Before Imagining Austin's future, we might first imagine Austin in 1839. That was the year this city was founded. It was also around the time when Austin's first Mayor, Edwin Waller, laid out an orderly and logical geometric plan for a city on a bluff between Shoal and Waller Creek. That 14 block blueprint, still largely intact downtown, is an ancient planning tool common in central cities across Europe and America — a grid.
The grid is genius in its simplicity and its ability to orient the pedestrian to north, south, east and west. Back in the day, the blocks favored density and encouraged walking since there was no such thing as the modern convenience of the automobile.
That was a long time and over a million people ago, and like most American cities, life in Austin has extended far beyond the nucleus. Post-World War II America saw the boom of suburbs. As more Americans subscribed to and could afford the ideal American dream — a home with a yard and good schools for the kids — patterns spread outward. As John Langmore, Cap Metro board member and long-time Texas transportation consultant explains, Austin was no exception.
Right now, Austin is car-dependent. Overall, Austin ranks 31st among the nation's 50 largest cities for walkability according to walkscore.com. That's worse than Houston or Dallas.
It varies sharply by neighborhood, with central areas scoring much better on the walkability scale and outward areas ranking dismal at best. The ability to walk and buy a quart of milk is one of those fundamental values that the Imagine Austin initiative hopes to see through to fruition for all residents, north, south, east and central.
So how'd Austin sprawl out beyond the easily walkable grid designed by Mayor Waller? It was actually easy.
"Years ago, developers began and continued to buy up land further and further out because it was less expensive. They could build affordable homes on property and the state DOT gladly built roads out to where those people were living. In the early days, the public sector paid scant attention to where growth was occurring and what those trends meant for the future," John Langmore said.
And while he stressed, there's nothing innately wrong with that type growth pattern, it had — and continues to have — implications.
Imagine Austin attempts to address the probable tsunami of people headed here in the coming years; however, there are those who have seen comprehensive plans before, and they caution that such plans can be subject to manipulation and must have teeth in order to work.
"This plan is only as good as the next council," said Ira Jon Yates of Yates Cattle & Conservation and a task force member in the Imagine Austin development group.
Yates remembers the early 80s when his mother wanted to sell around 4,000 acres of land at Circle C Ranch. But because of land plans laid out in what was then the Austin Tomorrow plan, Yates' mother's property was de-valued in price due to its designation as a no development zone. No one wanted it — at first that is. But Yates said it allowed speculators the opportunity to come in and buy up property at low prices. Circle C was eventually bought and developed.
The development at Circle C led to controversy over open spaces and the environment, but it was also a shining moment in Austin's environmental history, when the area was designated as a sensitive aquifer re-charge zone.
"The old plan was wonderful in its direction and intent, but it could be co-opted by the next city council," said Yates.
"Even though at the time, Area 5 (Circle C) was a no-growth area over the re-charge zone, with the right folks at the city council, you could at that time create anything," he said.
Meanwhile, growth continued, undeterred and supplied with cheap utilities, and Austin's outer rings continued to flourish into the 90s. But it was then too that increased growing pain tensions between new residents, developers and West Coast money further clashed with the strong passions to preserve Austin's inarguably special sense of place, as well as its awe-inspiring environmental gifts.
Austin's local political system is somewhat archaic. And as a whole, the local voting electorate is disengaged in city elections. Less than 10 percent of eligible voters turned out for the last municipal election. Some say that's because they feel that the council doesn't represent their interests.
Unlike most large cities, council members are elected through an at-large voting system. There are no council districts, so local neighborhoods are not directly represented by a local council person. Instead, city council members find themselves beholden to a group of politically engaged local neighborhood groups, primarily in the central areas of town. Those neighborhood groups often help finance campaigns and end up voting in certain members who represent their interests.
While the council and Mayor abide by an unspoken progressive mantra (for example, Austin's professed goal to be sustainable), acts like the plastic bag ban lose their impact when one drives around areas beyond downtown. In fact, when viewed as a whole, much of Austin offers up yet one more example of an American city that didn't do its homework. Signs of fractionalized unplanned growth are evident in countless neighborhoods — east, west and north.
Outlying areas appear even further isolated, choked by small, congested and convoluted highways, all even more ill-served by an inadequate public transit system that relies on the bus. Unfortunately, Austin buses are at the mercy of the same single passenger car lanes as everyone else since the idea of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes appear to have bypassed Austin.
Turns out, Austin was too small in 1956 to receive a beltway under the interstate highway system. In later years, an anti-freeway movement delayed construction of big highways for decades.
By 2010, Austin ranked 3rd in the entire United States for traffic congestion — once again, worse than Houston or Dallas — according to data compiled by Texas A&M University.
Add to that, Austin's population density stands at 2,653 people per square mile. Compare that to Seattle, at around 7,500 per square mile. Overall, Austin is one of the least dense cities in the United States. Density reduces sprawl, which in turn reduces environmental and economic impact. For example, over 50 percent of the Austin area's water consumption goes to the irrigation of landscaping. A huge portion of that is residential lawns. And, there's simply no telling how much gas Austinites consume driving on the highways.
