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North Shoal Creek plan put on hold

Friday, May 4, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite an overwhelming workload courtesy of CodeNEXT, Planning Commissioners managed to spend more than three hours discussing a plan centered on just one neighborhood at its most recent regular meeting.

Neighbors have been pushing for a North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan for about a decade and actively working on the current plan for two years. For better or worse, the plan arrived at the Planning Commission in the middle of the city’s rewrite of the Land Development Code, CodeNEXT. Commissioners ultimately voted to postpone the case to their June 12 agenda, but not before diving into some weighty discussion about the role neighborhood plans play in the growth of the city and whether the process that creates the plans is fundamentally broken.

Commissioners ultimately voted unanimously to postpone the case, in the hopes that they would have more time to explore questions about connectivity and density outside of the massive planning process that is CodeNEXT. The plan covers an area bounded by U.S. Highway 183 to the north, Burnet Road to the east, Anderson Lane to the south and MoPac Expressway to the west.

Mark Walters, who is with the Planning and Zoning Department, told the commission that the current plan was “an aspirational and policy-focused plan” with no rezonings attached to it. He explained that, for this plan, they were using a “character-based” future land use map that focuses on the characteristics of the neighborhood, rather than the building uses within it.

“This is about the experience of place,” he said. “What are these places going to be like? What do we want them to be?”

“All plans are potentials,” Walters continued. “A plan in itself is not going to make something happen. It lays the table, and whether or not somebody is going to bring a side dish or not, we don’t know. But you have to lay the table for stuff to happen.”

At the meeting, there was a fair amount of division over the potential of this neighborhood plan, which effectively preserves the interior of the neighborhood in its current residential state while allowing for density around the perimeter and in a transitional buffer. Those who spoke in favor of the plan likened it to Mayor Steve Adler’s “Austin bargain” that concentrates denser development along the corridors as a compromise between preserving neighborhoods and increasing opportunities for more housing.

Though the plan itself does not involve any rezoning, Walters said that it deferred to the “de facto rezoning” of CodeNEXT, which is currently underway. That move, he said, avoided “the expense and the acrimony that too often occurs with rezoning.”

Commissioner Greg Anderson said he was “surprised” that the zoning in the neighborhood would still be appropriate, given the population increase in the city since the neighborhood’s initial construction 40 or 50 years ago.

In fact, Commissioner Tom Nuckols pointed out, as it stands now, about 31 percent of the neighborhood, or about 150 acres, will have greater density and be zoned as transition zones around the perimeter of the neighborhood.

Sharon Justice, who is a member of the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association, spoke in support of the plan. She detailed the outreach the association had done to involve as many people as it could to take part in the plan.

“I expect there are people here who do not support this compromise,” said Justice. “They would put as much housing density into the middle of North Shoal Creek as possible. I did not hear that desire expressed at any of our planning meetings. That allows me to conclude that those that hold that position chose not to take part in the planning process. I hope you will not support an effort like this to undermine our plan.”

North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association President Kevin Wier said that its intent was to preserve the diversity while increasing the potential for growth, to a certain point.

“We want to be able to see the sunshine in our neighborhood, have the sun shine on our gardens, feel the wind blowing on our face, have the open space and allow our souls to breathe and be human,” he said. “With too much density, too much buildup around us, we’re going to be living in the bottom of a refrigerator box.”

“We are dense, we’ve been dense, we’ll take some more. I know East Austin is ridiculously hurt by gentrification, and we’re trying to not have that happen to us,” said Wier.

Anderson disputed claims that the neighborhood was currently “dense” and questioned why there was no inclusion of “missing middle” housing in the plan. He noted Brooklyn had “roughly 10 times the number of people per square mile.” He added, “Austin is growing 6.7 times faster than New York City.”

Susan Somers, who is president of the AURA board of directors, spoke against the plan. She lives close to the neighborhood, but not within the bounds of the plan.

“We generally oppose neighborhood plans,” she said. “The neighborhood planning process has been co-opted, generally, by wealthier single-family homeowners that are not representative of the demographics of our city. … Until we figure out a way that we can actually fix our neighborhood planning process to be more integrated and representative of the people that live in our city, I’m very very skeptical and oppositional to neighborhood plans in general.”

Speaking as a neighbor who lives in a nearby apartment complex, Somers noted her own opinion on the plan. She advocated for more density than is currently included, such as allowances for town houses, and more effort to connect the neighborhood.

“They talk about protection,” she said. “And I’m always wondering – protection from what? Protection from me?”

Commissioner Conor Kenny said that his issue was not just with the current plan, but the process as a whole.

“This plan is better than most of the ones that have been adopted in Austin. I totally acknowledge that,” said Kenny. However, he also criticized the lack of change the plan envisioned. He said that his read was that only three lots on the fringe of the neighborhood had been upzoned, and not one single-family home lot would have an increase in density. Most of the change, he said, was on commercial lots.

Kenny then acknowledged that he hadn’t had time to read the plan, but did talk at length about the process.

“This is a process that produces an entirely predictable outcome,” he said. “I think this process is broken.”

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