Austin and the 7-10 Split
Candidates in west and west-central districts find common cause
By Richard Whittaker,
9:30AM, Tue. Jul. 22, 2014
When people first started talking about shifting Austin to single-member City Council districts, the logic was simple. You add more geographic representation, more diversity of opinion, and a more accurate reflection of the city's needs. Well, the neighboring districts of 7 and 10 have a nice bucket list lined up.
It's tough to describe what's happening in District 10 as resentment, but then then it's not hard to see it either. It's regularly written off as "suburban sprawl" (with a subtext of being "not really Austin"). Candidate Matt Lamon said, "The number one issue that I hear when I'm knocking on doors is that they feel they don't have a representative at City Hall." But in conversations with candidates in both areas, the term "sister districts" came up about 10 and its neighbor to the east, District 7.
In both, public safety (i.e., policing) is going to be a key issue, with a steady demand across candidates in both districts for, at minimum, a redrawing of patrol zones, and preferably a new station house further along to the west. At the moment, the whole area is in Austin PD's massive and sprawling Baker District. Over in 10, candidate Jason Meeker said that, while the residents don't feel underpoliced when it comes to emergencies, "There is a very strong feeling among residents that they would like to see more police in the area, not just responding to a crime."
That's the complexity facing neighboring 7. It has some of Austin's most well-established middle class neighborhoods – Crestview, Allandale – but it also has some of the highest need areas of town as well. As candidate Jimmy Paver called it, "a semiaffluent district with some high needs issues." Ultimately, District 7 comprises two very different areas of town, as highlighted when a recent Allandale neighborhood meeting referred to "Lower District 7."
Many residents look at 183 as the dividing line (until recently, the city used Anderson Lane, but that's a state of affairs long past), but even south of there, there remain pockets of serious need. In many conversations over the years Education Austin President Ken Zarifis has observed that Burnet Middle School, in the heart of 7, has all the extra demands, low income families, and English language learner students, that any East Austin campus faces.
Back solely on the policing issue, residents of 10 know full well that Baker cops will be busy down in West Campus each weekend, meaning patrols are virtually nonexistent. Then there's Rundberg. Candidate after candidate in both 7 and 10 saw that area as the local policing priority, a magnet that draws away resources and increases response times.
There are other vocal advocates for increased policing, but their priority list will be very different. Take Public Safety Commission Vice-Chair Mike Levy, who has constantly prioritized increased Downtown resources, as the resident and visiting population increases. In a February 18 email, he wrote,"Don’t go on 6th street east of Congress after the sun goes down. It’s been a war zone for a very long time."
And, truth be told, Rundberg has been waiting on the resources that came with the recent and ongoing Restore Rundberg neighborhood revitalization project. So will the future Council keep up with emergency response, or spread resources more thinly?
Part of the issue is transportation: Just getting police out there, especially along Loop 360, is a headache. That said, getting anyone out along 360 is a headache, and that's another constant drum beat: a call for the lights to be taken out, and demand for increased public transit options. As District 10 candidate Margie Burciaga noted, that can't just mean commuter rail like the Red Line, which serves the suburbs and Downtown – but a real appraisal of where the massively and rapidly expanding population wants to go.
And that's a huge issue. Part of the problem that has faced 10 and, to a lesser extent, 7, is that it's just been a pain in the ass to get involved at City Hall. Use Alamo Drafthouses as geographic markers: Austin has reached a point at which South Austinites regard Lakeline as virtually the end of the Earth, while even a Central Austinite trying to get to Slaughter Lane will curse the word "MoPac." For a tech-savvy city, Austin still lags behind in any form of civic engagement that doesn't involve attending meetings in person. So for anyone living and working out beyond the MoPac/183 nexus (a considerable percentage of Austin's population), just getting to a Council meeting can be well nigh impossible.
That's where one of the real clashes with more politically established areas of town might come. Take development: Density in 7 and 10 is a different thing than in, say, the core of Downtown. There is division among the candidates: In 7, Melissa Zone is campaigning on opposing multifamily units on single family lots, but as Paver argued, "If you have a granny flat or a duplex, that's not going to destroy the character of your neighborhood." Moreover, he argues that 7 has plenty of underdeveloped space, especially on Howard Lane, that could absorb some of the urge to sprawl further out to the west. That, in turn, would help preserve the green spaces of 10, which Meeker sees as another top priority.
Those green spaces, especially in drought years, also come with a risk: fire. If the pressure is on to add cops, then it seems highly likely that the next words out of any District 10 representative's mouth will be "fire station." There's a real concern about wildfires, and while most of Austin was looking east during the 2011 Bastrop inferno, the residents of 10 were anxiously peering over their own back fences, into Balcones and the surrounding woodlands. That's an issue on which they will surely find great support from their neighbors to the northwest in District 6. As Meeker noted, "In West Lake Hills, whenever they're removing [brush], they say they're removing fuel." However, the Austin Fire Department is already understaffed because of the ongoing Department of Justice discrimination action, and Meeker sees existing ordinances – such as the $500 firework fine – as both weak and scarcely enforced.
But just as with policing, these issues will take time, political consensus, and money. That may be the sticking point. District 10 residents feel like they have been supporting the city's bank accounts for years, and District 7, with its rapidly increasing property values, is starting to feel the same way. With citywide rumblings of a homestead exemption for property taxes, how will staff pay for what they're already providing, never mind meeting needs with new advocates?