What will Galveston look like in 20 years and beyond if the nonprofit Vision Galveston and 8,000 residents who participated in the organization’s planning have their way?
After nine months and three rounds of public outreach that captured 15 percent of the island’s population, the vision focused on five overarching priorities that Galveston be:
• a historic walkable Gulf Coast city embedded in nature;
• a knowledge center for coastal resilience action and innovation;
• a great place to visit because it’s a great place to live in;
• a place where residents can find quality jobs and where all workers can find quality places to live;
• a city that is valued for its contributions to the Houston region, the state of Texas and the nation.
To accomplish this vision, the plan identified 77 specific action items, some of them immediate, others more long-term.
Highest on Vision Galveston’s list of priorities is to work on making Galveston a place where all workers can find a quality place to live, a goal on which others hinge, said Project Director Keath Jacoby, and a goal most frequently mentioned in public interactions.
Some things residents frequently complain about didn’t make it into the plan — concerns about crime in Galveston, for example, and chronically bad drivers.
That’s because when the project kicked off last year, its organizers promised their plan would reflect input received from the public at multiple public events and in many more individual discussions.
The total number of interactions ended up being 8,591, and among those, concerns about crime and bad driving didn’t rise to the top of the list of priorities for a more livable city.
But Vision Galveston doesn’t see its 351-page plan as an ironclad blueprint for the city. Room for fluidity and adjustment is built into the plan, Jacoby said.
“We’ll continue to use the inclusive outreach model we developed in the first phase as we continue to move forward,” Jacoby said. Beyond that, Vision Galveston’s inclusive outreach model might be modeled by other organizations in the city, Jacoby said.
At the unveiling of the plan on June 6, consultants for Vision Galveston heralded the broad reach of Phase I, the public input phase.
“This was the most ambitious outreach goal I’ve ever seen,” said Christof Spieler of Huitt-Zollars in Houston. Spieler’s company is a design firm that works with governments, businesses and organizations, coming up with ways to live and work that are informed by a public input process.
Vision Galveston’s final report was meant to be determined by the community and laid out by experts like Spieler who’ve worked similar plans in other cities.
Each step of public outreach was deliberate and designed to capture as much information as possible from as diverse a group of residents as possible, consultants said at the June 6 rollout.
Margaret Walsh worked as the project’s community outreach coordinator.
“I went to every event and collected every little slip of paper written on, every sticky note, every pushpin stuck in a map and recorded whatever people had to say,” Walsh said.
Consultant Alex Miller of Asakura Robinson Company, a planning, urban design and landscape architecture firm based in Austin, came away struck by the opportunity Galveston’s environment presents, she said.
“Galveston is unique in its combination of historic character with an extraordinary natural setting,” Miller said. “We’re looking at ways for those two things to not be at odds.”
Practically speaking, that might mean reducing a car-centric culture and increasing walkability and safe biking so residents and tourists alike can enjoy the natural setting and year-round mild weather. It might also mean making natural places accessible to all residents, whether they live in a densely built mixed-use neighborhood or on the West End. There should be green space for everyone in walking or biking distance, residents agreed.
A MAJOR CHALLENGE
Appreciating Galveston’s character as a hometown echoes public sentiment expressed overwhelmingly by participants both in the Vision Galveston process and during a recent State of the City address:
Make this a city that meets the needs of residents, not just tourists, participants said.
It’s a bigger conundrum than might be apparent.
Every morning, the population of Galveston nearly doubles, then falls again at night when people who work on the island head back across the causeway.
Figuring out how to keep more of those workers here on the island — supporting local businesses, paying taxes, buying and renting homes, starting businesses, supporting the local culture, not just tourist culture, and demanding amenities that make a city livable — is a major challenge identified by Vision Galveston.
Vision Galveston’s report concluded that it will require more affordable housing for moderate- to middle-income workers — teachers, hospitality workers, firefighters, police officers, clerical workers, medical support personnel — who would like to live here but can’t find a quality, affordable place to live.
Meeting the housing goal will require “addressing short-term rentals and second homes,” according to the plan. “While they can be a major resource to fuel the local tourism economy, regulations should help ensure that these rentals do not crowd out long-term renters and homeowners from the market.”
The report concluded that increasing Galveston’s population back to pre-Hurricane Ike levels depends on achieving that goal, and that having a topnotch livable city requires maintaining an adequate population to attract businesses.
Businesses, in turn, need an entrepreneurial support system that’s vital and progressive, in tune with entrepreneurs along the entire Interstate 45 corridor to Houston, according to the report. University and governmental think tanks need to nurture connections that support the entire region while acknowledging Galveston’s central role in future planning, according to the report.
OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME
Some aspects of the Vision Galveston plan — preparing for storms and storm surge, street flooding and rising seas — bring future challenges into sharp focus.
A series of maps developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lays out in stark terms which parts of the island are more and less at risk given varying scenarios of sea level rise. Planning for the future should take those considerations into account, concentrating new construction, for example, behind the seawall, the report said.
Some aspects of the plan lay out in living color the abundance of natural resources on the island, worthy of protection and of highest concern, according to residents.
The entire plan is “the opportunity of a lifetime,” City Manager Brian Maxwell said at the June 6 launch.
“Vision Galveston has allowed us to cast a wider net for our comprehensive plan,” Maxwell said. “We don’t often get this kind of input.”
Maxwell noted that this is the first time that he has seen all the city’s philanthropic foundations working together for a common goal.
“To have that focus is something that may never happen again,” Maxwell said.
The Roundtable of Foundations, a group of 12 philanthropic foundations that have guided much of the development and economic history of the island, funded Phase One of the project and remains committed to it, said Lauren Scott of the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund and Grant Mitchell of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.
Many governmental and nongovernmental organizations around the city are already at work on aspects of the plan that affirmed what they already knew.
The Galveston Independent School District, for example, heard recommendations last week from a citizens advisory committee for two, new and up-to-date school buildings, an agenda perfectly in tune with one of the Vision Galveston plan’s action items: Invest in modern educational facilities that serve students and the community.
Several city leaders at the June 6 launch said they hoped Vision Galveston’s plan would draw new support for their work.
Phase 2 is set to kick off in January 2020.