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.

Mapping the future: High school students tackle Austin's development challenges

growing and learning

Remember when you were a freshman in high school, and a city planner asked you to redesign your hometown? No? You must not have taken pre-AP Human Geography with Jamison Warren.

For the past few years, students in Warren’s class in the Academy for Global Studies at Austin High School have been redesigning sites including Highland Mall, the Austin State School and the Brackenridge Tract. Using giant maps, pencil, and concepts from class, they’ve been envisioning a walkable and sustainable future for Austin.

Ninth graders haven’t really taken over the city’s planning offices. The exercise is part of a unit that focuses on urban development and was the brainchild of Carol Haywood, manager of the city’s comprehensive planning division. She wanted to encourage Warren’s students to think of themselves as stakeholders in Austin’s future.

This is particularly important when it comes to the 30-year comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin. Haywood is blunt: “Thirty years from now I’m not going to be here. This is going to be their city, and the kids today are really bright, and they want a good place to live.”

An eye-opening exercise

AHS senior Emily Huang is one of those bright kids. When she was a freshman, her group redeveloped a tract of land near Cameron-Dessau Road and was invited to present its map to the city council.

"I think it’s important that we learn all of our options so that when things are developed, they’re developed into things that we would like to use."

“[The exercise] opened my eyes to how things are changing and we don’t really have full control over what’s going to happen,” Huang says. “But I think it’s important that we learn all of our options so that when things are developed, they’re developed into things that we would like to use.”

Huang’s group, and the others, imagined pedestrian- and bike-friendly, mixed-use developments in the style of New Urbanism. Many connected their projects to transit lines (real or imagined) and included large parks.

The mapping exercise let the students apply concepts they’d learned in class, including the importance of transportation options other than cars. Warren has his classes — which include students from downtown, Tarrytown, the Holly neighborhood and Oak Hill — compare their commute times and whether their neighborhoods have sidewalks.

The importance of walkability

The students also discover their neighborhoods’ walkability scores. “The idea is, can you bike? Can you walk? Are there retail shopping opportunities you can get to without driving?” Warren explains. “Or are you always depending on your car?”

His students are sometimes surprised when they compare scores and realize the opportunities kids in other neighborhoods have. “Especially for a teenager who can’t drive, walkability is huge,” Warren says.

It was huge for Huang’s group, which got most of its ideas from The Triangle. The students appreciated its mix of shops, restaurants and park space, all accessible by foot from the living quarters. They put a Triangle-like park in the center of their tract and built shops around it.

They applied other lessons from the Human Geography curriculum, too.

“One of the really interesting things we learned was about the structure of neighborhoods, and things that make neighborhoods work and not work,” Huang says. “When there are cul de sacs in neighborhoods it makes all the traffic direct to one major road that’s really busy, and it messes up the traffic flow. So we tried not to do that.

“Also, when roads are narrower, cars have to slow down, and it makes it more cycling friendly and pedestrian friendly. So we had more sidewalks and smaller roads.”

Mixed-income neighborhoods

To demonstrate New Urbanism, Warren takes the class to the Mueller development. Some of those ideas found their way into the redevelopment projects, too — especially a mixture of housing types for different income levels.

“They thought that was very democratic,” Warren explains. “And then I asked them, ‘Is that what your neighborhood looks like?’ And they were like, ‘No, not really.’”

Warren, who notes that he has both students on free lunch and a student with a private plane, thinks his pupils would like to replicate this diversity in other areas of their lives.

But it is what Austin High looks like, with its mix of incomes, neighborhoods and ethnicities. Warren, who notes that he has both students on free lunch and a student with a private plane, thinks his pupils would like to replicate this diversity in other areas of their lives.

The exercise wasn’t without controversy — one group was assigned to redevelop the UT-owned Brackenridge Tract, which includes the Lions Municipal Golf Course (Muny), where many AHS families play golf. But Haywood and Warren both say the kids performed better than many adults in similar situations.

