Neighborhood Plans and their Sisyphean Trap

posted Jan 24, 2016, 11:06 AM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Jan 24, 2016, 11:35 AM ]

To craft strong plans, planners need stakeholders who will compromise. Compromise requires trust. We need to shape more trust if we are to get a strong Burnet corridor plan.

In my previous post, I explored sources of planning mistrust stemming from how the City wrote the new comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin.

Imagine Austin lays out at the 30,000 ft level where we as an entire city want to go over the coming 30 years, and how we do it. At the other end of the planning spectrum are ‘local area plans,’ i.e. neighborhood plans and corridor plans. These plans are where the City acknowledges local priorities, and reconciles them with citywide goals.

One of the themes during and after Imagine Austin that has sapped trust is the lingering matter of how the new citywide comprehensive plan interfaces with the older neighborhood plans. Neighborhood leaders throughout Imagine Austin demanded that the Comp Plan respect neighborhood plans. City staff hedged, hawed and conflict-avoided.

To build planning trust, we need to finally tackle how local plans, and their local priorities, interface with Imagine Austin, and its citywide priorities. But we also need to rethink how local plans regulate zoning amendments.


The Big Compromise, Circa 2003: Put Most New Housing along Commercial Streets

The Brentwood, Crestview and Wooten neighborhood plans that govern zoning on the east side of Burnet Rd emerged in the early 2000s. Participants in those early neighborhood plans have told me that the planning process was fair. The planning managers acted as moderators, helping various stakeholders (including other City staff) reach compromise on thorny trade-offs. Getting to those compromises, even for a small part of the city, was hard work. It took three years and dozens of meetings.

Then as now, the biggest conflict pitted a mainly local priority -- livability -- against a mainly citywide priority -- affordability. The Big Compromise that emerged protected the neighborhoods’ single family cores from growth, while acquiescing to dense new growth on Lamar, Burnet or Anderson. This compromise was then enshrined in the Future Land Use Map (FLUM), a map in the plan showing allowed zoning for every parcel.

The perceived fairness and credible zoning enforcement resulted in a strong base of support. City Council mostly respected the single family zoning in these plans.


Gravity, and Other Inconvenient Truths

Unfortunately, defending neighborhoods from density in a high growth city is a bit like pushing a boulder up the side of a mountain. The farther you push, the greater the force pushing back.

The ‘push back’ is an ever widening supply-demand imbalance that raises housing prices. Not linearly – there’s other things like speculation going on.  But it’s the primary driver.

The tiny luxury apartments currently getting built along the corridors serve a fairly narrow ‘young and restless’ demographic. Most everyone else who wants to live in urban Austin relies on existing single family housing or garden apartments, the supply of which has been essentially flat for several decades.

Meanwhile, people keep coming to Austin. The baseline 3%-a-year increase in our population is attributable to prosaic things like sunshine, low taxes, and the relative affordability of Texas cities compared to the West or East coasts. Swapping one’s house near San Francisco for one in Austin, as one of my work colleagues recently did, makes for a perky little incentive to move here.

Rising demand for housing in urban areas is partly a consequence of global warming. In the years since the Burnet Rd neighborhood plans went into effect, an entire generation of Millennials has grown up in an era of dire scientific reports, Al Gore’s 2007 watershed film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and real live extreme weather events (remember back when we had a pine forest in Bastrop?). Many want to reduce their carbon footprint.

At some point, Austin’s prices will come into equilibrium with the two coasts. The national urban housing market will become saturated. But that point may be a couple of decades out. Think about the post-WWII suburban housing cycle – it lasted for half a century.


Other Challenges with Outdated Neighborhood Plans

Oddly enough, neighborhoods were the focus of neighborhood plans. Properties along corridors got new mixed use zoning, but this was done haphazardly, without much sense of how that would affect the functioning of the corridor.

We are now starting to understand some unintended consequences of this neglectful approach to corridor planning, in terms of car congestion, demographic diversity, and quality of life. A lot needs changing, if our community is to avert a transportation melt-down and homogenized demographics.


Why Won’t Neighborhoods Compromise?

In my opinion, neighborhoods can no longer reflexively fight any new housing and expect to win. Affordability is City Council’s top priority. Last year’s ADU ordinance, which makes it easier to add a second residential building on single family lots, illustrates the unravelling of the Big Compromise protecting single family cores.

Going forward, a good corridor plan with strong local support is our best hope of absorbing the inevitable new housing in a way that is supported by infrastructure, sensibly balances new housing against transportation efficiency, and preserves our community’s existing demographic diversity and culture.

One might expect community leaders to accept this reality and engage in a series of compromises to achieve key goals, but most will not. They are not insane. They have repeatedly endured the weaknesses in City planning that will undermine good intentions.

Local plans are part of the problem.

Local plans are good at enforcing the original Big Compromise because of the “thin red line,” the highly intuitive boundary between existing commercial and residential zoning.

Conversely, neighborhood plans have proven lousy at informing trade-offs during those upzoning requests where the thin red line principle is ambiguous, like the recent Crestview Korean church zoning case. The plans say little about why a property is or isn’t suitable for a given zoning category. Any such hints that exist regarding zoning suitability are buried in pages and pages of blah blah blah. Nobody reads any of that.

Without clear principles and rules to guide trade-offs, neighborhoods rightly assume that any blurring of the ‘thin red line’ (for instance, into the proposed middle density ‘transition zones’) would be widely abused. The logical recourse is to zealously defend that thin red line and the existing neighborhood plans that enshrine it, no matter what.


Sources of Mistrust in Neighborhood Plans that are Potentially Fixable at the Policy Level

The following aspects of neighborhood plans interfere with reaching good compromises:
  • Neighborhood plans don’t have clear principles and measurable benchmarks to predictably say where zoning is appropriate, and where it is not
  • Any such principles are buried and not integrated with the plan amendment process
  • There’s no training of regulating entities to work with the plan’s principles and make predictable, optimized decisions.
The Sustainable Neighborhoods meeting this Wednesday, 7 PM will consider the hurdles to planning trust, and try to determine if there are clear, viable steps that could raise trust and lead to a successful Burnet corridor plan. If you have time, please come out!