A new comprehensive urban plan for the City of Austin's growth called Imagine Austin, is slowly making its way through various City committees, commissions and eventually City Council. Considering the number of people reportedly headed this way to work, play and yes, live, some say it's long past time for a plan with teeth by which to grow this city into the Austin of the future.
But is what's being called "Imagine Austin" the best blueprint for what is one of America's fast growing places?
"Density, Livability and sustainability are core goals embedded in the comprehensive plan. We are currently studying what the plans spells out and working to make it a workable plan that is fully implementible," said Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who says she looks forward to hearing the Planning Commission's input that is coming on April 10 and 11.
If all goes as planned City Council will again be briefed on April 26 and on May 24, whish is the date for the City Hall public hearing.
This is hardly the first time Austin has set out to construct some sort of blueprint for its growth. Despite plans that have come and gone — clearly forgotten — there appears to be a heightened sense of urgency this time. City leaders apparently recognize that in order to remain competitive, especially in the face of other buzz cities that have adopted strict plans by which to develop, Austin is going to have to clearly spell out how it wants to cross over into the next phase of its existence.
Fact is, rapid growth in the Austin metro area has already ranked it as the second fastest growing metro area in the nation according to new data from the US Census Bureau. Of the 67,230 new residents coming to the Austin area over the past 15 months, 38,858 of those came to Travis County. That growth is expected to continue, and it challenges the area's long stated values about sustainability and community. At some point, as sprawl continues to devour areas surrounding Austin and highway traffic continues to choke and stall, leaders are going to have to decide when to say yes; and why they may need to say no.
"The ability of a city to make the kind of choices that Austin is hopefully laying out with its comprehensive plan will position it to compete in the 21st Century," said Thomas Murphy, an Urban Land Institute senior fellow in Washington D.C.
Murphy, who was also mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006, said a plan like Imagine Austin isn't done because it's a nice thing to do, it's strategic.
"This is being done because the people driving it understand that for Austin to be one of those buzz cities, to remain seen as one of America's most successful, it needs to be a livable place. It can't be a city choked by congestion and without great amenities," said Murphy.
Murphy said there are many people, especially younger Americans, who are making economic and lifestyle choices about where they want to live based on those livability factors. He said a solid development plan for the city's future also creates a competitive advantage.
"Look at how Europe has developed — in part because of $12 gas. You have big center cities then lots of open space and lots of little villages with town centers, but all are connected by adequate transit," said Murphy, who added that those who think gas prices will ever fall back to $2.50 a gallon are dreaming.
"As globalization continues, and 1.2 billion Chinese people begin to want to live like we do, I don't think we can ever have the expectation gas prices will go down or be cheap again," he said.
And that Murphy said, is what a plan like Austin's needs to address. You have to think about the cost of infrastructure supporting sprawling development: roads, sewer, gas, all that is the ultimate driver of development. And the biggest demographic bubbles Gen X and Gen Y as well as Boomers, all want to be in places where they don't have to drive as much.
Imagine Austin is not without critics.
Melissa Nesslund, a land development planner at Bury + Partners stresses that in order for the plan to be effective, change will need to occur in the overall development process.
While Nesslund, a homeowner herself, respects the concerns of neighborhood groups, she said, if developers can't get leeway in development codes, then Austin will not achieve true density in its future.
"I would have liked to see much bolder policy prescriptions to prevent sprawl," said downtown resident and citizens task force member Roger Cauvin.
Cauvin, owner of Cauvin Inc., a product strategy firm, said he believes Austin should eliminate minimum parking requirements, eliminate limits on floor to area ratios and adopt something akin to a form-based code citywide.
"The prospects of enacting those sorts of bold policy decisions is dependent on how staff and city council act on the 'modify the land development code' provision after its adoption," he said.
Austin Collective Strength CEO Robin Rather, who has worked with the American Planning Association and other groups on issues of sustainability and urban development is more broadly critical.
"It's vague, a lot of concepts, and what makes that even worse, they aren't new concepts," said Rather.
With 750,000 new potential Austin residents coming, forecast by national observers, Rather said, our problems today are not land use and transportation related, "our problems are water and energy."
"They spend a lot of time doodling around with it, but not nailing it, and I find that unbelievably frustrating," said Rather. This past summer, one of the dryest and hottest in Austin modern history, led to water supply issues that reminded everyone here how fragile the area's eco-system truly is. Without a secure supply of water, no city of the future is possible.
"The comprehensive plan is big picture by its nature," said Matthew Dugan, lead planner at the City of Austin's Planning Department. "Other city plans are more focused on smaller geographic areas or specific topics such as parks or transportation. Imagine Austin identifies defining issues that are paramount to Austin’s future success, including strong and specific action items for water and energy."
In the next few weeks we'll examine the Imagine Austin plan's six guiding principles.
Dugan and the city planning department said the decisions about what gets funding in the future is an iterative process. He said the city will strive for extensive public participation in the city’s annual budget process and Austin residents and voters will ultimately determine future bond funding for projects spelled out in the plan.
Still, Imagining the Austin of the future is not best left to the, well, imagination. Planning our future city is a tangible and real process that all should participate in.
"I think people generally feel that the way a city grows is just something that happens to them — that they either like it or they don't, but they don't really think about things happening today that will determine the city they'll be living in 10 or 15 years from now," said John Langmore, Cap Metro board member and long-time Texas transportation consultant. "The fact of the matter, Austin cannot afford not to do this plan said John Langmore.
"It will take the collective strength and energy of our leaders and the Austin community to make the goals of Imagine Austin happen," said Matthew Dugan.
He said one of the first steps is knowing what kind of community we want to be, and Imagine Austin lays that out.
PART TWO- How we got here.