City looks to change neighborhood plan process
Thursday, March 24, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
The Planning Commission has unanimously endorsed a new approach to the development of neighborhood plans that could shrink the process to six months, down from two to three years.
Mark Walters, who is with the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, explained to the commission on Tuesday that the new approach is intended to address Zucker Report-recommended changes to how the city looks at future planning areas and updates current plans. Dubbed “PlanIt Austin,” the new process is intended to shorten planning times and increase participation, with an eye toward evening out the currently spotty protections offered by neighborhood plans.
“Something that came up, when we were talking about this, is the inherent inequity of the current planning process that we have,” said Walters. “We have a city of haves and have-nots. We have the (neighborhoods) that have a neighborhood plan, that are on the neighborhood planning map, but disregard 75 percent of the rest of the city, as well as about 99 percent of the extra-territorial jurisdiction.”
In an effort to fix that disparity and follow up on recommendations in the Zucker Report, city staff is now looking at a six-month planning process that is shorter and more intensive in order “to complete plans in a timely fashion and avoid burnout.” The new process, Walters said, will take a “largely quantitative approach” toward selecting areas, in two phases.
Walters explained that participation in the current planning process starts off high but quickly drops off sharply. The new strategy, he said, is to catch people “before they fall off that precipice” by “using a short, very engaging planning process” and giving people the opportunity to get involved both online and through traditional meetings.
Previously, the neighborhood planning process took one to three years, and it has taken from 1998 until now to create neighborhood plans for about 25 percent of the city.
“I think there needs to be another approach,” said Walters. “I think this is an approach to address localized concerns (and) to address areas that may need planning services.”
Chair Stephen Oliver said that, on the Planning Commission, they often battle people’s expectations of the planning process, given the “time spent to create something that was etched in stone in some people’s eyes.”
“We have the opportunity here to create something that is more nimble, more flexible, short and intense. And if it needs to change, it may be easier to change because of that, to reflect whatever the demands may be 10 years from now,” said Oliver.
Phase one will identify the general areas under consideration and then establish “heat maps” to find spots based on development potential, demographics, areas of concern (focusing on things like accidents and areas of low opportunity) and the physical area of a place. Those layers are then combined to get the map that will be used to evaluate areas.
However, warned Walters, a few complications remain. He explained that the geographic information system modeling used to establish the heat maps still needs additional weighting because the model “is very complicated.” He further explained that some processes, like determining whether new plans should go to the Planning Commission or the Zoning and Platting Commission, still needed refinement as well.
Phase two will home in on the identified areas and analyze them, define boundaries and look at things like road networks, land-use distributions, City Council priorities and what the presentation called “professional judgment and experience.”
Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza suggested some topics to include in the heat maps and added that it might also be important to focus on how many units had been demolished, loss of minority populations, decreases in the number of families with children, health equity hot spots and flooding.
Commissioner Trinity White added that inclusion of historic structures in the modeling could be useful, and Oliver noted that a more general data point looking at the age of structures could be helpful in terms of evaluating aging housing stock as well.
“I’m really excited about this process,” said White, “and I’m really excited about us using this type of technology to really let the areas tell us where they need to be planned, versus a top-down approach.”
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