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‘Compact and Connected’ is Crucial to City’s Future

December 15, 2014

Last week, in the wee hours of Friday morning, at the tail end of its last meeting, the outgoing Austin City Council chose not to do something very important. And that is good.

What the Council avoided was a misguided attempt to amend the city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, in the guise of an innocuous wording change that almost passed unnoticed. I’m new here at RECA after nearly a decade of working for Austin City Council Members and in the City Manager’s office, I’ve never seen anything this fundamentally important to the future of Austin placed on an agenda in such a hidden way.

One of the guiding themes of Imagine Austin is that our city should strive to be more “compact and connected” in its physical form. This means being intentional about creating ways for us to live, work, learn and play closer together, creating less sprawl and a smaller environmental footprint, with a more robust network of transportation choices and housing options. Ultimately, what a compact and connected Austin means for the average Austinite is the chance to live in a home they can afford, closer to where they spend their days, giving them less time in traffic and more time doing the things they love.

This phrase, “compact and connected,” is also used to define how the city should complete the essential revision of its development code and regulations — the effort going on now, known as CodeNEXT. Austin’s code contains the tools we use to implement the goals of Imagine Austin, and the way we change it will guarantee either the success or failure of these community goals. Described as a “non-substantive” wording change, an amendment was fast-tracked into a routine cleanup measure to eliminate “compact and connected” as a specific goal for the code rewrite.

Why? Because there were “concerns expressed that ‘compact and connected’ was being overemphasized.” Those concerns, of course, are coming from familiar sources — activists who demand that Austin’s continued dynamic change be forced to pass them by. Change is a constant, of course, and if we engage we can shape it to make Austin better for all of us.

As it happened, many concerned citizens and organizations, including RECA, mobilized in opposition, and the amendment was withdrawn. But a departing councilmember called for a further “community conversation” about the issue — which will almost certainly reappear before the new 10-1 council.

Admittedly, this all sounds very arcane and not very scary. But it’s important to remember that Imagine Austin was the product of three years of “community conversations” involving tens of thousands of participants. The end result, Austin’s first comprehensive plan in more than three decades, was adopted in 2012 after numerous debates and tweaks and proposals and counter-proposals over exactly this language. The voices of the many should not be drowned out by the few.

Nothing has changed in the interim to suggest that what Imagine Austin says is somehow mistaken or no longer appropriate; this is simply another attempt to refight the last war. To pretend that changing this language is innocuous and routine isn’t fair to those thousands of citizens who made Imagine Austin a reality. The comprehensive plan is a well-crafted and insightful guide that can help us make and keep Austin the place we all want it to be — but only if we respect it. We call on the new City Council to show the same respect for Imagine Austin and the people whose views and ideas it represents.  One of the reasons I came to work for RECA was because this organization shares the vision of Imagine Austin, and I look forward to working with the incoming Council to achieve its goals.

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