“The City of Austin planners commented numerous times on how much less friction and fighting was going on between the students, versus adults in the same scenario,” Warren relates. “The kids were coming up with these beautiful, really democratic, very utilitarian designs.”

Idealistic visions

Of course, this difference is due to the students’ limited life experience as well as teenagers’ limited ability to think into the future. “When you’re 14 or 15 it’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen next week,” much less 30 years in the future, Warren notes.

And like some adults who’ve participated in planning exercises, the students didn’t always take into account the need for a tax base in their developments. They created large parks, “which from a young person’s perspective makes a ton of sense,” Warren says. “But I don’t know from a practical standpoint how that land pays dividends back to the tax base.”

Practical or not, the exercise did introduce students to planning as both a profession and a process that affects their lives. Because so many graduates of Austin’s high schools stay in Austin, the city has an interest in helping them feel invested in the comprehensive plan.

And Emily Huang is even considering planning as a career. She’s been studying Chinese and sees opportunities for a planner in rapidly urbanizing China. The appeal? “You’re creating how people are going to live their lives every day — if they’re going to be able to walk to the grocery store, or to their work, or to the park. It’s almost like playing God in a way.”

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Austin Pets Alive and Austin Animal Center launch $31 pet adoptions for the holidays

New home for the holidays

Two Austin organizations are looking to get local pets into their "furever" homes this holiday season. In a special December promotion, Austin Pets Alive! (APA) and Austin Animal Center are working to get as many animals out of the shelter as possible, by making all adoption fees a flat $31.

The promotion runs December 1-31. According to a release, APA's director of lifesaving operations, Stephanie Bilbro, sees this as a great opportunity to clear out the shelters and make a great impact heading into 2023.

“The holidays are a great time for the Austin community to come together and add to their families. We have so many precious kittens, puppies, cats, and dogs just waiting for their turn to find a family,” said Bilbro. “We hope this is a chance for any family who’s been looking to add a pet to theirs to do so right in the middle of the holiday season. We know Austin is in the upper echelon when it comes to animal welfare. We hope this promo sets us and AAC up for a successful end to 2022 and a fast start going into 2023.”

Both shelters are also seeking fosters and volunteers throughout the holiday season, for Austinites looking to help the shelters without making a long-term commitment.

APA has two locations, one at 1156 W. Cesar Chavez St., and one in Tarrytown (3118 Windsor Rd.). Both locations operate 12-6 pm daily, except Christmas Eve (12-4 pm), Christmas Day (closed), and New Year’s Eve (12-4 pm). The Austin Animal Center is located at 7201 Levander Loop and is open every day from 11 am-7 pm for adoptions. For holiday hours, AAC will be closing at 5 pm on December 23 and will be closed December 24-26.

'Famous' rooftop igloos return to Austin hot spot for the coolest experience this winter

Stay Cool

There aren’t so many winter wonderlands in Austin during the holiday season, but things get colder at higher elevations. The Hotel Van Zandt fourth-floor rooftop may not be high enough to change the weather, but visitors throughout December are invited to hang out in its self-proclaimed "famous" all-weather igloos, snacking on bites from inside and themed cocktails after the sun goes down.

Each private, six-seat igloo at the “South Pole” contains a Christmas tree, board and card games, festive records, and other cozy holiday decorations. It’s as private as Austin dining gets without completely breaking the bank, but the poolside mini-village of transparent igloos creates a warm feeling of togetherness. And in case it actually does get cold (a Christmas miracle!), the vinyl globes are heated.

It's not just a fun gimmick — as cute as the igloos are, Geraldine's is a great foodie destination. Visitors can expect (strong) drinks like the “Dandy Andes,” a minty chocolate mix of Grey Goose vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, and matcha tea. “Santa on a Beach” combines tropical flavors with cinnamon, and other drinks include unusual ingredients like Chartreuse whipped cream, pistachio, and chocolate mole bitters.

