Preconditions for a Successful Burnet Corridor Plan

posted Feb 7, 2016, 12:43 PM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Feb 7, 2016, 12:53 PM ]

What will make a Burnet Rd corridor plan successful?  Last month, I wrote two blogs exploring challenges with recent planning efforts that undermine trust.  We also had a great Sustainable Neighborhoods meeting on 1/27 to identify problems and start to brainstorm solutions.  Below are the meeting results, some thoughts on priority, plus a somewhat embarrassing personal confession.

The Sustainable Neighborhoods focus group drew stakeholders with different goals.  Several  of us were concerned about development impacts on neighborhoods.  Others loved Burnet Rd’s revitalization.  One person lives in a youth housing co-op and was interested in affordable housing for young people.  Another coordinates programs for area middle schoolers.  A participant from North Austin called Burnet Rd "my personal highway."  A prominent local architect came out who seeks growth that doesn’t undermine neighborhoods.  City staff from the corridor plan team and Council Member Pool’s office observed.

The purpose of the meeting wasn’t to start negotiating all of our different goals.  It was to brainstorm ways to make the planning process itself fairer and more trustworthy.  We worked off four success categories:


  • Trust and Fairness
  • Feedback, Communication
  • Conflict Management, Trade-off Optimization
  • Plan Governance, Execution


Trust and Fairness

The first category, ‘Trust and Fairness’, includes high-level frustrations with planning.  These fall into “problems with staff” and “problems with stakeholders.” 


1. Sense that public input is for show, that staff already knows what it wants to do

2. Participants don’t feel like their ideas are heard or valued, especially nuances.

3. People think they have agreement on something, and then it changes

4. Staff have an information advantage over regular stakeholders.

5. “Left hand, right hand.” Other decision-makers outside the planning process don't understand or respect it.

6. Stakeholder amateurism. Example – stakeholder misinterprets information, and trumpets it in alarmist way.

7. Resistance to change, especially if imposed from without

8. People have fears, but don't express them


I have experienced all of these.  In fact, I am personally guilty of #6 and can illustrate how that works from errors I made in a recent blog.

In my post, “City planning: Democracy with Chinese Characteristics,” I described my experience with the Imagine Austin planning process.  I called out how City staff developed a biased survey and distributed it before the visioning committee had finalized the vision and goals.

A few days after posting that essay, I got an email from Matt Dugan, a City staffer who I greatly admire.  Matt worked on Imagine Austin.  His email was courteous, but noted that my blog had some inaccuracies that he’d like to discuss.  I knew I was in trouble.

Matt identified no fewer than three errors of fact in my post. 

In August 2010, City Council adopted the Imagine Austin vision and goals.  Staff only released the ‘Which Way Austin’ public survey the following month. 

In my blog I cited an example of CodeNext staff deleting photos that my neighborhood had collected to describe our Community Character.  The photos weren’t deleted.  They are still publicly available on a Flicker account.  Staff just couldn’t use them in their housing type poster because of the embedded text.

I said that Imagine Austin didn’t treat the Austin Oaks PUD as a growth zone because a highway separated it from the nearby rail line.  According to Matt, Imagine Austin’s growth map does include Austin Oaks. 

Staff, you’re not off the hook!  The ‘Which Way Austin’ survey, whether released before or after the Imagine Austin vision and goals were approved, was an unbalanced instrument. It quantified and compared some goals, but not others.  “The intent of the survey was to understand why people supported one growth scenario or another,” Matt said.  “It wasn’t intended to be a popularity contest.  Maybe we didn’t do a good job explaining that.” 

Likewise, the Austin Oaks example illustrates a different challenge of planning – “#3 – People Think They Have Agreement on Something, and then It Changes.”    During Imagine Austin, I followed the Anderson corridor closely.  I heard staff reason out the scope of growth on that corridor.  Later, when staff apparently changed the scope, the growth map represented that in an ambiguous fashion that made it hard for me as an interested stakeholder to understand.

But my main point here is self-criticism.  Stakeholder amateurism is a huge challenge in planning processes.  I have a full-time job unrelated to my volunteer work.  I’m a dad with three young children.  I can’t possibly follow every detail of a highly complex process.  Matt said a lot of his time on Imagine Austin was spent responding to untrue statements that quickly telephone-gamed into crises.

There’s no silver bullet to make a big planning process completely fair or trustworthy.  But here are some ideas from the Sustainable Neighborhoods focus group:


  1. Work with other volunteers, stakeholders to set a respectful tone where it’s safe to explain and correct information
  2. Offer a venue where stakeholders can easily meet with City staff, create personal continuity
  3. Have translators, to reach non-English-speaking residents
  4. Incorporate local vocabulary, not industry buzzwords.  Terms like ‘Live Work Play’ or ‘Smart Growth’ quickly pick up subjective connotations, both positive or negative. Developing an ear for vocabulary coming from stakeholders can help convey a willingness to listen and understand.

