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Monday, January 14, 2019 by Alyx Wilson

Neighborhood planning poised to change

The Planning Commission was recently briefed on the future of small area planning by Planning and Zoning staff.

Austin has focused its small area planning around the neighborhood planning strategy since a 1997 City Council resolution. But subsequent to a resolution passed in September 2017, staffers have come up with three new planning services that aim to be more “sustainable and equitable” than the current model for neighborhood planning.

The three planning efforts are 1) the Imagine Austin Centers and Corridors plans, which will be prioritized based on their potential to leverage mobility investments and other cross-departmental city initiatives; 2) the Complete Communities plans, which are meant to improve access and opportunity for residents’ basic daily needs; and 3) the Special Studies plans, which include citywide planning initiatives and exclusively urban design-focused plans.

Council will be asked to consider a staff recommendation implementing two pilot programs along North Lamar Boulevard and South Pleasant Valley Road. The pilot program will follow the tenets of the new planning services.

Commissioner Karen McGraw expressed frustration with the possibility of the neighborhood planning strategy being eliminated.

Matt Dugan of the Planning and Zoning Department explained that after the 2017 resolution, Council provided direction with trying a new approach to small area planning that would shift focus away from neighborhood plans.

“We had an audit of neighborhood planning that was adopted in 2016,” said Stevie Greathouse with Planning and Zoning. Greathouse said that the auditor did not believe neighborhood planning was a sustainable option for the entire city, given Austin’s existing resources.

McGraw said she was concerned that staff members seemed ready to get rid of neighborhood planning entirely. She said that in 1997, Council passed a resolution to implement neighborhood planning, but never passed a resolution to stop it.

Commissioner Greg Anderson stated that small area planning is not feasible or representative of Austin, and hopes that a future land use map will do away with exclusionary zoning.

“In 1997, when we passed this, the Austin population was roughly half of what we are at today, and our needs have changed immensely,” said Anderson. “I think Austin is desperate for fresh new leadership, and a new way of doing all these things. It’s obvious these are a complete failure at this point.”

“If we keep going down this path, these are going to be tools of displacement,” he added. He claimed that Austin could be heading toward sending eviction notices to the bottom three-quarters of the city’s income earners.

McGraw disagreed with Anderson, saying she did not believe neighborhood plans were complete failures and noting that thousands of people participated in using the plans.

Commissioner Patricia Seeger asked how staff would approach corridor plans that were overlapping existing neighborhood plans. Dugan explained that the pilot program on North Lamar would help them begin to flesh out how to deal with the overlap.

Commissioners Todd Shaw and Fayez Kazi both pointed out that a new Land Development Code could perhaps be implemented by the time the pilot programs were in the works. Kazi said he worried that the commission may be getting too far ahead, or that staff are getting too far behind.

“We don’t necessarily have the luxury of waiting until we have the perfect policy printout to develop an implementation strategy, so it is a continuous process,” said Greathouse.

“Austin cannot afford to wait five years for this broken process yet alone the 50-75 years that it would take the city under current conditions,” said Anderson. “We’re failing our community in conspicuous ways and must stop.”

Council is expected to consider the new strategy plans via the pilot programs sometime this spring.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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