This spring, the Austin City Council is expected to vote on the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the city's planning overview aimed at leading development and managing urban sprawl, or low density land use.
The plan attempts to reconcile the last 60 years of undisciplined growth and cites among its consequences social segregation and isolation, public health, air and water quality, loss of natural open space and agricultural lands and climate change.
"Austin's goals and philosophies are different from the rest of Texas," said Garner Stoll, Planning and Development Review assistant director. "The citizens of Austin have very strong views and values, and the [state] values are a bit different. In planning, Texas values are to protect private property—nothing wrong with that. Austin values are equity, social consciousness and diversity."
The plan addresses Southwest Austin issues such as growth and transportation.
Imagine Austin charts and anticipates the growth of mixed-use corridors—areas with space for housing, retail and recreation. It includes expanded public transportation and bicycle-friendly measures to improve area traffic congestion.
The plan also takes natural resources, such as the Edwards and Trinity aquifers, into consideration regarding growth.
The council is expected to vote on the final plan in March or April after it undergoes final revisions from the task force and a review from the planning commission. If passed, the initiative will supersede the outdated 1979 Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan that has inadequately served a 57 percent population increase since it was adopted—a number projected to grow by an additional 750,000 people by 2039.
A growth-management playbook of sorts, Imagine Austin is intended as a foundation for policies, strategies and actions to accommodate a booming Austin population while maintaining the values and character of the area, according to city officials.
Imagine Austin blends new initiatives with existing neighborhood and district plans into a document that looks forward 30 years on everything from land use to economy.
The plan is built around 14 elements—10 of which are required by city charter—that will be monitored yearly and vetted for improvements.
"There will be an annual report every year that goes to the planning commission," City Planner Matt Dugan said. "Then every five years, we'll look at it and see, 'Does it need to be updated?'"
Last October, the city's Planning and Development Review Department revealed a draft of the plan. In mid-December, the city released survey results from roughly 2,500 Austin residents who ranked eight major programs in order of priority.
Transportation and long-term water solutions, two issues paramount to Southwest Austin residents, were highly ranked.
Examples of mixed-use corridors are Slaughter Lane, Stassney Lane and William Cannon Drive.
The plan calls for mixed-use corridors to be "pedestrian and bicycle-friendly and provide a framework for future transit service or improvements," according to a growth concept map in the plan that touts expanded public transportation in these areas.
"The public sees that during the last 30 years, Austin has been spending money on a transit system, mostly buses," Stoll said. "They are concerned those investments will be used more efficiently going forward. That's why this plan comes out as corridors and centers related to where transit is presently being provided, as well as transit in the future."
Measures like a proposed high-capacity transit stop on Slaughter Lane are also being considered as a way to encourage further growth along those corridors.
"If you grow where [there are no existing infrastructure and services], you would have to build new roads or insert new pipes, new fire stations, police stations, new parks," Dugan said.
The city has determined a cost benefit to developing along the mixed-use corridors as opposed to low-density sprawl, which could ultimately help reduce future tax rates.
"It's like a 9-to-1 ratio—it's not even close—in terms of taxes generated versus cost of servicing," Stoll said.
The plan also focuses on protecting natural resources and directing development away from the South Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones.
"It's the balance between competing interests that everybody holds, but trying to figure out what's a balance to ensure that water quality and adequate water supplies are there, and degradation of the environment doesn't occur," said Judge Margaret Cooper, Imagine Austin Citizens Advisory Task Force chairwoman.
Redevelopment of three neighborhood centers and one regional center at the Y at Oak Hill, located over the recharge or contributing zones for the aquifer in South Austin is part of the Land Use and Transportation Policies sections under the comprehensive plan. The plan states that redevelopment should improve water retention and water quality feeding into the aquifer or drinking water sources.
Though the comprehensive plan does not constitute zoning regulations or establish zoning district boundaries, rezoning will likely have to occur gradually to accommodate development.
While current neighborhood plans allow residents, businesses and other stakeholders to create a formal document to dictate future land use, desired zoning changes and aesthetic guidelines for development, there is concern as to how Imagine Austin will coexist with neighborhood plans—which in the absence of an updated comprehensive plan have adopted the role of directing growth and development.
"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.
However, city planners assure that Imagine Austin will not render the neighborhood plans obsolete, but that the neighborhood plans are vital to development and redevelopment of neighborhoods. Whereas a comprehensive plan provides a bird's-eye view of the city, the neighborhood plans are ground-level guides to the look and feel of an area.
"They both 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," senior planner Greg Claxton said.
Sara Behunek contributed to this article.