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Charrette helps Austin REALTORS® Imagine Their Community

It was a classic stand-off of Texan proportions, between a big developer and a suburban neighborhood.  A 31-acre, twelve-building office park not far from downtown Austin had been bought by a Dallas-based developer, who sought to re-zone and re-develop the property along higher-density mixed-use lines, in keeping with the city’s recently adopted 30-year growth plan, known as ‘Imagine Austin.’  The property’s neighbors, already concerned about traffic congestion, saw only tall buildings, increased traffic and no benefit to themselves in the proposal. 

Lawn signs went up in protest.  The controversy became bogged down in tense negotiations and eventually came to loggerheads.  From the beginning, there was a great deal of REALTOR® interest in the project, known as ‘Austin Oaks,’ says Andrei Lubomudrov, Policy Analyst of the Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABoR;) in fact, the northwest Austin neighborhood in question is where a high concentration of ABoR members live, and the City Council Member representing it is a REALTOR®, herself. 

The opposing parties agreed to engage in a charrette, an intensive collaborative design and planning process in which all stakeholders have a voice.  In a gesture of good faith, the developer asked that the city Planning and Zoning Commission undertake no further work on the application, and the owner also committed $88,000 in funding for the charrette.  ABoR secured a Smart Growth Action Grant of $15,000 from the National Association of REALTORS®, which it contributed in the interests of reconciling redevelopment goals with the values of the community.  This is the second charrette in as many years that ABoR has sponsored through Smart Growth Action Grants; the first helped to create a vision for a stretch of Austin’s underdeveloped South Central Waterfront, and shone a spotlight on the need for zoning updates as the city rewrote its land development code. 

A national expert and local professionals guided the process of the Austin Oaks charrette.  Over the course of several weeks, a number of community information meetings and ‘Vision & Values’ workshops were held to gather opinions and ideas that would inform the central element of the charrette: a week-long design workshop at the end of January 2016.  More than 250 neighbors participated in this intense phase, and in another show of good faith, the owner of the Austin Oaks property came down from Dallas to spend the charrette week working with neighbors and designers.  The week began with a day of background information, including presentations on traffic, environmental conditions, demographics, real estate market trends and zoning.  A baseline plan, reflecting what could be created on the property under current zoning, was drawn to serve as a reference.  In the days following, the design and engineering team worked feverishly to present alternative plans based on the community values determined by the preceding workshops, revising them according to public feedback until a general consensus was reached.  In the end, a strong majority of neighborhood participants accepted additional development impact in terms of square footage and traffic, to ensure that the ‘Preferred Plan’ includes real community benefits like parkland, bike lanes and a trail along the creek. 

“What impressed me most was the way the facilitator emphasized fairness and trade-offs: shorter buildings mean a bigger overall footprint; preserving heritage trees would mean taller buildings; and so on,” says Lubomudrov.  “The brilliance of the process was the constant striving for a balance of competing priorities.  Not that it was easy—but, as an approach, it really worked.”  He points out that the transparency of the public process is an important point of leverage, and that both sides are expected to abide by the design that emerged from the collaborative effort.  Having NAR as a sponsor kept the charrette from being solely developer-funded, and thereby increased its credibility, he adds.  “Having this significant contribution from a group without a direct stake in the process made it more even-handed; even ABoR has no direct stake in the site, beyond wanting good growth-planning for Austin.”

To meet certain time restrictions of the Zoning & Planning Commission, the charrette had to take place in fairly short order, even though the redevelopment of Austin Oaks will take years, thanks to a number of existing leases. “It’s been a contentious process, but I think it will all be worth it in the end,” says Lubomudrov. 

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Austin are finding ways to help communities reach compromise in optimizing their development, contact Andrei Lubomudrov, Policy Analyst of ABoR's Public Affairs Department, at 512-454-7636.

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