we might say, ‘Man, that was a terrible thing that they did.’”

Galindo, responding directly to this comment, said that less regulation “is not going to improve our transportation issues, it’s not going to make traffic congestion go away, it’s not going to do anything for affordability… and certainly it doesn’t have any direct concern about water supply and long-term care of the environment.”

“My position,” Galindo concluded, “would be that cities exist for a reason, they have regulatory powers for a reason, and the more that we live in closer proximity to each other, the more we need rules to regulate how that’s going to happen.”

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