Plano, Texas, the once bedroom community north of Dallas turned bustling hub of industry, is confronting a new reality after decades of booming growth. With major companies moving in and a light-rail line completed in 2002, the north Texas city now faces a scenario that includes scant vacant land, a growing population, and shifting demographics.
The population has grown from 3,700 in 1963 to about 260,000 in 2010, and is expected to plateau at 340,000 by 2035. Only six percent of its land remains undeveloped, and one in four residents was born in another country. What used to be a quiet collection of single-family neighborhoods is now a mix of town homes and apartments, retail and restaurants, bolstered by the city's six Fortune 1000 companies and the roughly 202,000 jobs based there. The influx of jobs in recent decades has pushed redevelopment projects.
"We just have different challenges than we had in the past," says Plano planning director Christina Day, AICP. "The region still continues to grow dramatically and the fundamental question was, 'How do we approach redevelopment?'" To confront these challenges, planning officials and city leaders embarked on a new plan that would better fit the region's new profile.
Plano Tomorrow was approved in October 2015 after 26 months, with 4,000 citizens participating and contributing 20,000 comments and ideas.
Their efforts earned them the 2017 Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan from the American Planning Association. Named for one of America's most famous planners, the award recognizes a comprehensive or general plan that advances the art and science of planning.
Making planning accessible
Plano Tomorrow was the first web-based comprehensive planning platform in Texas, making the often arcane and complex subject matter more accessible to local citizens, both during the planning process and plan implementation.
The online tools became an opportunity to make planning "interactive and fun," Day says, as well as improve transparency. The city used videos and graphics, accompanied by brief explainers, to present the information in an engaging and understandable way. It also includes a "Growth and Change" map that shows where development can occur and locations of potential new development on the city's remaining vacant land. "Citizen Priority Polls" are located on the 41 policy pages online and ask citizens, "How important is this policy to you?" The feedback is then used to adjust priorities as the population changes and new development trends arise. Day says it can also be used when evaluating and prioritizing future budget requests.
The plan was entirely executed in-house, including video production and scriptwriting, and it covers issues from transit-oriented development and a redeveloping struggling retail space (the city has three times the national average of retail locations) to smaller details such as closing gaps in sidewalks. The key pillars include transportation, housing, quality of life, workforce development, and regionalism. At its core, the strategic framework of the plan uses an action-oriented approach. Every action has measurable objectives, which serve as the central element of the plan; statuses of these objectives are outlined on the website.
Key to the plan was striking a balance between density and preserving the character of the single- family neighborhoods. The message was "improve," not change. Under the new plan, about 80 percent of the city will roughly stay the same. The other 20 percent is expected to see significant change, including pieces of undeveloped land along the rail corridor and existing neighborhood centers poised for redevelopment. Those areas will focus on becoming more walkable and dense.
Balancing community interests
The public provided feedback on the plan through online forums and voting, and many town halls and workshops, but the approval process still was "somewhat painful," says Doug Bender, who served as chairman of the Plano Tomorrow commission. Bender, who previously served on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, says feedback from the community was robust but far from aligned.
The business community supported the emphasis on redevelopment in key parts of the city, says Jamee Jolly, president and CEO of the Plano chamber of Commerce. She said a diverse housing stock will be key to drawing more companies and a diverse workforce.
But a sticking point for a group of residents, who came to public hearings about the plan in hordes to oppose the implementation and later sued, was apartments.
"People who own million dollar homes don't see people who live in multifamily as having the same contribution to the city," Bender says.
The commission tabled consideration and refined some of the plan's policies to address contentious issues. Changes included removing transit- oriented developments, mixed use, and high rise as uses along the expressway; clearly stating a preference for single-family in existing neighborhoods; clarifying that transit-oriented residential uses should be located within one-quarter to one-half mile from rail stations; and setting design and quality standards for mixed use projects.
The plan passed with these changes, but a group of residents still filed a lawsuit claiming an illegal referendum petition process after Plano Tomorrow cleared the city council. The lawsuit is pending in a Texas appeals court.
"Plano was the northern suburb [of Dallas]. Today that is no longer the case," Bender says. "So much had changed that we really had to look hard at the future. If you aren't changing, you're falling behind."
Larry Howe and his wife, Donna, moved to Plano in 1972. It's changed massively since then. Howe, who heads a local environmental group, Solar Advocates, contributed feedback for the plan. He is pleased his group was heard in addressing energy efficiency and recycling programs and looks forward to participating as both Plano and the plan continue to evolve. "They set a vision and have to adapt as time progresses through the next 20 to 30 years," he says.
Mulvaney is a recent D.C. transplant and Texas native who writes about housing and real estate.
4,000 citizens participated in the planning process • 20,000 public comments and ideas submitted • 177 Plano Tomorrow actions in progress • 10,500 website visits, 12,000 document downloads, 2,000 video views, and 580 votes on citizen priority polls since the plan's approval
Read more about this award at www.planning.org/awards/2017/planotomorrow.