The problems with neighborhood plans

Since our elected leaders have once again indefinitely postponed Last week I wondered whether urbanists should rethink their antipathy to neighborhood plans. Rather than scorn the traditional dominion of anti-density preservationists, maybe they should exercise their rights as neighborhood residents and get involved in setting the development rules for their neighborhoods.

The post got a lot of response on ATXUrbanists and Twitter, mostly from those who dismissed the idea. Most of the comments described how the neighborhood planning process is driven by a small group of homeowners. The plan therefore reflects their interests, rather than the interests of lower-income people, renters or future residents.

That case was beautifully illustrated in this infographic that Lauren Hartnett (known on the Twitterverse as DollyPartonSocialism) was kind enough to lend me:


I can’t contest any of the information presented here. The neighborhood planning process is simply not democratic.

It is supposed to be a collaboration between city staff and the “neighborhood plan contact team,” which is a group of residents who get together, elect leaders and vote on what they want development regulations in their neighborhood to look like.

The problem is, each neighborhood plan contact team has been allowed to set its own rules on membership. The audit cited a number of outrageous policies imposed by certain contact teams, such as requiring participants to be dues-paying members of private neighborhood associations. At least one team insisted that you had to have lived in the area for five years to participate. You can’t make this stuff up.

I would hope that city staff has cracked down on these kinds of blatant abuses in the 20 months since the audit came out. But the fact that they took place for so long is just a reflection of the pathetically low participation. It’s hard to care about being excluded from a process you’re not aware of.

So, yes, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that delegating city planning to City Council is more democratic than delegating it to an obscure political authority that most people in the area have never heard of. Council members are democratically elected, after all –– although far too many of them were elected in low turnout runoff elections.

The thing is, there doesn’t appear to be any political will to do away with neighborhood plans. Right after pushing (with partial success) to add some density-friendly provisions to the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan, CM Jimmy Flannigan said he hoped his district in the Northwest burbs would be able to craft neighborhood plans in the future.

So in the meantime, neighborhood plans appear to be the only game in town. Anybody who wants to make a difference better play.

3 thoughts on “The problems with neighborhood plans

  1. So, of course the obvious answer is you don’t allow each planning team to set its own rules. Or you set quantifiable goals they have to meet. The latter is what Seattle did successfully. In fact, this is where the concept of neighborhood planning originated. The Seattle city council was planning to upzone most of the city when a planner named Jim Diers ( offered a suggestion: allow neighborhoods to come up with their own density plan as an alternative to the city’s with the sole proviso that they meet the city’s mandated density targets. Since the city wasn’t putting any resources into this effort (neighborhoods who wanted the services of a professional planner had to hire or find one at their own expense), the Seattle city council readily agreed to this proposal. According to Diers (who came to speak at UT a while back), every neighborhood opted to do their own plan, and every neighborhood created a plan which added *more* density than the city had planned to mandate. The successful Seattle model is what convinced Austin to try this as well as an alternative to Smart Growth, but of course in the usual fashion we fucked it all up by not paying attention to the details. Or more likely, the NIMBYs once again polluted and diluted the process in a futile attempt to prevent change.

  2. We’re obviously not in a place where mandating density is a realistic option (the milquetoast CodeNEXT proposal couldn’t even stagger over the finish line), but we certainly can create rules/guidelines for neighborhood planning teams. I have an almost complete proposal worked out, but let me outline a few of the details.

    – Planning teams must be inclusive and reasonably representative. If your neighborhood is 50% renters, and everyone who has signed up to be on the planning team is an SF homeowner, you don’t have a planning team yet. Go out and engage your neighbors and come back when at least, say, 35% of the participants are renters. If everyone on the planning team is over 55 and 30% of the neighborhood is closer to Austin’s median age of 31, that’s a problem. Again, you don’t have a planning team yet; go out and recruit some younger participants. The onus is on the planning team members to assemble a representative group, else they don’t get to play.

    – Asynchronous participation must be facilitated. Not everyone has the time or ability to attend biweekly meetings: people with small children, people who work in the evenings, etc.. Allow participation through a Slack-like discussion board. All meetings are videotaped and posted for later review.

    – Use something like the Helios system for voting, so that people can vote anonymously (and again, asynchronously). The voting system is managed by the city to insure fairness.

    – Forget stasis promoting rules like all but one consensus. Votes are based on simple majorities.

    – There have been many reports of intimidation and poor behavior on planning teams; generally threats and bullying by NIMBYs upset that someone would dare to suggest, say, multifamily infill. Don’t put up with this. After a single warning, a person who threatens or intimidates other planning team members or otherwise engages in uncivil behavior can be removed from participation for a period of one year at planning staff’s disgression. This person cannot vote, speak at meetings, or post to the discussion board during the probationary period.

    – The whole process has been far too slow due to micromanagement by the city. Follow the Seattle model more closely. There is absolutely no reason city staff needs to be in attendance at planning team meetings. They can answer questions via remote video (thereby “being” at multiple planning team meetings simultaneously) and they can respond to questions on the discussion boards.

    – Think of neighborhood plans as a passive process rather than a document set in stone. Changes to land use are going to be proposed all the time, there’s no reason to have some idiotic document where octogenarians with no expertise in planning are tasked with crystal balling what the neighborhood should look like in 20 years. Of course they’re going to propose SF, that’s all they know.

    Now here’s where things get interesting and our current staff is going to howl bloody murder, as I’m proposing that we give the planning teams MORE, not less power. To wit:

    – Planning teams can waive compatibility, setback requirements, FAR, impervious cover, unit counts, and height limits, and any proposal approved by the planning teams goes directly on to the council consent agenda after a timely and cursory review by development services.

    Combined with incentives for multifamily infill, this should get us close to where we need to be.

  3. Neighborhood planning is bad, but it doesn’t have to be. Too much emphasis, IMHO, on politically unviable doing away with them, not enough on reforming the way we do them. Suggest it could be done better with the reforms below:

    Standardized and inclusive set of bylaws, promulgated by the city, that cannot be deviated from.

    Requirement that all meetings are conducted with appropriate transparency, notice, and be open to public.

    Requirement that all NPs be consistent with the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plans goals for developing as a compact and connected city.

    Requirement to identify and appropriately zone for at least one walkable town/neighborhood center within the boundary of the NP area.

    Requirement to that all approved NPs have entitlements that realistically allow for a commensurate share of Austin’s growth to occur within the NP boundary.

    Requirement that NPs identify an affordability component from a defined set of options offered by the city.

    A sunset provision that expires plans that haven’t been appropriately updated in a timely manner.

    FLUMs not PLUMs – Future Land Use Maps show provide for growth and land use changes within the boundaries of the NP.

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