By spring, Austin City Council is expected to consider adopting a new comprehensive plan that will be used to direct the city's growth and redevelopment over the next 30 years as Austin's population likely doubles to 1.5 million people.

"The whole emphasis of the plan is to get things connected and in close proximity to each other," said Garner Stoll, assistant director of the city's planning and development review department. "Some people can walk or use transit, but not everyone will have to take auto trips."

If Austin develops in accordance with the plan, Stoll said the result would be a more affordable and livable city.

A new vision

Imagine Austin, or the comp plan, as it is widely referred to, maps out a departure from the current plan, Austin Tomorrow.

Adopted in 1979, Austin Tomorrow adheres to a more traditional view of how an ideal community should be laid out, with commercial and residential sectors separate—indicating most travel must be made by car.

Imagine Austin, however, has walkable urban hubs, referred to as "regional centers," separated by low-density, single-family neighborhoods.

In Northwest Austin, the plan calls for three such centers: on RM 620 near Lakeline Drive; at Robinson Ranch, located near the intersection of Parmer Lane and McNeil Drive; and in the North Burnet/Gateway and Great Hills area.

"For the regional centers, we have tried to identify areas with a lot of capacity, a lot of room," said Greg Claxton, a senior planner with the city.

Each center is also situated at the intersection of major roads that will carry high-capacity transit buses or at planned or existing stops on the MetroRail Red Line and an urban rail system yet to be built.

The planned Lakeline regional center, for example, sits at the intersection of Toll 45 and US 183 and contains a park-and-ride stop on the MetroRail Red Line.

Managing multiple plans

Austin Tomorrow, while visionary for its time, has lost relevance over the last three decades, Stoll said. A movement to update or create a new comprehensive plan got some traction in the late 1980s, though it failed to gain critical mass.

As a result, City Council launched a neighborhood-planning program that allowed residents, businesses and other stakeholders to create a formal document that would dictate future land use, desired zoning changes and aesthetic guidelines.

"Rather than trying to do a comprehensive plan, they thought they would attack the problem neighborhood by neighborhood, and eventually there would be plans for the whole city," Stoll said.

That decision has led to concern over how Imagine Austin will coexist with the neighborhood plans, which have been adopted for approximately half of the neighborhoods in the city.

Ann Teich, vice president of the North Austin Civic Association, said her neighborhood's plan, approved in 2000, has been used to keep the area at Macmora Road and Kramer Lane bucolic, helped prevent developers from building multifamily housing on land zoned for other purposes and motivated bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

But the neighborhood plans lack some key elements that the comprehensive plan aims to provide, chief among them being a big-picture perspective.

Even so, Claxton said he thinks the neighborhood plans are vital to development and redevelopment of neighborhoods. Moreover, they were heavily relied upon to shape the areas outlined for growth in the comp plan.

"Both [plans] bring an important perspective, and that is what we have tried to convey in [Imagine Austin]: that they are two tools that need to work together," Claxton said.

The cost of imagining

One of the more controversial issues surrounding Imagine Austin is that it calls for what are likely billions of dollars of capital improvements, or structural enhancements to roads and buildings, over the next few decades. To pay for this, the city will need help.

"What we're looking at is public-private partnerships, public-public partnerships and even public-nonprofit partnerships," Stoll said.

The Mueller development, a master-planned, mixed-use community in East Austin, is an example of a public-private partnership that could serve as a blueprint for future growth.

"The up-front costs [of these developments] are higher because of the infrastructure that is required, but if it's higher density and more compact, it's also a better use of the tremendous public investment," Stoll said.

Making it reality

In the meantime, the city is banking on two main devices for implementation. The first is a revision and maybe even a complete overhaul of the city's phone book–thick land development code so that it promotes the type of compact and connected city outlined in the comp plan. Either a revision or an overhaul would lead to rezoning, a process that would likely take several years, Claxton said.

The second device is the Capital Planning Office, created in September 2010 to establish "connective tissue," as Capital Planning Officer Mike Trimble puts it, between the comprehensive plan and the city's capital improvement planning efforts.

At any one time, Austin is in the midst of 500 capital improvement projects, and last year alone spent about $600 million on these efforts. The Capital Planning Office will funnel the city's resources into projects that align with the policies and priorities set forth in Imagine Austin.

"It's really going to be directing our capital investments and setting some visions and goals for what we are trying to accomplish overall," Trimble said.

Regional centers are major urban hubs with shopping, housing, employment, entertainment and green space. Centers such as Robinson Ranch, as opposed to downtown, will probably have urban cores surrounded by lower-density housing. City policy and planning strategies will help grow the regional centers by 25,000–45,000 people and 5,000–25,000 new jobs.

Town centers are less-dense versions of the regional center. City policy and planning strategies will help grow the town centers by 10,000–30,000 new people and 5,000–20,000 new jobs.

Neighborhood centers will grow by 5,000–10,000 new people and 2,500–7,500 new jobs. They will have more of a local focus than town centers.

Mixed-use corridors are linear throughways that feature a mix of development, including retail, parks, schools, houses apartments and offices. Imagine Austin calls for the mixed-use corridors to be pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly and have the potential for increased public transit options.

High-capacity transit includes the MetroRail Red Line, the MetroRapid bus system that will likely be operational in 2014 and the proposed Lone Star Rail Network that would connect Austin and San Antonio as well as a proposed urban rail line.