How Austin is responding to a critical audit of the city's neighborhood planning process

A critical review of Austin’s neighborhood-planning process has sparked debate among residents and city leaders alike as to who should have the most say in the 30 neighborhood plans that make up much of Central Austin.


The city-approved plans guide the development of neighborhoods and outline residents’ specific goals, such as improving traffic safety and preserving the environment.


Although some community advocates say city staff should have little influence over how the neighborhoods are shaped, others say the process is best left in the hands of city planners.


Meanwhile, some City Council members, including District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, insist the burden is on the city to monitor the so-called Neighborhood Planning Contact Teams—a group of volunteer residents formed to serve as stewards for the plans—and ensure plans are regularly updated.


“We have got to have real oversight on this process,” Pool said following the audit presentation in November.




The road to a neighborhood plan North Shoal Creek—a North Central Austin community that borders US 183 and Anderson Lane to the north and south, and MoPac and Burnet Road to the wast and east—is currently going through the process of establishing a neighborhood plan. Citizens can participate in monthly meetings to discuss the character of the area. The next meeting will be held Jan. 21 at Pillow Elementary School.[/caption]

City reactions


The 30 neighborhood plans in existence make up a little more than a quarter of Austin proper and cover areas mostly in the urban core.


In November, the Office of the City Auditor published its report on the neighborhood-planning process, which was created in 1997.


The majority of the city’s neighborhood plans are outdated and do not align with Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan, according to the audit report.


A lack of neighborhood participation, inclusivity and accessibility to meetings among contact teams was a key finding in the report.


According to the audit, the problems arise when city staff does not keep track of whether contact teams follow their bylaws.


“You have individuals in every planning area that feel a real allegiance to their neighborhood, which is a good thing,” said Greg Guernsey, director of the city’s planning and zoning department, at the Nov. 14 meeting. “They’re seeing things change around them, and they don’t necessarily agree with the changes that may be happening.”


He said that is why some contact teams stray away from the standard bylaws template and have inconsistent meeting attendance and voting requirements.


“I think those are some of the reasons why you see some contact teams—particularly those more represented by property owners—coming forward [to City Council] because they see it as a way of defending their status quo and rebelling [against] change,” Guernsey said.


He said the challenge for his department is the lack of resources needed to police contact teams.


A lack of policing was a concern for Mayor Pro Tem Katie Tovo, who said she wants to see the violations corrected quickly.


Pool agreed, saying she wanted the city to bear the responsibility of ensuring all contact teams are compliant with bylaws and have the resources they need to be
successful.


“I get the sense that we’re not really talking about the neighborhoods falling down on the job, but rather the city,” she said, referring to the lack of sufficient training and communication between residents and the city.


District 3 Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, who earlier this year helped amend city code to add oversight and compliance requirements for contact teams, said he was concerned with allowing a certain residents to make decisions who are not representative of the entire neighborhood.


“We need to really recognize the people that really want to work with us on their neighborhood and plan it out and not resist the few that are the loudest out there, screaming at the top of their lungs that they don’t want a contact team, when the rest of the neighborhood really wants one,” he said.




City of austin planning areas These neighborhood plans provide guidelines on how parts of Austin are shaped.[/caption]

Residents respond


The Austin Neighborhoods Council, which advocates for neighborhood associations, plans to submit a formal response to the audit in the coming days.


ANC President David King said he believes city planners should play a limited role in the neighborhood-planning process, and the residents who live in the planned areas should have the greatest say in shaping it.


“Fundamentally, we believe it’s important to have a bottom-up neighborhood process with the city,” he said. “I think we’re not achieving that goal in any significant way.”


Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, another organization that advocates for the city’s residents, is also drawing up a response to the audit in the next week or two.


FAN member Pete Gilcrease, who is helping draft recommendations for improving the planning process, said he wants to do away with contact teams.


“People that live in the neighborhood, they mean well, but they don’t have city planning experience,” he said.


Gilcrease said he would rather see professional city planners gather input from neighbors but ultimately make recommendations to City Council based on what they think is best for the city.


Dan Keshet, who attended his first NPCT meeting in his new Greater South River City neighborhood as a non-voting member in November, said he sees a flaw in the neighborhood-planning process.


“The idea of contact teams is to create more of a participatory, local democracy,” he said. “Instead of just having 11 people at City Council making a decision, you have people who have more intimate knowledge of the area, and you have a wider participation.”


The problem, he said, is limited participation and representation of the entire neighborhood prevents contact teams from truly serving in an active government role.


“If [participatory democracy] is the goal, and you want to be making these bodies mostly a body of decision makers, then I think that this audit comes into play a lot,” he said.



Next steps


Guernsey said his department is currently re-evaluating the neighborhood-planning program as it relates to Imagine Austin, the new 10-1 City Council system and “issues of equity and feasibility.”


City staff is also developing a heat map that identifies and prioritizes potential future small-area plans using a geographic information system model.


Mark Walters, a principal planner with the planning and zoning department’s comprehensive planning division, said the heat map approach was endorsed by Austin’s Planning Commission earlier this year. The department is currently refining the approach to ensure success, he said.


“That process will create a new way to select future planning areas based on need,” he said.


For now, Walters said the department’s goal is to finish neighborhood planning in the city’s urban core.


Guernsey said he also wants to look at providing more training on fair housing and changing neighborhood plan bylaws to be more inclusive.


Walters said the findings from the audit report have been passed on to City Council for review.


Meanwhile, city staff is drafting CodeNEXT, the city’s land development code rewrite, as a tool to “implement the broad vision of Imagine Austin and the neighborhood plans that are attached to Imagine Austin,” Walters said.


Jorge Rousselin, project manager for CodeNEXT, said the CodeNEXT team will be keeping an eye on the audit recommendations, but the neighborhood plans will continue to be a large consideration as the development code is rewritten.


“[Neighborhood plans] will continue to inform how we shape the draft itself and the mapping process,” he said.


Guernsey said city staff is currently working on a neighborhood plan for the North Shoal Creek area that has a shortened timeline to keep as many participants engaged as possible.


In the new process, meetings with stakeholders are held to discuss topics such as land use, mobility barriers  and food access as they relate to neighborhood development.







Audit findings by the numbersWhat are neighborhood plan contact teams?


The city of Austin’s Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams are groups of individuals who serve as volunteer stewards of their adopted neighborhood plan. They can represent a single or combined planning area. Contact teams:




  • work with city staff toward the implementation of plan recommendations;

  • review and initiate neighborhood plan amendments;

  • serve as points of contact; and

  • work on behalf of other neighborhood stakeholders

By Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges was the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covered San Marcos City Council, San Marcos CISD and Hays County Commissioners Court. Marie previously reported for the Central Austin edition. Marie moved to Austin from Williamsburg, Va. in 2016 and was born in France. She has since moved on from Community Impact in May 2018.


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