Comprehensive Planning Not So Easy to Follow

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Just...wow. The Combined Planning Efforts Schedule of concurrent planning efforts.

Just...wow. The Combined Planning Efforts Schedule of concurrent planning efforts.

The comprehensive planning process set in motion by Mayor Ivy Taylor in August and chaired by District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg is already giving pause to participating fellow City Council members.

Take the complexity of long-term management of urban development in literally all its facets, add the haze of mayoral politics on the horizon, and what you have is something that looks and feels more like a Rubik’s Cube than a road map.

What happens come May, I wondered, if the next mayor does not want to see this enormous, complex initiative continue?

There were fewer than two dozen people at the monthly meeting of the Comprehensive Planning Committee on Thursday as John Dugan, the City’s director of planning, laid out what could be a one to two-year process to complete a sequence of comprehensive development, transportation, and sustainability master plans.

The aforementioned Committee is compact: Nirenberg is chair, with Council members Joe Krier (D9), Diego Bernal (D1), and Rey Saldaña (D4) as members. Three City departments are working with the Committee: Dugan’s Department of Planning and Community Development, Transportation and Capital Improvements, and the Office of Sustainability.

Stay with me.

Recommended comprehensive planning committee framework.

Recommended comprehensive planning committee framework. Download the full presentation here.

Then comes the still-to-be-named Citizen Planning Institute, the Group of 11 Consultants, and the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, which will be overseen by tri-chairs: SA2020 CEO Darryl Byrd, Councilmember Nirenberg, and Dr. Afamia Elnakat, an associate professor of research at the UTSA Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute and a faculty member of the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at UTSA.

Under the latter Committee (shouldn’t it be a sub-committee of the main Committee?), there will be a Comprehensive Plan Advisory Group that as of Thursday will consist of 50 other entities, including local and regional governments, utilities, institutions of higher education, nonprofits, the military, chambers of commerce, and more.

The tri-chairs will lead the Comprehensive Plan Steering Group and Comprehensive Plan Advisory Group in “establishing and overseeing a community-based process to assist with delivery and implementation of the Comprehensive Plan, Strategic MultiModal Transportation Plan, and Sustainability Plan.”

Please see the chart to determine if you are on the list of 50 entities.

Look carefully, your organization may be on this Comprehensive Plan Advisory Group list.

Look carefully, your organization may be on this Comprehensive Plan Advisory Group list.

The Consultants will form the Plan Element Working Groups, overseeing 11 specialized working groups assigned to produce individual reports with the stated purpose to “provide technical assistance for preparation of Policy Papers.” The working groups will be divided into focus areas:

Growth & Urban Form; Transportation & Connectivity; Housing; Green and Healthy Neighborhoods & Communities; Public Facilities & Community Safety; Historic Preservation; Military; Natural Resources & the Environment; Jobs & Economic Competitiveness: Sustainability; and Implementation/Codification Actions.

“Mr. Chairman, one of the things we all have to keep our eye on is that policy papers often are based on the assumptions made going in, so what comes out is what goes in,” Councilman Krier wryly observed at one point.

The "Plan Element Working Groups." Basically consultants. Download the full presentation here. http://therivardreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/comprehensive-plan-oversight-structure.compressed.pdf

The “Plan Element Working Groups.” Download the full presentation here.

The Citizen Planning Institute will be assembled from a list of individuals nominated by the Mayor and 10 Council members and will serve to “educate residents to create capacity for true partners in the planning process and leaders in implementation.”

“One of the challenges in this process is that we’re trying to create the universe in a finite period of time,” Nirenberg told his fellow officeholders. “It’s going to be a bit of a birthing process.”

I won’t lie: You can’t count on me for a completely accurate account of the entire meeting. As I listened to Councilman Krier ask Dugan how this effort would differ from the nonprofit SA2020 community initiative launched by then-Mayor Julián Castro in 2010, I found my mind wandering while squinting to make sense of the tiny print on the City Council flat screens. I wondered what it had been like to attend an early meeting of the Encyclopedia Britannica working group when it began its work.

I took some solace in Krier’s continued questioning to clarify the nature of the respective committees and reporting tasks. I wasn’t alone. Councilman Bernal joked – I think it was a joke – that it felt like the Committee was creating a “shadow government.” I heard Councilman Saldaña make a quip about Dugan’s Ph.D. as he clarified that City Council would still be the decision-making body guiding the city through the next one to two years while the comprehensive planning initiative was underway.

