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Council to consider jump-start to small area planning

Thursday, April 25, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Planning and Zoning Department could be getting outside help to clear an anticipated decades-long backlog of planning documents for activity centers specified for growth in Imagine Austin.

An amendment up for consideration at today’s City Council meeting includes possible use of outside consultants as part of the process to complete small area plans for the corridors and other areas likely to see big changes in the coming years.

The amendment from Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen – potentially attached to Council’s resolution responding to City Manager Spencer Cronk’s questions to Council seeking direction on the land development code rewrite – outlines the criteria used for completing new small area plans, with the goal of completing those documents within five years.

At Tuesday’s work session, Council learned that Planning and Zoning is currently able to complete only two plans every 12 to 18 months, and that adding 10 full-time planners to the department would only double its expected output.

With more than 100 distinct centers and corridors defined in Imagine Austin, that would leave the city far behind in its ability to plan for growth and shape how those centers respond to Austin’s rapidly increasing population.

“The resources piece is a significant piece to how we can timeline and move through the plans,” said Stevie Greathouse, manager of long-range planning and design for the Planning and Zoning Department. “Under our current staffing resources we expect that we could do one to two plans simultaneously, so under a best-case scenario under current staffing and resources for the department that would be two plans per year, or two plans per 18 months.”

A request expected to be considered at a Council meeting in May would create a pilot program to complete a new small area plan for the North Lamar corridor, with that program helping to shape the process for creating other small area plans.

Kitchen and Pool said the small area plans, which were redefined under a 2017 resolution, will help the city marshal resources to meet goals for affordable housing, transit and other priorities over which the city has some measure of control.

Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Natasha Harper-Madison expressed confusion over the value the plans provide, wondering if they are redundant or would act counter to the larger rezoning efforts throughout the city.

“I don’t understand the practical application,” Harper-Madison said. “It seems counterintuitive to not just zone the whole city the same way.”

Kitchen said the plans are specific to certain areas and will use input from the community and visitors to achieve a more fine-tuned result than might be possible with a citywide plan. She pointed to the South Central Waterfront District as the most high-profile plan currently being put to use.

“If we want to achieve the vision that we have in Imagine Austin that has a vision for how places may develop around the city, like activity centers, then we need to take it a step further than to just say, well, wouldn’t it be nice if this particular area was an activity center,” she said. “We have some tools as a city to make that happen. We can’t go all the way there because the market does a lot of it, but we can control some things.”

Mayor Steve Adler said addressing the need for small area plans is one of the many questions city staff and Council have in front of them heading into the rewrite of the land use code.

“My hope is that there’s a third way here in terms of being able to get a lot more planning done a lot more quickly,” he said.

“I don’t know if that means restructuring what is the planning or how that comes out, but it seems as if so many of the conversations we’re having around the city with respect to affordability get us back to a planning conversation. Obviously, two plans a year won’t get us substantially where we need to go, and neither will four plans a year. I don’t know what the alternative is, but I’d love for us to figure out a way to do planning, realizing it will take more resources.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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