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Five years later, Imagine Austin gets progress report but no update

Thursday, November 9, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Despite a long road ahead, the progress report on Imagine Austin presented at the Nov. 7 joint land use commission meeting indicated that the city was on track in its implementation of the comprehensive plan. Still, some commissioners expressed frustration that staff had forgone an update to the plan in spite of new reports and public outcry.

Out of 237 actions set out in Imagine Austin, six have been completed so far, including the 2013 adoption of a robust Watershed Protection Ordinance and the 2014 adoption of the Urban Trails Master Plan. However, city staff has been pressured to adapt as it works down the tall order of remaining tasks. In particular, it has faced adversity from macro-level forces outside of its control. For example, Austin has maintained its rapid pace of growth in the past five years, but its share of regional growth has dropped significantly to 30 percent, which will impact policy ranging from transit to zoning.

Even so, Zoning and Platting Commissioner David King said that there were internal pressures coming from within the city to update the plan that staff should respond to sooner than later. He shared concerns from communities of color, summarized in incredulous renamings of the comprehensive plan as “Imagine Austin Without Black People” or “Imagine Austin Without Mexicans.”

“When do they get a chance to have their voices represented in this plan?” King asked at the meeting. “Will this plan ever go through another (citywide) process where it can be updated and reflect a broader perspective from our community?”

Matt Dugan, who is with the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, said that staff had decided not to update the plan at this time for several reasons. Consensus was that it was too soon, that the focus should be on its implementation and that the CodeNEXT rollout should also be prioritized. “It didn’t make sense to give the CodeNEXT team a moving target,” he said.

The city’s charter does not explicitly require updates of the plan, only “periodic evaluation and appraisal reports.” Nevertheless, anticipation of an Imagine Austin update has influenced Planning Commission thinking this year, such as the April 11 decision to support a Montopolis multifamily rezone against staff’s recommendation.

Going off of King’s point, Zoning and Platting Commissioner Ana Aguirre said that she had been disturbed by CodeNEXT consultants’ “discriminatory” analysis on where the high-opportunity areas were in the city. The CodeNEXT zoning map is based in part on that data as well as on the Imagine Austin growth map, although the Zoning and Platting Commission called that into question in its recent letter of recommendation.

Aguirre said it was offensive to be told that she, who is from Dove Springs, lives in a low-opportunity area. “Everything being imagined (by the plan), it needs to be imagined everywhere,” she said.

The final report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities, submitted in April, presented more relevant information that could be incorporated to enhance Imagine Austin, said Planning Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart.

Dugan said that the plan did acknowledge the racial segregation imposed by the 1928 Master Plan and that Imagine Austin aligned with the recommendations of the task force’s report in its objective of creating complete communities. He reiterated that Imagine Austin is a long-term plan, and he admitted that the city still had a way to go in meeting its ambitious goals.

“Certain parts of Austin work for people, but it’s a very limited set of people that it works for. If you don’t live central, if you’re not highly educated, I feel like Austin doesn’t work very well for you,” Dugan said. “We’re trying to create a development pattern that does work for everybody, and right now we just don’t have that.”

This story has been changed since publication to correctly attribute quotes to Matt Dugan, not Mike Trimble, as originally reported.

“Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan Horizon” graph from the Imagine Austin update.

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