“It’s a lot of planning, a lot of public participation,” Dugan acknowledged at one point. “It’s complex and it’s doubly complex because we’re trying to do four plans at once.”

Chairman Nirenberg runs a well-organized meeting, but the challenge is a daunting one. The next-to-last screen of Dugan’s presentation, also presented on white boards mounted on easels, was the Combined Planning Efforts Schedule (see top image). I was unable to read any of the type on paper, despite what I am told is my 20/20 vision, and soon realized I couldn’t read it on the big screen, either, even sitting less than two feet away.

Please see the image reproduced here for details of the various timelines, which runs from November 2014 to April 2016.

“I think the problem is that we have to make decisions between now and January 2016,” said Councilman Saldaña.

The Comprehensive Planning Committee will meet again sometime in November before the Thanksgiving holiday. City staff will be organizing all the materials on a website for public review, which the Rivard Report will share as soon as it is available. In the meantime, you can download Dugan’s presentation here.

“This is a slow process and an uncomfortable process to get off the ground,” Councilman Nirenberg said at the close of the meeting. “We could go along and not have a process as we continue to grow in San Antonio, but that ended with the SA2020 process in 2010, and the community agreed. I’m optimistic that we can get it done.”

*Featured/top image: Just…wow. The Combined Planning Efforts Schedule of concurrent planning efforts.

Related Stories:

New Players Needed for New Results in Comprehensive Planning

How Will One Million New Residents Navigate San Antonio?

Pondering Invitation List for City’s Planning Effort

Mayor Taylor: Planning for the Next 300 Days

Councilman Nirenberg on San Antonio’s Environmental Resiliency

2030 District Points San Antonio Towards Sustainability

4 thoughts on “Comprehensive Planning Not So Easy to Follow

  1. The CPI will serve to “educate residents to create capacity for true partners in the planning process and leaders in implementation.”

    This sounds like a one-way conversation. Is there a possibility for residents to educate City leaders and create capacity for true partners in the planning process and leaders in implementation?”

  2. Thanks Robert – simply to note, most if not all of the cities ranking the highest on the Young & Restless list that you have reported about far outscore car-dependent San Antonio in most if not all ‘walk score’ categories (www.walkscore.com) – even with our incredible RiverWalk and B-Cycle program and terrific VIA transit drivers.

    I’m not certain most current or prospective residents are willing to wait another 25 years for improvements in this regard – including as numerous area-specific and cost-effective pedestrian environment improvement projects (better and wider sidewalks, bus shelters, public seating, street trees, small parks,, etc) specified in the last round of neighborhood comprehensive planning / MOUs (ca. 2000) have not been completed.

    If the City can afford the ‘eyeball glazing’ (as you suggest, killing us Microsoftly with PowerPoint) urban planning meeting room regime outlined above – in parallel with separate SA2020 planning as well as Alamo Area MPO 2040 transit planning and various stand-alone ‘placemaking’ exercises, it could certainly afford Gehl Architects (or at least look at their approaches to comprehensive urban analysis and quick and low cost improvements to the public domain) – the planners and designers responsible for the dramatic and fast-paced turnaround of formerly car-dependent cities ranging from Copenhagen, Denmark to Melbourne, Australia.

    Looking at Gehl’s recent work for the City of Adelaide, Australia (a city with a population size and underdog status / national blindspot existence comparable with San Antonio’s ) – which builds upon Gehl’s base analysis of that city completed roughly a decade ago, the City of San Antonio could easily find itself working directly with ‘young and restless’ local students this year (a tactic Gehl Architects regularly employs) to plan and begin implementing immediate and low cost solutions, such as:

    – closing select city streets to traffic on weekends if not permanently

    – planning the gradual shutdown of all City-owned car parks

    – creating an inviting pedestrian network with pedestrian priority streets that connect important destinations in the city – including by establishing wider and better sidewalks, improved resting areas and minimizing pedestrian crossing wait times or inconveniences

    – creating an overall strategy for connecting and improving city parks

    – designating roads through parklands (such as Avenue B, Devine Rd, etc) as public transport routes – with transport planning emphasizing links with the airport and other regional mass transport options

    With the current approach, it appears we are paying leading city urban planning and management prices but with no where near the same practical outcomes or results in creating a fantastic and less car-dependent city for all residents and visitors.

  3. How is the following not more “cronyism”:
    The Citizen Planning Institute will be assembled from a list of individuals nominated by the Mayor and 10 Council members and will serve to “educate residents to create capacity for true partners in the planning process and leaders in implementation.”

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