Geraldine’s menu focuses on classic Southern cuisine without getting weighed down by tradition; that means a roster of semi-adventurous gourmet comfort foods, like mole birria short ribs, smoked carrots, and salty Brussels sprouts with serranos and mint. Shareables are a good idea, since the igloos are intimate (read: not especially convenient unless you like balancing a dinner plate on the couch).

Two rounds of two-hour seating will be available every night, and reservations will go very fast. As of December 5, there are only a few dates left. Reservations ($100 upfront) entail a $200 minimum on food and beverage, plus a 20 percent service charge. Book on Eventbrite.

Acclaimed Texas chef toasts the Italian liqueur that's perfect for the holidays

The Wine Guy

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day and covers it regularly in a column for CultureMap's Houston site. Here, he talks not about wine, but the perfect after-dinner sip.

All right, team! Listen up! I’m going to give you some very important holiday information to help you get through all of the parties, family gatherings, and large festive dinners. We are not going to talk about wine today. We’re going to talk about another love of mine — the life-saving amaro.

What is amaro, you ask? It’s an Italian herbal liqueur that’s traditionally consumed post-meal as a digestif. Think of it this way: you start your meal with an aperitif — could be a martini, Campari, or Aperol spritz — to get your palate going and your body ready to eat. After dinner, amaro will help you get through the rest of your night. This elixir will magically and quickly break down everything you just consumed.

Most amari are from Italy, but fortunately new producers with similar styles are popping up all over the world. Some are sweeter, some are more bitter. You just have to find the style you like. Producers don’t traditionally tell you what’s in their amaro, because most of them are made up of dozens of herbs and spices. It’s all about trial and error to find the one you love.

I drink it neat, but some people drink it on the rocks. More and more, you’re seeing amari in cocktails, too.

The amari selection at our house is awesome. My wife and I are firm believers in this beverage as a night cap, and it’s even become part of my regiment pre-dinner as a spritz. Kill two birds, you know?

Unfortunately, not a lot of restaurants carry multiple amari, so it’s up to you guys to get this trend moving. The more you ask for it, the more they’ll stock it.

Our No. 1 go to at home? Montenegro. It’s easy to find, and it’s easy drinking. It has flavors of vanilla and orange, but it’s not too sweet and not too bitter. It’s had the same recipe since 1885, and I hope they never change it.

My wife’s favorite is Braulio. This spirit is from the Italian Alps and aged in Slavonian casks. Using more medicinal herbs and fruits means it skews more bitter than Montenegro, but it has a nice sweetness at the end.

A newish player in the amari game is Amaro Nonino. The Nonino family is historically one of the best grappa producers in the world — they’ve been distilling grappa since 1897 — but they didn’t start to produce their namesake amaro until 1992. (By newish, you get what I mean.) It has lots of honey, vanilla, licorice, and orange flavors. It’s a tad less sweet than most, but I think it’s fantastic.

Pasubio is really different from other amari. If you’re a fan of blueberries, this is for you. It literally tastes like crushed blueberries.

The next two are really cool and unusual, because they're made here in the U.S. An all-time favorite is Southern Amaro from High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston. Yaupon is one of the main characteristics, which is found all over Texas.

High Wire built its reputation on using regionally grown and foraged ingredients. If you’re ever in Charleston, you should stop into the distillery and say hi to Scott and Ann! Also, try some of their Jimmy Red Corn whiskey. Actually, everything they make is delightful.

Heirloom Pineapple Amaro is made in Minneapolis. To me, this is fantastically bitter but also tastes like roasted pineapple in a glass. One of my new favorites, for sure.

Now, here’s a helpful tidbit of info. You may have heard of fernet. That’s a general term for an amaro with very little to no sweetness. Branca is a producer that makes fernet, and it’s the most well-known. Search out others as well, because they’re all pretty cool.

Almost everything I listed can be found at most liquor stores. Don’t be afraid to try something. Yes, sometimes it tastes like taking your medicine. But I’ll bet the smell of Jägermeister penetrates your early 20s, and surprise — that’s a style of amaro as well.