Thursday, May 9, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Code rewrite leaves little room for small area planning pilot

City Council will not be taking action Thursday on a resolution intended to direct City Manager Spencer Cronk to initiate a pilot small area planning project on North Lamar Boulevard between Tech Ridge Transit Center and U.S. Highway 183.

Although the pilot includes portions of District 4, Council Member Greg Casar pulled the item for discussion during work session Tuesday morning in view of the broader land use reform effort launched last week.

The pilot was designed to solicit public feedback to improve a specific corridor while evaluating and refining the city’s district planning methods for potential use in subsequent planning efforts.

Planning and Zoning identified two potential pilot areas in May 2018 – North Lamar and South Pleasant Valley Road – which each combined an urgent need for infrastructural improvements and anticipated significant economic growth in the future. Both areas expect investment under the 2016 Mobility Bond and are identified as potential high-capacity transit corridors in the region’s high-capacity transit vision, Project Connect, said Stevie Greathouse, manager of long-range planning and design with Planning and Zoning.

In hindsight, with Project Connect’s high-capacity Orange Line better defined, Greathouse said staff may have chosen South Congress Avenue as a potential pilot area over South Pleasant Valley, likely to support a relatively lower intensity of high-capacity transit.

Casar, however, was less concerned with the specific corridor than with the possible consequences of directing staff to begin an extensive area planning process while navigating the complexity of rewriting the land use code for the entire city. Besides, Casar explained, fixing North Lamar doesn’t have to mean a giant planning endeavor.

“I don’t want to send our very well-meaning, our great staff to ask people what kind of public investments they need when they have been asked so many times, when there still aren’t sidewalks all the way up and down North Lamar, when there are borrow ditches for drainage up and down North Lamar, when people in 2012 passed bonds to just put in crosswalks and stoplights where people have just died year after year in those same places,” Casar said.

In addition to the missing sidewalks and crosswalks, city staffers have identified a number of issues along the section of North Lamar from an absence of parks to transit-hostile land use patterns. It was also identified as a future displacement risk area in last year’s gentrification study from the University of Texas.

Even so, Mayor Steve Adler shared Casar’s concern that a small area project, no matter how desirable, could become a threat to the “mammoth task” of the coming development code rewrite.

Despite assurance from Greg Guernsey, director of Planning and Zoning, that the city currently has the resources necessary to go forth with a planning pilot and the code rewrite, Adler worried that staff members are underestimating the scale of the effort soon to take shape.

“I hate to do anything that dedicates any portion of the planning department’s resources to something that’s not on task for the greatest and biggest priority that we have until … globally we can decide how to do planning,” Adler said.

Moving forward, Council Member Leslie Pool noted that a presentation on the specific areas considered and possible timelines of implementation would be useful for Council in making upcoming budgetary decisions.

Council Member Kathie Tovo fretted that putting off the conversation until staff provides a briefing would only extend the period until North Lamar would get the improvements it needs.

“We delayed a variety of things last time when we were in the process of working on CodeNEXT,” Tovo said. “I think it’s important that we do things wisely. I also think it’s important that we continue on initiatives that we know need to be done.”

Based on Tuesday’s discussion, Planning and Zoning released a memo Wednesday requesting an indefinite postponement of the item containing the resolution.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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