Planning tool criticized
Despite almost two and half years of discussion, there are those who say Austin’s newest guideline for the future is all wet.
Imagine Austin (IA) kicked off in October 2009 defined as a "Comprehensive Plan connecting the community vision to tangible actions and realizable priorities." The group had monthly task force meetings with claims of taking "18,000 inputs" from Austinites. The Plan is now in its last months of government approval.
IA uses five guiding principles to build a plan for leading Austin into the future. Those principles are:
- How to grow as a compact, connected city
- Integrate nature into the city
- Provide paths for prosperity for all
- Develop as an affordable, healthy city
- Sustainably manage water and other environmental resources
“If Imagine Austin fails to include a meaningful strategy for energy and for water — if those two issues aren't nailed in our so called comprehensive plan — then it is completely worthless." — Robin Rather
But that doesn’t mean it has everyone's buy-in.
“Imagine Austin is a feeble wish list of concepts that has no funding stream identified, no implementation parameters and no discernible community buy-in,” says Robin Rather, a long-time activist in Austin and board member of the grassroots Liveable City organization. “In my view, it has been a complete waste of time and money and will not, as it currently stands, make any difference on the ground.”
“It needed to focus on estimating our ‘carrying capacity’ and setting some realistic, measurable goals," she continues. "After that, IA should have spent nearly all the time focusing on implementable, detailed steps that connect that vision with our already existing economic development plans, sustainability indicators, neighborhood plans, cultural and equity plans and linked them together into a truly comprehensive strategic ‘business’ plan than could be executed and funded for how Austin should grow into its future."
Bill Bunch is executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. The SOS movement is strongly reflected in Imagine Austin, as the effort to put water quality into the law through the 1990s also brought about more emphasis on the new urbanism of less sprawl, more compact development especially in downtown and a recognition of nature in an urban area’s quality of life.
But Bunch isn’t impressed with the likely impact of Imagine Austin.
“Cities have lost a lot of their ability to control their own futures,” Bunch says. He says state legislation which allows development under plans filed decades earlier when science might have been different, and the creation of municipal utility districts beyond city control, have emasculated municipalities’ ability to control their tomorrows.
“A dramatic shift is happening that isn’t being recognized yet,” Bunch says.
Another ground level SOS player was Daryl Slusher. Slusher was elected to the Austin City Council in 1995, he is now an executive with the city’s water utility. That position makes him hesitant to speak directly to Imagine Austin. But he too questions if an individual city can have enough impact on its own future. He says the impact of everything from transportation to environmental preservation has become regional, running in this area from north Williamson County into the hills of Hays County to the south.
One of the realities which may be driving much of the environmental community’s reluctance is water and how it was handled in Imagine Austin. Water is essentially looked upon as a city service.
That is a particularly hot issue now. Austin is building a water treatment plant in North Austin which environmentalists argue isn’t necessary. They vehemently insist that water needs can be met with conservation instead of a plant costing tens of millions of dollars and built in a sensitive natural area.
When the City Council approved the plant over their objections, a series of private meetings were held in the environmental community to look at overall water policy. Emphasized in those meetings was the claim that Imagine Austin left water as “an afterthought,” as one participant said. Some city council members promised to urge staff to change that priority.
“If Imagine Austin fails to include a meaningful strategy for energy and for water — if those two issues aren't nailed in our so called comprehensive plan — then it is completely worthless," Rather says. “Energy and water are to this decade and century what transportation and land use were to the last. We should not be solving 1990s problems now. We should be solving the problems of today and tomorrow.”
Bunch points to a specific when questioning the today vs. tomorrow. State Highway 45 South has long been a sticking point for Bunch and his ilk. They call the proposed road, essentially hooking up MoPac Boulevard and I-35 in South Austin, unneeded and deadly to the environment there. Proponents say it is necessary to relieve an already existing traffic logjam in the area.
Bunch says community input keeps asking to take the specific road out of Imagine Austin and staff keeps returning it.
“People are driving less,” Bunch says. “We can take some of the credit, but there are several factors, the price of gasoline, boomers aging, people telecommuting. There is a new generation that doesn’t want to be adults in the places they grew up in.”