By Bill Oakey – October 30, 2014
I have often wondered aloud in these blog postings about Austin’s purpose or mission as a city. To many observers it would seem that Austin is in the real estate business. Certainly we can state that they (our City leaders) are in the economic development business. Either way, current residents can discern a built in contradiction with either of those two purposes.
Austin did not become unaffordable on its own. There was a lot more at play than simple “market forces.” Cities have lots of administrative tools to guide their growth. For decades City Council candidates have sought the backing of neighborhood and environmental groups, promising to protect “all that is unique about Austin” and “Austin’s great quality of life.” But what does all of that really mean? It can be interpreted very narrowly to mean that we don’t want Barton Springs to become so polluted that it is no longer safe to swim there. And it also means that we like our open spaces and do not want every inch of Auditorium Shores to become commercialized. And of course, there are issues of clean energy, climate protection and other progressive ideals.
But in this year of 2014, another giant issue has arisen that was never a part of the classic “progressive agenda.” Of course I am talking about affordability. Since many have accepted the reality that this year has become a tipping point in that area, politicians will no longer be able to sit back and be comfortable by just parroting the old line progressive themes.
In some sense, affordability falls within the realm of social justice. People should be able to buy a home in Austin and contribute to the tax base over 20 to 30 years and be able to keep their homes in retirement. As I mentioned in a recent blog posting, I have a favorite analogy for that. Imagine that your boss at your company calls you into his office and tells you that your job and your division will be phased out within six months. Your sole responsibility during that time will be to train your replacements. Whatever happens to you after the transition is nowhere on the boss’s radar. That’s the farthest thing from his mind.
Well, in today’s Austin you can simply substitute “house” for “job,” “neighborhood” for “division” and “city” for “company.” While you are sitting in your chair reading this, thousands of Austinites are staring at a looming timeline of the number of months that they can afford to pay taxes and stay in their homes. This fact was observed very clearly and very painfully by many Council candidates as they knocked on doors along the campaign trail. It was not at all uncommon for a campaign worker to come across residents who expressed their concerns through visible tears.
In the starkest and coldest terms, these people are simply biding their time to make room for their replacements. It’s as though the giant seed pods envisioned by science fiction writer, Jack Finney, have been planted in the bushes next to bedroom windows all over town. The movie of that story was called “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The real-life Austin version could be modified slightly to become “Invasion of the Property Snatchers.” Imagine if you and your wife were the last ones left in your neighborhood not to be taken over by a McMansion or a luxury apartment building. Both of you will survive as long as you don’t fall asleep. But whatever you do, don’t get separated. Or else you might come back and hear some uncomfortable words from your spouse. Something like, “Oh, honey, we were so wrong before! It’s nice to give up our home. Come on and let me take you to the others. We need to be like them!” Then as the approaching mob gets closer and the footsteps reverberate like thunder, you will know they are coming after you. “He’s over here!” your wife will scream. “Come and get him. He’s over here!”
Now, About That Idea Of Trying To Save North Central Austin
North Central Austin contains many scattered neighborhoods where the older homes still stand and the residents have lived there for a considerable number of years. To see some really good examples, take a leisurely drive through the streets behind Highland Mall in the Airport Boulevard area. Many of these comparatively affordable neighborhoods lie within City Council Districts 4 and 7.
As you may very well know, the City is in the process of developing plans to “improve” those neighborhoods. In today’s planning vernacular, we are talking about “Corridor Plans.” Every major thoroughfare is on a waiting list to become a “corridor” with a “master plan.” We saw that process unfold with East Riverside. It was designated as an early cornerstone in 2010 for the proposed urban rail line. I can still close my eyes and see the faces of the displaced residents pictured in an American-Statesman article on the transformation of East Riverside from late last year. Using East Riverside as an example, it’s easy to see that these “corridor plans” are actually “gentrification plans.”
It has already been several years and two consultant reports since plans for an Airport Boulevard Corridor Plan were first launched. The vision at the time was to anchor Highland Mall with a major ACC campus rebuilding effort. Then, poof, the entire corridor would blossom into big box luxury apartment “communities.” But there was just one little problem. Certain links in the chain have failed to mesh in the right way for that plan to materialize on its own. The word that I have heard from developers is that the Burnet Road corridor has been bumped up ahead of Airport Boulevard. We know we are about to lose the Omlettry Restaurant. It’s just a matter of time before the quaint little bakeries and pet supply stores along Burnet will be scheduled for the bulldozers. And the price of new housing and property taxes for existing residents will take off like a rocket.
With a new grass roots City Council set to take office in early January, it will be time for the folks in North Central Austin to stand up and be counted. What kind of improvements would they themselves like to see in their neighborhoods? Are their ideas the same as those devised by the expensive national consultants? If not, then the new City Council will have an early opportunity to recalibrate the purpose and the mission for Austin. What are our values? Do we just exist as a ripe fertile hunting ground for local and out of state developers? Or will the people who already live here be granted the chance to directly shape their own futures?
All of us will need to stay vigilant and wide awake, at least long enough to find out if some our neighborhoods can still be saved.