Terry Mitchell, President of Momark Development and one of the developers of The Austonian downtown, argues the example of a 200 home development on a 226 acre site. There, development might result in 50 acres of impervious cover. Meanwhile, he said the 200-unit Austonian led to one acre of impervious cover.
Impervious cover is any surface in the landscape that cannot absorb or infiltrate rainfall — think driveways, city streets, parking lots and rooftops.
Meanwhile at City Hall, the denser, tax revenue-rich parts of town, continue to fund the necessary infrastructure to build in less dense areas of the city.
"The direct cost — what it costs to lay out the infrastructure such as roads, sewers and water for a sprawling community — is so much more than it is for a denser development," said former Pittsburgh Mayor Thomas Murphy, now a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.
So why is there still such strong opposition to certain density development proposals floated in or near the center city from certain local factions?
Terry Mitchell said he understood objections from residents who raise red flags about the increased traffic that would result from new in-town multifamily developments. But, he said traffic patterns have shown that the new residents would make shorter distance trips.
Anyone who has inched their way home to North Austin on Mopac or I-35 during Austin rush hour traffic is familiar with the caterpillar pace. And, as Mitchell points out, the environmental impact of thousands of idling cars, especially in hot climates like Texas, is devastating.
Even still, Austin leaders pay close attention to the outcry from in-town neighborhood concerns.
"The legacy of Austin's current development structure now... often times we instead respond to political pressures and we don't zone land accordingly," Mitchell said.
And, that's not even considering the socio-economics of density.
"Higher density, or more compactness (as the Imagine Austin plan calls density) has been attributed to a more sustainable community, not just environmentally but socially and culturally as well," said Evan Taniguchi, principal at Taniguchi Architects who served on the Imagine Austin's citizen's advisory task force.
He compared Austin to Portland, where planners are finishing up a comprehensive plan in a city long considered as a model for urban planning. He said since they already have a successful land-use and transportation vision, they are embarking on a new phase of a plan that primarily focuses on social equity.
"I would say they are at least 25 years ahead of Austin as far as "compact and connected goes," he said.
The allure of the Texas capital is real; its appeal even to places beyond Texas, even the progressive Northwest coast, is tangible. And despite the rumors, there's no one at the Austin City Limits sign screaming "Go back home!"
As residents examine Imagine Austin, tough questions about the nitty gritty of the zoning and development code will be debated, arguments will be had over developer response to community or market forces and the larger issues of glaring economic inequity will be lurking in the background. Perhaps the biggest of those is whether Austin will ever get serious about the fundamental necessity of connectivity through viable public transit.
"One of the potential outcomes in the Imagine Austin plan is an overhaul of the land development code," said Melissa Neslund, land planner and business development specialist at Bury + Partners.
Big picture-wise, Neslund said that the Imagine Austin plan will help planners realize visions that are necessary to grow Austin in a smarter way.
"We have this problem now where people say they want density, but when you get these same people to actually come out and talk about the nuts and bolts of what and how that density comes to be, they say 'not in my neighborhood,'" said Neslund.
"In other words, the changes to the code might mean, yes, you will have a three or four floor structure next to your single family home," said Neslund.
Even still, Neslund, who has seen other Imagine Austin-like plans come and go, is optimistic about this current effort saying she believes the new plan keeps the focus on the greater philosophy to create complete and connected communities.
But, driving around Austin, one is reminded of the work to be done to realize that vision.
One recent Sunday afternoon, a local Randall's cashier was asked if she was going to watch the Oscars later that night. She said she planned to, but that it depended on the bus.
"It takes me about an hour, on a good day," to make the journey from the store on Lake Austin Blvd. to her home near South 1st and Slaughter Lane.
For her, the concept of a fully complete community was not realized.
"Housing, employment, parks, schools, social services, retail — you ask, do each of these big parts of town, have all these components," asked Frances Ferguson, board president at Housing Works and an Imagine Austin citizens task force member.
One development in particular, Mueller, has been held up as an example by Austin leaders and developers. At this point, communities like Mueller, still largely in the planning stages, are few and far between. The dearth of good planning in the past has led to these moments of heightened urgency as Austin moves forward.
"We all know a vibrant activity center when we see it. Imagine Austin calls for thriving, connected centers where residents can access healthy foods, their place of work or higher education with or without a car," said Matthew Dugan, PDR at the City of Austin's Planning Department.
He said the goal is to connect people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to homes, jobs, schools, arts and cultural amenities. That's not just the downtown, but all the disconnected places — throughout the 297 square miles that makes up the City of Austin.
Still, critics of the plan aren't convinced this is the best way to proceed.
"Our overall quality of life in Austin is very high and that's made us unrealistically complacent," said Robin Rather, CEO at Collective Strength.
Rather, who says that Imagine Austin lacks teeth, takes an altogether different tone, saying the reason life in Austin is so great now is because people 20 years ago wanted to make this city a better place. She said that's the time when people were talking about open space and the unique character of neighborhoods, taking care to protect that special sense of place so many associate with the essence of Austin.
"The last generation of leaders was looking out for the next 20 to 30 years of Austinites. We aren't. We are not looking out for the next 20 or 30 years," said Rather.
She said you can survive without cutting edge transportation and compact development.
"You cannot survive without water and energy," said Rather.