Feedback, Communication

Most of the Sustainable Neighborhoods brainstorming focused on the challenges of gathering feedback and averting miscommunication. Problems identified included:


1. Fragmented information. Misunderstandings that turn ugly.

2. Insular communities, busy stakeholders.

3. Scale of planning effort overwhelms, confuses; burn-out

4. Introverts ignored


The SN group came up with a long list of approaches to improve feedback.  Katie Mulholland from City staff said staff is having these same kinds of conversations:


  1. Try to consolidate information into one place
  2. Rapid feedback follow up.  Example of Austin Oaks charrette, where visual feedback is provided in matter of hours after a session
  3. Task force, volunteer resources to assist with strengthening feedback before submitting to staff, or to set up input meetings
  4. Try to bring in at least one representative of underrepresented groups (but be aware of risk of tokenism)
  5. Bring events to people. ‘Living room’ meetings. Leverage strong communities by going where they congregate
  6. Staff should respond with ‘this is what we heard from you’, then give specific feedback to what was heard
  7. Ask what people DON’T want, and drill down to underlying concerns or what they do want
  8. Surveys, especially for hard to reach stakeholder categories. Be persistent in outreach
  9.  (Families) – events where children welcome, sitter service. Food
  10.  (Small businesses) – set up meetings in off hours near their businesses
  11. Break planning effort into smaller geographical chunks, with fewer, more involved stakeholders
  12. Two-person meeting managers – one to manage conversation and one to take notes


Conflict Management, Trade-off Optimization


Most of the heat in a planning process radiates from conversations around trade-offs.  Creating a strong sense of fairness and trust is a huge part of getting stakeholders to the table and problem-solving.  But the management of goal conflicts itself requires time and effort to get right.



1. Divergent goals result in stakeholder conflict

2. Trade-offs are hard to compare and optimize fairly


Possible solutions:


  1. Identify key trade-offs and likely conflicts in detail much earlier, by organizing preemptive deep-dives (either on specific geographies or topics) with key stakeholders to understand them before planning process gets too far along. Then use that experience to organize rest of process
  2. Clearer public arrangement of identified goals into trade-offs, in order to explore ways to optimize
  3. Ensure ALL key stakeholder goals can be measured and modeled
  4. Be able to develop alternative approaches (credible ones, not strawman alternatives for show)
  5. Take time to understand the other stakeholder’s needs. (Ex. – developer profit constraints)
  6. Small conflict resolution teams consisting of main stakeholders
  7. For really challenging conflicts, identify ‘two-person’ team consisting of most articulate advocates from the opposing sides, to hammer out a compromise proposal
  8. Truly neutral facilitators


Plan Governance, Execution


Plan governance and execution is where the rubber hits the sidewalk.  After a multi-year process and many good intentions, what happens when the first zoning case lands in front of Planning Commission?  As I discussed in my previous blog, if the bodies regulating changes to the plan don’t understand the plan’s intent, don’t respect it, and make arbitrary decisions when amending the plan, then the plan process was for naught. 



1.  Fine intentions of plans get ignored in practice, especially around zoning amendments.

2.  Plans over-promise, under-deliver


Possible Solutions (the SN meeting didn’t get this far, so these are my ideas, or otherwise attributed):

  1. Plan needs to have clear zoning suitability rules, tied to key trade-offs. VERY sketchy illustration of concept:  ‘Transect zone A is appropriate 1) within 1000’ of Transit of quality B; 2) where overall size of district is at least C; 3) where public space within 1000’ is at least D.’
  2. Suitability rules are easy to interpret, and directly tied into plan amendment process.
  3. Rigorous testing of rules, on people with limited experience, to identify ambiguities
  4. Long-term training (certification?) of plan governing bodies.
  5. (From Matt Dugan, planning staff) – organize realistic infrastructure investment options into kind of ‘cafeteria menu,’ to get feedback during planning process and prioritize.
  6. (From Greg Canally, finance dept staff) – city needs to better sync its corridor zoning, infrastructure and financing efforts. (This effort is getting underway).
  7. Staff should assist in orchestrating a consistent public message that ‘retrofitting suburbia’ is a generational investment undertaking that will ultimately pay for itself by shaping a truly sustainable city, but that carries big risks if the city adds density while under-investing in infrastructure. The more that corridor stakeholders hear this, the higher trust will be.



What’s most important?

In my opinion, if there’s one ‘must-have’ planning policy change that will affect the success of the Burnet corridor plan, it’s developing a much clearer, rules-based way to determine when a change of zoning is appropriate, and when it’s not.

Unless stakeholders can see upfront that future plans will be governed more consistently than today’s plans, by the intent of the plan and not by political whim, nothing else proposed above will matter.  This piece of the puzzle will be tricky, but deserves careful attention.