By Bill Oakey – June 23, 2014
We often hear that the City of Austin is at a crossroads. Some call it a tipping point. Water, traffic, and affordability have overwhelmed the community. And unless we do something to change direction, the status quo threatens to put our neighborhoods and our very way of life at risk.
The new 10-1 district representation system for the Austin City Council offers an unprecedented opportunity for people at the grassroots level to take control of their destiny. After all, the citizens are listed at the top of the City’s official organization chart. But for far too long, we have been subjugated to the whims of special interests, most often with the assistance of their hand-picked outside consultants.
Austin maintains a council-manager form of government, rather than the strong-mayor type. Our mayor simply chairs the meetings, and has no more power than the other members. However, most major decisions voted on by the City Council are filtered through the city staff at the behest of a very powerful city manager. Our current city manager, Marc Ott, has often been depicted as a puppet of the powerful big business and real estate interests. He manifests his control over the City in part by refusing to provide detailed responses to written questions from boards and commissions, or even to questions from our elected council members.
How Can the People Wrest Control Away From the Special Interests?
Step one has already been laid in front of us with the November election of council members from neighborhood districts. Once these grassroots candidates are elected, we should insist that they hold some neighborhood forums to introduce us to candidates for a new city manager. If the current City Council does not appoint an interim city manager from within the existing executive team, then the new City Council should do that early next year. Then, they should seek community input on the selection of a permanent city manager who will be accountable to all the people.
How Can the District Council Members Best Represent the Interests of the People?
We should consider establishing formal lines of communication between council members and neighborhood leaders and other interested citizens from within each district. Status quo communication is very haphazard and disorganized. Have you ever tried to obtain a time-certain from a Council member on when a particular City Council agenda item might come up for discussion? The rule of thumb is that you alert your friends and neighbors of a critical issue posted for action in the upcoming week. Then you try to organize speakers to go to the council meeting. You could wait as long as from 10:00 AM on Thursday morning until the meeting adjourns as late as 3:30 AM on Friday morning.
Under a new system of people-centric governance, the communication between district neighbors and their council member would not have to wait until the regular council meeting. A website or Facebook page could be used to facilitate the communication. Liaisons within each district could communicate through newsletters and listservs about pending issues that affect their area or the City at large. District Council Members should hold regular meetings and forums right in their districts, as well as at City Hall. Under the current system, a typical citizen is lucky to get a Council member or a policy aide to return a phone call or email. There is no worthwhile process for the people to be effectively heard.
The Two Biggest Projects That Will Shape Our Future
There are two huge projects that directly affect affordability and the prospect of existing residents to survive Austin’s current transformation.
1. The Urban Rail Plan – The massively expensive plan to install electric streetcars from Highland Mall through U.T.’s new Medical District and across Lady Bird Lake to East Riverside is a dream scenario for land speculators and developers in the northeastern and southeastern sectors. It would do little to help transportation for the heavy concentration of existing residents in North, Central, and West Austin. The important thing to keep in mind here is that most of the route for urban rail was pre-ordained in 2008 by a consultant study. See a 2008 Austin Chronicle report here. For an eye-opening view of the gentrification and affordability issues with Washington D.C.’s new urban rail system, click here.
Those who say that “We have to start somewhere” should be aware that if the rail bonds pass, the other competing rail route along Lamar and Guadalupe would be removed from future consideration. Project Connect has already planned to lay permanent concrete dedicated bus lanes along that route after the bond election. For all of these reasons, we should vote no on the bonds and let the new City Council work with the entire community on an inclusive plan that earns broad based citizen support.
2. The Revision of the Land Development Code
You have probably heard about CodeNEXT. This was sold to us as an opportunity to streamline and modernize our outdated land development code. It was supposed to make it cheaper and less time consuming to remodel your home or expand or remodel an existing local business. But once again, it has been commandeered by the special interests and a very clever consulting team.
Just take a look at one report that has come out of the “community involvement” process. Click here to see the “Listening to the Community Report.” You will see lots of charts, graphs, and categories of significant issues raised by the citizens who attended the public meetings. But notice the carefully and skillfully designed format of the report. You can search every line on every page and you will see no summaries of public opinions of any kind whatsoever!
Yes, all of the prevailing issues are there: affordability, walkability, compatibility. The word “density” is sprinkled generously throughout the pages. But absolutely nowhere will you see a gauge of public opinion on maintaining compatibility in neighborhoods, limiting density, or even a clue as to what types of changes, if any, that the neighborhood participants would like to see. All one has to do, however, is read between the lines and look around to areas of Austin that have already been transformed. What you will see is gentrification and high density, vertical mixed use (VMU) developments, nearly all of which contain luxury-priced living units. Expect these buildings to arrive soon at a neighborhood near you.
Even more disturbing is another CodeNEXT report, called the “Land Development Code Diagnosis.” On Page 30 you will find a pronouncement that individual neighborhood plans are “too restrictive” and “too complex,” compared to the envisioned scenario of a one-size-fits-all system, where anybody can build anything anywhere without too many burdensome regulations!
Here again, we need the new City Council to revisit the entire concept of rewriting the land development code. But the involvement of the community and the format of the reports need to reflect what the people really want, as opposed to the pre-ordained whims of national consultants and the local special interests who control them like puppets on a string.