Imagine Austin—Compact and Connected
By Jen Reel
September 28, 2012
Garner Stoll is the Assistant Director for the Planning & Development Review Department for the City of Austin. He oversaw the development and completion of Imagine Austin, the city's official comprehensive plan on dealing with growth population and development over the next three decades.
Q: Why does Austin need Imagine Austin?
A: Imagine Austin is the city's official comprehension plan. It's required in the city charter which says it shall contain the city council's policies regarding growth and development. So it provides direction for using all the city's powers—regulatory powers, spending powers, those are by the charter to be used to create a city that the citizens said they want, which is our vision which is in the Imagine Austin as well as the policies that are needed to guide the vision as well as many actions that are needed to move in the direction we've said we want to go. So it's our general plan and it's our growth and development guide.
Q: Austin is growing immensely. How do you take that into consideration?
A: That's an excellent question and it's very controversial. What we did is we took the median population projections. Our city demographer looked at the various population projections and we kind of went into the middle and we said let's assume we're going to grow that much. Nobody knows for sure, of course. We may grow faster, we may not grow at all. I doubt that, because we have this history of continuing to grow and we're the state capital of the fastest growing state in the Union so chances are we're going to grow. But the assumption of Imagine Austin is by the year 2039 there will be an additional 750,000 people living either in the city of Austin or it's extraterritorial jurisdiction. And that's the median projection. that's saying a lot, that's a mouthful, but that's what we use.
Q: That is a mouthful. Austin has a reputation of being a bike-friendly town. How is bike travel incorporated into the plan?
A: A basic premise of the plan is that we want to accommodate this population by encouraging compact and connected mixed use development where people can meet their everyday needs with either taking a shorter car trip or walking or riding a bicycle. The Austin metropolitan area's per capita travel by car is 27 miles a day. If you extrapolate that by an additional 750,000 people you get gridlock. But there's no reason why we have to travel so much. We travel way beyond our needs because we've grown in this sprawl fashion where things are separated. The goal of the plan is to allow and encourage development to happen in more of a compact, mixed-use way where you can meet your everyday needs in what we call complete communities where if you choose, you can work and shop and your kids can go to school and you don't have to travel all over the region. Now a lot of people are going to want to go other places and this plan anticipates that but it also anticipates that we really don't want to take a long trip when a short trip would be better, would meet our needs. So it's assumed that we will travel less by car and walk more and ride bicycles more or any other mode that emerges in the future. The principal still holds which is we'll grow more compactly, more connected and more mixed-use not just single family residential and strip centers with their own parking lots as we have been growing for the past 50 years and if we continue to do that I don't think we can afford to build the roads that would be needed.
Q: I noticed the bike and walk lanes are protected lanes in your sketch of complete streets. How did you envision that?
A: We were looking at best practices based on what Austin people were telling us. They want complete streets where you have choices and you don't have to drive everywhere. So that was coming from Austin residents but it's also best practices. Those illustrations are trying to say this space between curb to curb doesn't have to be just dedicated for cars. You can accommodate cars, you can accommodate people and make it comfortable to walk, and you can make comfortable space for bicycles and we're calling that complete streets. Even skateboarders!
Q: The document is very straightforward and talks about rectifying past mistakes and the limitations based on how we've constructed our city, and how some streets prove very challenging if not impossible to add a bike lane.
A: Well it's not an overnight wonder. It took 50 years to grow the way the city grew and it's probably going to take that long to correct it. The idea of the plan is to make it official city policy and then look at opportunities to do that as we develop and redevelop and spend money and change our codes to encourage what we've said we wanted. And we're doing all that right now. We're moving towards implementation. This is not a shelf plan.
Q: What were your thoughts when the city of Austin was named a Green Lane Project city?
A: Oh, I thought it was great. I think there's so much demand in Austin for more attention being paid to make it more comfortable to ride a bike—I ride my bike. It's not something we can talk into existence though. It's going to take investment and that's a conversation I'm hoping Austin folks will have. We've spent a lot of money building facilities for cars, surface parking lots and parking garages and roads and streets and a similar investment is what it's going to take to retrofit what we have and make it more comfortable for bikes and personally I think we're way underinvesting in that. We should have a concerted ongoing effort, an annual investment that is far larger than what we're making right now. And the plan would endorse that.
Q: What do you think is the best way to go about initiating that conversation?
A: Well, I think we started it when we developed the plan but it needs continuing, it needs to be brought into the mainstream. It's almost like Austin needs to develop an expected investment, whether it's annual or every 5 years and not go project by project because you really have to do it consistently. It needs to become normal that we spend some money on retrofitting our streets to make them more bike friendly and walkable, because if you do that, then transit suddenly starts to work, which we've struggled with in Austin. Because everything was built so spread out, with strip centers and housing development and streets that are kind of hostile to cyclists and pedestrians. We need to rebuild those streets and make them places that people are attracted to rather than be repelled by them. And it's not going to happen over night. That's my central message. You've got to figure out what your goals are and then start using your resources in an ongoing innovative way that's used to support each other rather than go herky jerky, do this and then do that. And that's why a city needs a Comp Plan.
Q: How do you prioritize which areas to tackle first?
A: I think it needs to be carefully thought through on where it has the most potential to meet the needs of the most people. It sounds cliche but that's what we need to be doing. Where there's a higher density of people already living, like North Lamar, which is pretty hideous, there are lots of people living up there, and it also has all these single story buildings with these huge surface parking lots. those could be redeveloped for housing and the plan tells you where we need to be looking. It identifies the centers and the corridors that we should be looking at. It's kind of an exclusive list, but the plan already takes a step in that direction.
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