Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Urban, by Design: Land use, social justice, and making Austin look and feel better
It's summer, and City Hall watchers are tensely waiting for the Budget Monster rather than actually doing anything, so an unusual portion of city-beat ink and airtime has been consumed by land-use quarrels -- the staple food of Austin politicos and at times the crux for great change in our fair city but more typically ignored, or actively avoided, by opinion makers. We have an emergent crusade against big-box retail, particularly over the aquifer -- although, to be candid, the saving of the springs, a cause long held to be unique and transcendent, is only one concern of the most vocal foes of Wal-Mart and Lowe's. The Southwest neighbors, both in Austin and in Sunset Valley, who enviro leaders acknowledge are the frontline troops in this battle, are going after Lowe's and Wal-Mart for the same big reason that Hyde Park neighbors fear the Baptists, Webberville neighbors oppose the gravel mines, and my own neighbors (and I) are fighting a proposed office building at the end of my Central East Austin street. Those projects represent unnecessary changes, for the worse, to our quality of life.
Remember quality of life? Booster elites, like the daily's editorial board, would dearly like you to forget it. By trumpeting the message that the slowed-down economic status quo is utterly unacceptable (the concept of an economic "cycle" not being understood literally) and that economic recovery is the only valuable use of city leaders' time, they aim to efface those other, traditionally quite potent community values that get in the way of making money. Sure, I have my own reservations about how citizens and neighbors in Austin define "quality of life," and I do think seeking economic (and social) justice -- a more honest way of saying "affordability" or "revitalization" -- is more important than quibbling (as the Board of Adjustment did this week) over whether the Flight Path Coffeehouse should be allowed to have fewer parking spaces than city code requires. (In the end the board saw the light -- and heard the neighbors -- and the Flight Path thrives on.)
The Vision Thing
But the principle that citizens should be able to determine the look and feel of their neighborhoods and their city is essential to social (and economic) justice. It is not simply a frill to be dispensed with whenever big boxes or Baptists or gravel miners or unimaginative developers wave the bloody shirts of "good jobs" (at Wal-Mart?) or "building the tax base" or "property rights." (As for the latter -- every building project, of any size, affects the value of public property and the public rights-of-way. Even a bunch of churchgoing Baptists can make the streets unsafe and unsound.) As I feel the need to keep reminding people, this city and most other cities have long been given the power and authority to regulate land use and (except for Houston) are in fact required to use that power by Texas law in a way that is directly accountable to the citizenry and the democratic process. (Other cities and states, of course, make that power even more accountable -- in my California hometown, rezoning farmland can only be accomplished by referendum -- without much discernible harm done to the real estate industry.) There is a reason for that. Cranky Austin activists are not demanding some sort of special treatment and rights they don't deserve. They are demanding their well-established right to influence the process by which the city is designed and redesigned.
So there. So what? A year or so ago, I wrote that I wouldn't support any candidate for City Council that wasn't committed to rewriting Austin's 30-year-old and widely ignored comprehensive plan, Austin Tomorrow. (Now that Smart Growth is dead, Austin Tomorrow's new lease on life has expired.) I suppose contenders made enough positive noises for me to think such a thing is still possible, but my hopes are not high. But rewriting the plan -- not in the block-by-block detail of Austinplan but as a broad statement of what we want Austin as a whole, and the "typical" neighborhood within various parts of town, to look and feel like, where we want the things (like students) we have to accommodate, and what things (like big-box retail every 1,000 feet) we don't want to accommodate -- is essential to moving forward with anything else. Divorced from any overarching sense of what Austinites want their city to be, citizens and public leaders spend horribly wasteful amounts of time grooming the trees and ignoring the forest. That's why neighborhood planning, nearly 10 years into the experiment, is still not working as well as it could and why our Land Development Code and process are so thoroughly reviled for being cumbersome and counterproductive and why cases like Rainey Street or the Villas on Guadalupe or the South Lamar Walgreens (all of which really are about top-level, citywide planning concerns, not just the needs of individual neighbors) are so predictably bitter and intractable.
Also a year or so ago, I made a push for creating elected district councils that would actually give Austinites some form of neighborhood-level governance. I'm shocked that Houston -- with Mayor Lee Brown's "superneighborhoods" system -- seems to have outpaced Austin on this basic measure of common-sense urban politics, but there it is. (I guess that's a benefit of a strong-mayor system.) This requires some giveback on the part of the neighborhood elite, but let's get on with it. Every citizen in Austin should be represented by one, and only one, street-level organization -- a neighborhood-planning team, a district council, whatever -- whose membership and policies they can influence through a standardized democratic process, that would make recommendations to council on any and all matters of land use and service delivery and -- dear god, if it were so -- be able to actually stop the obviously bad projects and ideas before they waste the council's time. (This is the situation with the case on my street, which doesn't comply with our neighborhood plan -- adopted unanimously in 2001 by the council -- and which has already been nixed by our neighborhood planning team, the Planning Commission, and city staff. But I'll be at LCRA July 31 anyway.)
I don't expect much action to be taken on either of these fronts for a while, for the Budget Monster is indeed voracious. But Austin has now, more than once, tried to get serious and progressive about planning and justice at exactly the wrong time -- at the peak of a boom, rather than during the breather of a bust. It would be unfortunate if we wait until the next boom to take steps we should have taken before the last one to make Austin look, feel, and work better.