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ZAP tweaks proposed merger of housing and planning departments

Friday, July 24, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

The Zoning and Platting Commission on Tuesday discussed the potential merger between the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development and the Planning and Zoning departments. After multiple commissioners expressed concerns about the measure, they voted unanimously to include three recommendations to the proposal, which appears in City Manager Spencer Cronk’s Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget.

News of the merger came in June, when Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales released a memo outlining his proposal. He said it will allow for the two departments to collaborate better on housing and planning efforts.

ZAP recommends the city choose a director with planning experience, a senior-level demographer position, an emphasis on long-range planning at the senior level, and an emphasis on small area planning at the senior level.

“It’s imperative that this whole operation be run by someone who thoroughly understands the planning process,” Commissioner Bruce Evans said. “We are a victim in the city of not properly planning for such a long time. I think that without having someone on board that’s trained and capable in that area, it’s just going to lead to more of the same.”

Chair Jolene Kiolbassa said many areas in Austin are “bearing the brunt” of the city failing to execute a planning process. She said the Planning and Zoning Department should be looking outward to other cities and municipalities and trying to come up with a new vision for how to plan the city.

“I feel that this merger is kind of a step backward,” she said.

Commissioner Jim Duncan became emotional during his comments, urging the city to move forward with this proposal in full view of the public and not inside a prospective budget.

“This is definitely not something that should be done in a math room,” He said. “It should be done with full transparency and with full implications and understanding of what the long-term effects can be.”

Duncan said some city staffers are frustrated by the state of the city. “I heard one of them say several months ago that Planning is no longer that relevant. We ought to change our name to the Scheming and Real Estate Roulette Department,” Duncan said. “I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for the city.”

Pointing out that the former Planning and Zoning Department director, Greg Guernsey, retired over a year ago and has yet to be replaced, Duncan said he doesn’t believe the city is going in the right direction. He also expressed dismay that city demographer Ryan Robinson had left his position.

“I am sympathetic with the city manager’s office, I know they are juggling a lot of balls right now,” Duncan said. “But it’s imperative that this is done right. And if it’s not, don’t do it.”

City staffers are working to get metrics for the proposal and an organizational chart to the public within the next two weeks.

“I wouldn’t be proposing the merger if I didn’t think we could come out with better planning for the city of Austin,” said Gonzales. “I really do think that by merging the two that ultimately we’re going to end up with a much stronger focus on planning and how we account for the growth of this city.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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